Program allows those with disabilities to play baseball

Washington group forms local Little League program

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ARLINGTON — Matthew Irish plays third base with Lakewood High School’s Cougars. Noah, his 11-year-old brother, is a second baseman and center fielder on a Stilly Valley Little League Majors team. And older brother Jacob Irish is their greatest fan.

Until now, 16-year-old Jacob hadn’t had a chance to play on a baseball team. This season, he’s sporting a regulation uniform and an official Little League patch. Affected by life-threatening Hurler syndrome since birth, Jacob is playing this season on a Stilly Valley Little League Challenger Division team.

New to Arlington’s Stilly Valley Little League, the Challenger program offers the baseball experience to boys and girls with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities. It’s been part of Little League nationally since 1989.

“This is a brand new program,” said Melanie Irish, the boys’ mother. “We’ve been hoping for it for years. They love baseball, these boys of mine.”

Jacob, whose family lives north of Marysville, was a baby when he was diagnosed at Seattle Children’s Hospital with Hurler syndrome. Sufferers of the rare genetic disease lack an enzyme that breaks down sugar molecules called glycosaminoglycans. Without that enzyme, the molecules, often found in fluid around joints, build up as dead cells and cause damage.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, symptoms can include abnormal bones in the spine, halted growth, intellectual disability, joint and heart problems, and other issues. In 2002, Melanie Irish told The Herald that when Jacob was diagnosed, “the geneticist told us to take him home and love him. It was horrible.”

Steve and Melanie Irish learned that without treatment, their firstborn’s life expectancy could be just five to 10 years. Against those odds, he is due to turn 17 on July 29. He’ll have his first Little League season behind him.

“What’s great, we’ve seen Matthew and Noah come up in Stilly Valley Little League,” said Greg Dunc, the league’s president. Matthew, 15, played in the league before moving on to select baseball and Lakewood High’s JV and varsity teams. “Noah is still in the Majors. It’s such a joy to have Jacob. We’ve had all the Irish boys now,” Dunc said.

Jacob is a special education student at Lakewood High School, where Melanie Irish works as a career and college counselor. Steve Irish is self-employed.

The oldest son can walk, but also uses an adaptive wheelchair. Melanie Irish said Jacob is developmentally “age 5 or 6, with a limited vocabulary.”

Superheroes, that’s the name of the Stilly Valley Little League’s first-ever Challenger team. They play at Quake Field at the Arlington Boys & Girls Club.

“Other leagues around us have done it for years. We just felt now is the time,” Dunc said of the team. “For myself and the board, it’s our proudest accomplishment. This is really simple. Every boy and girl should have a chance to play Little League.”