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Work begins on Petaluma special needs baseball field

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As soon as the gold shovels hit the dirt at Monday’s Miracle League North Bay groundbreaking, it was clear 14-year-old Liam Richardson was determined to get the project done — even if he had to do it all by himself.

While everyone was talking after the ceremony at Lucchesi Park, which signaled the start of phase two of construction for the special needs baseball league, the Petaluma youngster was busy at work, excavating a hole in the middle of the crowd.

Occasionally he took a break to shake a hand or give a hug — duties that come with being an ambassador for the North Bay chapter. But as soon as he wasn’t needed, he clocked back in.

Richardson continued digging well after the morning overcast had surrendered to the afternoon sun, and the large gathering had been reduced to the cleanup crew.

For him, Monday’s event was more than a public demonstration of goodwill, or an opportunity to celebrate the major benefactors involved with the first Miracle League in Northern California. For Richardson, who has Down syndrome, it was about this long-awaited chance to literally level the playing field and finally play baseball.

If that meant taking this symbolic shovel and digging until a field magically came out of the earth, so be it.

“He doesn’t see himself any different than anyone else,” said Jennifer Richardson, Liam’s mother and board president of Miracle League North Bay. “He doesn’t understand when he goes in junior high and elementary school that he couldn’t play on the teams. … That’s really hard to serve up as a parent. So he’s been the assistant coach on all their lacrosse teams and soccer, but he wants to play.”

The nonprofit provides opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to play baseball, which could range from a kid with cerebral palsy to a wounded military veteran. Richardson said there’s more than 50,000 disabled children that live less than 40 miles from the park.

MLNB has already fielded 11 teams, and that number is expected to double over the first two years, she said. The Miracle League uses a buddy system that pairs athletes with an able-bodied peer to help them play the game. The custom-designed field uses a special kind of rubberized turf that minimizes injuries and breaks down barriers that could hinder players on natural grass.

Even though there’s a scoreboard, it’s mostly there for appearances.

Part of the $2 million project, funded primarily by donations, is a special playground constructed during phase one in October. More than 250 volunteers helped build a play area that’s wheelchair accessible and designed with the safety and sensitivities of special needs children in mind.

Ghilotti Construction’s area manager Dale Mahoney said he’s heard of families coming all the way from San Ramon just to use it.

Riding the wave of momentum after the playground was finished, Richardson and the rest of the MLNB board set their sights on a quick turnaround for building the field.

But a week later came the wildfires, which decimated nearly 8,500 structures across the North Bay. Every construction partner was spread razor thin trying to facilitate the rebuilding process, and that meant phase two had to be put on hold.

Fundraising events were subsequently canceled, and the funding gap suddenly felt wider.

Then Glen Ghilotti stepped in.

Ghilotti, a member of the prominent Ghilotti construction family and founder of his own firm, Team Ghilotti, had developed a strong friendship with Liam Richardson and numerous other children with disabilities.

He always had an affinity for collecting trains and tanks, and would invite them over for rides around the farm, Jennifer Richardson said. He once raised funds for MLNB by giving donors the opportunity to purchase old cars and crush them with his tanks.

“Liam worked his way into Glen’s heart, and Glen would have done anything for him,” his wife, Genevieve Ghilotti, said. “He had a soft spot for kids. He lived for his grandkids. He thought every kid should have the opportunities to do the same things.”

In March, Glen Ghilotti got the construction process moving again. He had just finished an exhausting stretch of months, assisting with debris removal in fire-affected areas, but as soon as he was done he contacted Richardson about completing the baseball field.

He began leaning on his peers in the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association, or NCECA, doing everything he could to recapture the momentum. Association vice president John Bly said Ghilotti would call him twice in the same night just to talk about it.

Then tragedy struck, and Ghilotti died unexpectedly on March 25 at age 59, but his peers in the NCECA were committed to seeing it through.

At a round table meeting, while the construction partners were staring at a $750,000 funding gap, they started asking each other how much they were being paid for their contributions, Bly said. One by one, the competitive spirit between each company took hold and the gap closed to $150,000.

“In 10 minutes we just made over half-a-million dollars,” Bly said.

A host of contractors and affiliates are primed to begin leveling the area between the park’s drop-off roundabout and little league field. The drop-off area will be connected to the complex by a paved path, with brick barriers on each side and an arch across the top. Mahoney likened it to Willie Mays Plaza outside AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Argonaut Constructors is tasked with doing all the underground work. Once the soil is exposed, the project will require lime treatment to combat Petaluma’s expansive soil.

“That will make it so the lifespan of the field will be a lot longer,” Mahoney said.

BHM Construction, led by Paul Ubaldi, will install the bathrooms and concession stands. Every amenity of a standard baseball field is being constructed, creating a cohesive experience for everyone that visits.

Genevieve Ghilotti admitted it was hard to not get emotional during Monday’s ceremony.

“He’s here,” she said, kissing her hand and pointing to the sky. “He would be so proud, and he’d be writing the check so they didn’t have to fundraise anymore.”

Multiple speakers highlighted how rare this collaboration has become. During a time of overwhelming construction needs, a group of competitors that constantly battles for contracts decided to put their differences aside to see this project through. And by doing so, kids like Liam Richardson can finally get a chance to step into the batter’s box and swing a baseball bat.

“It ain’t easy,” Bly said. “But you know what, you just get it done.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)