Volume 79, Number 4 | July 1 - 7, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Player/coach teaches his team much more than balls and strikes

By Rita Wu

Thomas Ellenson has a unique position as a player on the Greenwich Village Little League Athletics. He keeps score, counts pitches and announces the lineup to his teammates before every game. Above all, his presence on the team is an inspiration to his peers.

Thomas has cerebral palsy and speaks through a device invented by his father called a Tango. It pre-records sentences, and by touching buttons with illustrations symbolizing emotions and actions, Thomas is able to speak his thoughts in a child’s voice. Previously the only option available was a robotic-sounding speaking device that required one to tediously spell out thoughts letter by letter.

Thomas’s vitality and energy project through his eyes and smile. By utilizing the Tango, it has been easier for him to connect and communicate in a more natural and engaging manner — which is the reason it was created in the first place.

“The Tango was created not just to let kids communicate, but to help the world find a path toward simpler inclusion,” said Richard Ellenson, Thomas’s father. “That’s been our greatest achievement — to see the embrace happening. And there are so many other parents out there that should know that there’s a way to wiggle out of the stereotypes of disability, and into a world where their kids can get, not only understood, but appreciated. That’s the thing about disabilities, is that when you see a kid in a wheelchair, you start thinking ‘Oh, what are the problems gonna be?’ No one’s first reaction is ever, ‘What will the positives be?’ Ever.”

This is Thomas’s second year on the team. Last year he supported the A’s from the sidelines as their number-one fan. This year he’s part of the coaching squad. The league had to give its approval because of liability issues.

“My teammates listen to my music. Listen to this,” he said, using his Tango to play the theme from “Rocky.” “I announce the list of players. Listen to this: ‘Batting first and pitching, John John. Batting number two and in center field… .”

At games, the A’s run out behind him as he leads them out to the field. At the end of each game he leads everyone back out again to shake hands with the opposing team. Each player gives him a high five before they go out onto the field.

“Don’t forget to get the magic before you hit. High five!” Thomas says.

“Tom would go to practice to root his teammates on,” his dad recalled. “Everybody on the team really looked to him for inspiration during the game. If I could say one thing for me is, I think everybody on the team felt that Tom gave them inspiration; but the reality of it is, for Tom and for me, I think all the kids on the team gave us inspiration. They play so hard and when they were behind they always dug in. They were such competitors. And they were just so caring but they were so fierce. They were just great team players.”

The Athletics are also this year’s G.V.L.L. Majors American League champs. When they won the championship, Thomas played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on his Tango. The team seems to have gained more than just the title, though.

“The best thing about this year, including winning the Majors championship, is that we all became a little more compassionate and a little more wise and a little happier because Tom was there to lead by example,” said Daniel Miller, the A’s coach. “For a guy who seems to live with such disadvantages, he taught us how happy we can all be.”

Thomas received a little something extra from his teammates and coach.

“We gave him a special award this year,” Miller said, “a plaque that reads ‘Most Valuable Person’.”

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