Legally blind boy wins fight with Little League to use yellow ball

DETROIT (AP) — For five years, Ryan Huizdos played Little League baseball with the help of a bright yellow ball.

He’s legally blind because of albinism, so he used an easier-to-see, optic-yellow ball.

No one complained. Not the coaches. Not the players. Not the parents.

But then he made a Grosse Pointe/Harper Woods team that made it to a district tournament game in 2015. Ryan was lined up to pitch in the tournament when Little League found out about his yellow ball and banned it from being used because it wasn’t approved and licensed by the league.

“I couldn’t understand. It confused me. I used it my whole life” said Ryan, who recalled being frustrated, upset and dumbfounded. “It’s just baseball. It’s not professional baseball. It’s just teenagers playing.”

In a showdown that pits a suburban family against the world’s largest youth sports program with millions of players in 80 countries, Ryan’s family has leveled the playing field for visually impaired kids everywhere in nationwide. But they had to get the help of the U.S. Department of Justice to do it.

After a three-year legal scuffle, Ryan, who is in his final year of Little League, heads into the 2018 season with a special waiver allowing the optic-yellow ball to be used when he’s at bat, pitching or playing infield.

There was no lawsuit, just a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit advising Little League that it was under investigation on accusations of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate a visually impaired boy from Michigan, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Little League cooperated, though the changes took time.

“All Little League Baseball had to do was make a reasonable accommodation,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in a recent interview, explaining why his office intervened. “We thought it was the appropriate thing for us to step up and take action. … We were fully prepared to file a lawsuit.”

Initially, the case was only about Ryan and his right to bat with the yellow ball, which he won. The next year, he was allowed to pitch with it, too: He had to seek a special waiver after an opposing coach put up a stink about him batting with a yellow ball, but pitching with a white one.

This year, the Department of Justice went a step further. It ordered Little League to allow visually impaired kids everywhere in the U.S. to apply for a yellow ball waiver, whether they’re at bat or in the field. Little League also agreed to put a new policy in place, allowing any player with a disability to request a waiver for an accommodation, and posted the new policy on its website.

For Schneider, the color of the ball should never have been an issue.

“This is about kids wanting to play baseball with their friends. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not like we’re asking for a different size ball or a bat — it’s not that at all,” said Schneider, noting the color of a ball doesn’t give anyone an unfair advantage.

“It’s only the color of the ball, that’s it,” Schneider said. “That shouldn’t be controversial.”

But it was.

Ryan was 13 when his team made it to the Little League District 6 tournament.

It was June 2015. Before the tournament, a league administrator had advised that Ryan’s optic yellow ball wasn’t allowed under Little League rules, so a waiver was sought seeking permission.

In a one-page letter dated June 26, 2015, Little League denied the waiver, stating:

“The committee has voted to deny the request, as at this time there are no optic yellow baseballs approved and licensed by Little League. Therefore, the optic yellow baseball that the league used during the regular season cannot be approved for use in tournament play.”

Ryan, however, still played in the tournament because a local administrator defied the league’s ruling “out of the goodness of his heart” — as his parents put it.

But the league’s decision was a punch to the gut for his father — John Huizdos Jr. a feisty, seasoned police detective who treated his son’s ordeal like a crime. He put together an evidence package — complete with letters from the league officials, doctor’s notes, Little League rules and case law involving disabled athletes’ rights — and gave it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.

“As parents, we are outraged,” Ryan’s father, John Huizdos, wrote in a June 30, 2015 letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “The optic yellow baseball, which we provide for each game, is a 9-inch, 5-ounce, leather-covered baseball.”

The dimensions, the letter stressed, are the exact same as the ball used by Little League and comply with the league’s ball weight and size rule. The only issue, he noted, is that Little League uses only white balls.

In an email to the Free Press, Little League spokesman Kevin Fountain explained why the waiver was denied.

“At that time, there was no approved optic yellow baseball for Little League play and with the need for an immediate decision, there was no opportunity to ensure that the ball that was proposed for use met our approved specifications for game play,” Fountain said, noting an administrator did allow Ryan to play, despite the ruling.

Little League also had never dealt with a case like Ryan’s, Fountain said.

“While this is the first such case regarding a yellow-optical ball to accommodate a player’s needs, Little League encourages participation of all children, and acknowledges that some of its participants may require a modification of the rules due to the participant claiming rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Fountain said.

If a player has a qualified ADA disability, Fountain said, Little League offers them the opportunity to request modifications of the rules.

“Little League Baseball and Softball is a nondiscriminatory organization, and in considering such requests, Little League will ensure compliance with the ADA,” Fountain said.

For Tim Campbell, one of Ryan’s Little League coaches who described the boy as a fearless and tireless player, the yellow ball controversy was baffling.

“I was stunned, and I certainly thought it was unfair,” Campbell said. “We had been using the yellow ball for years. I didn’t realize what the problem was.”

Campbell said Ryan was confident, loved baseball, had a good, strong arm and worked especially hard to overcome his challenges.

“Here’s a boy who had limited sight, just loved the game of baseball — he was a terrific pitcher, threw the ball really hard — and he never had any fear at all,” Campbell said. “He was working harder than most of the kids on the Little League team who took their natural talents for granted.”

Campbell, who coached Ryan the year before the yellow ball was banned, was on the local Little League board in Grosse Pointe when the controversy hit. He said he brought it to the local board’s attention and voiced his objection to the no-yellow ball rule, which was made and ultimately reversed by the league’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

Campbell said he knew that Ryan and his family had waged a battle with Little League, but he had no idea that the Department of Justice got involved until the Free Press told him this week.

“I can’t imagine how Ryan felt during this whole ordeal,” said Campbell, who praised the overall changes that Ryan brought about for vision-impaired kids like him.

“He’s a pioneer,” he said.

Ryan has a rare genetic condition called albinism, which reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and eyes and can cause vision problems. It can also lead to social stigmatization and bullying and affects 1 in 25,000 people.

“People with albinism are at risk of isolation because the condition is often misunderstood,” according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, which urges schools and families “make an effort to include children with albinism in group activities.”

Ryan, though, says he doesn’t see himself as different. And it shows. The junior at Grosse Pointe North High School has lots of good, supportive friends. He’s on the National Honor Society and in DECA — a business club for high achievers. And he’s been playing baseball for years.

“Ryan has been extremely fortunate,” said Ryan’s mother, Kelly Huizdos. “We’ve been very, very lucky.”

Ryan has two siblings. His 12-year-old sister Lauren also has albinism. His 7-year-old sister Megan does not.

Kelly Huizdos describes Ryan as a tough kid with grit who doesn’t shy away from challenges — though there are things that he can’t do. Ryan’s vision is best described as fuzzy. He sees images in low resolution, versus high resolution. And glasses can’t correct it because the optic nerve did not properly develop when he was in the womb.

That means Ryan can’t drive a car, though he can ride a bike. He sits in the front of his classrooms and most of his books are on an iPad, with the letters blown up. When he plays baseball, he can’t play outfield because the ball blends into the sky and clouds, and he can’t see it. Pitching is easier because he can focus on the catcher, the catcher’s glove, and the plate. He also has played first base, as it’s easier to see the ball against the ground.

Kelly Huizdos said that she and her husband have never discouraged him from trying anything, though they admittedly worried when he wanted to play outfield in baseball. They knew he could get hit and expressed their concerns, but he insisted on giving it a shot.

“I wanted to go to the outfield. I thought, ‘I just got to see if I can see it,’ “ recalled Ryan, who ended up getting hit by the ball.

“It scared me off. It definitely wasn’t the most pleasant thing,” said Ryan, half-grinning at the memory. He now sticks to pitching and infield and hopes to be an inspiration to others who want to play a sport, but feel trapped by disabilities.

“There’s always a way to play your sport,” Ryan said, “no matter what your challenge is.”

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