- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - When Justin McDonnell steps up to the plate, his Little League teammates gather to watch.

The pitcher moves in closer and tosses him an underhand pitch. Justin’s bat connects with the ball and he’s off.

While the fielders intentionally commit errors, Justin rounds first, then second and then third. His teammates huddle at home plate, chanting and shouting. When he clears home, he high-fives every member of his team.

“This is what Little League should be,” said Rob McDonnell, Justin’s father.

Justin, 13, of Old Forge, has Down Syndrome, but McDonnell said his son’s teammates have never seen him any differently.

“The kids, they look at him as just another kid,” he said. “They’ll watch out for him.”

This season, Justin plays for Team Pagnotti’s in the Old Forge Lions Little League. McDonnell said Justin, who has played baseball and T-ball most of his life, once needed his father on the field with him at all times - the sound of the cheering crowd would often startle him.

A few years into Little League, however, McDonnell said the teams have adopted a tradition without any prompting from the coaches, McDonnell or his wife, Anne.

In addition to moving closer, the opposing pitcher will toss as many underhanded balls as it takes for Justin to get a hit. Fielders will let the baseball sail by as Justin rounds the bases, nearly dancing his way to home plate.

“It’s nice to see everybody rally around him,” Joe DiMattia, Justin’s coach said. “The kids treat him like one of their own … The other teams don’t know him and they still treat him with respect.”

Mrs. McDonnell said the ritual has helped her son feel accepted on the baseball diamond and in the hallways of Old Forge Elementary.

“All the kids just accepted him the way he is,” she said.

After a game, Justin said his favorite thing to do is buy a Coke and a hot dog from the concession stand at Miles Street Park. He calls baseball his favorite sport and looks forward to playing the game with his friends, Casey and Colin Holzman.

Justin and Colin warmed up with a game of catch before a recent game against a team from Scranton.

Colin, 12, said he has known Justin since the age of 6 and loves to watch his friend round the bases.

Colin’s 10-year-old brother, Casey, agreed.

“It’s awesome, (Justin) is so funny. Say everybody’s down because we’re losing, he’ll just start dancing,” Casey said. “It’s fun just seeing the look on his face when he hits (the ball) and gets to run the bases.”

Mr. McDonnell said Justin has found the same welcoming experience throughout the Old Forge Little League.

“Any team he was on, the kids all acted the same way,” he said. “No one batted an eye.”

Old Forge Lions Little League president Fred Rinaldi called Justin, the league’s only special needs player, an “inspiration to all the boys and girls in Little League.”

“He’s really a great kid,” Rinaldi said.

Mrs. McDonnell said Justin will graduate from Old Forge Elementary this year and move up to the junior/senior high school in Life Skills classes. She said his goal is to get into trade school after high school.

For now though, Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell and Justin’s sister, Meghan, get to sit in the stands and watch as Justin rounds the bases every game with a wide smile on his face and a gang of friends waiting to congratulate him at home plate.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1es1ZZt

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Information from: The Times-Tribune, https://thetimes-tribune.com/

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