A Very Special Baseball Team


Spring is in the air, and that can only mean one thing…it’s baseball season! Lest you think that’s only for the Mets and Yankees and you have to go to New York and pay a fortune, Clifton has a well-known team that not only plays some pretty good ballgames, they even let you participate, all for free! It’s a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Gabriella Marriello, who is well known by so many in our community for her work and advocacy with PRAISE (Parents Requiring Action and Information for Special Education) and her husband Robert (Bobby) have two children - Daniel, now 20, and Thomas, now 16, and the Marriellos wanted to share their love of baseball and the New York Mets with them. Thomas, diagnosed with autism and sensory processing issues, was not comfortable participating in Clifton Midget League (CML), which Bobby had coached Daniel in years earlier. Thomas, like his parents, is a die-hard Mets fan and wanted to play the game. His parents found a special-needs team in Garfield in 2015 and it dawned on them that rather than travel out of town for games, “Why can’t we do this back home?”

Clifton had a Challenger League, started decades ago by Mike Soccol, at Surgent Park. This league was for special needs and ill children ranging from ages six to 21 but Bobby thought the need was there for younger children and envisioned a team that could start a friendly rivalry. He asked for “a patch of grass” at Albion Park on Maplewood Avenue and was thrilled when then-CML President Tyler Reed said the new team would be given the same respect, courtesy, and facilities as any other team. Today they still play their games on Field #1, complete with a backstop, bleachers, and even a scoreboard.

The Clifton Times thought it was a great opportunity to catch up with the Marriellos to learn more about the PRAISE baseball team and why is so important. In a wide-ranging conversation, the couple spoke of their roots in Clifton – they have been here since the 90s - and how appreciative they are of all the support they have received from the community. The community has offered financial support and people come to games to cheer the players on, to observe, and to learn. For families affected by various issues, it’s a great place to go with questions for other families about resources, advice, and friendship.

That first year, the team was gifted with shirts, gloves, and bats. While there is a fee to join the CML, it’s been discounted for this team and fundraisers, such as the recent one at Chipotle go a long way to helping with league fees, uniforms, allergy-safe snacks, and other needs. Having a child with special needs has many financial implications, and every dollar a family can save by not spending it on the baseball team can go to necessary therapies.

The Clifton Times has attended games in previous seasons and noticed that the game on the field is different from a more traditional one. For instance, no one keeps score and games only last a few innings. Players rotate after each opposition at bat, so no one gets bored or impatient, and players learn new skills. Most importantly, each player has a “shadow,” a teenager to keep them focused and teach them about the game, and to be a friend to children who often have social skills challenges. The teens – one requirement is that they must be under 17 years old – can use this time for necessary volunteer hours. Bobby and Gabbie both noted that the friendships formed are invaluable and bring so much to both the team as well as the shadows. “For a child who’s been marginalized, ignored, or is schooled outside the district, it’s a great path to being accepted. They become part of a community, which means so much to them.”

Parents, too, will sit on the bleachers and trade information on doctors, therapies, and resources, and make friendships and bonds that will last and guide them through difficult times. Gabbie told of a parent of a special needs child whose parents said, “[I was] so excited [for them] to turn five and finally get to join the team!”

Baseball season in Clifton will start with a league-wide parade starting at 9 AM on Saturday, April 1st. The parade will start at the Masonic Lodge on Van Houten Avenue, go up to Valley Road, and finish up near the fieldhouse at Albion Park where players will take the field. The PRAISE team’s first game will be the following day, Sunday, April 2nd at 3:00 PM, weather permitting. All games are played on Field One at Albion Park, just off Maplewood Avenue.

Please email cliftonpraise@gmail.com with questions or to volunteer. Please come out to cheer the players on and learn more about this great group. It’s time to root, root, root for the home team; winners in every way!

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