There are few springtime rituals more American than Opening Day at a baseball park.

On Saturday morning, more than 350 kids playing for 30 different teams converged on Girsh Park for Dos Pueblos Little League’s Opening Day. From the excitement and joy on the faces of hundreds of parents, supporters and volunteers, the park’s Elings Fields may as well have been Dodger Stadium.

During the opening ceremonies, which started around 9 a.m., the anticipation was palpable as each team gathered with their respective coaches at the edge of the outfield grass, anxiously awaiting the very first “Play ball!” of the 2010 season. It was an idyllic day to play America’s Pastime — the sun was shining, a crisp breeze was blowing, and the freshly cut grass wore a thin coat of cool morning dew. Sprinkle in some throw-back jerseys and a few men in bowties and the scene would have felt like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

Following a brief introduction by Carter Mitchell, the DPLL president, and a beautiful national anthem rendition by Goleta native Jenna Garcia, it was time to introduce the teams. Leading off the day was a very special group of young athletes, representing eight of the league’s 30 teams: the Challenger Division.

The Challengers, a program designed specifically for children with special needs, was formed in 2004, thanks to the efforts of local mom Retta Slay, whose son, Keaton, has Down syndrome. After learning there weren’t many options for a special-needs child wanting to participate in Little League, Slay took matters into her own hands, and with the help and support of DPLL officials, was able to start a Challenger Division, one of many nationwide. This year, Keaton, now 13, is an elder statesman of the league.

What began with seven special-needs children in 2004 boasts around 85 players in 2010. In addition to the eight teams currently participating in the DPLL, two more teams have formed in Carpinteria — and the league is growing all the time.

“We’re really just constantly growing and gaining support with programs throughout Ventura, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and Ojai,” Slay told Noozhawk on Saturday. “We’re open all through the season, and people can join up whenever they want. … It’s just a great family support system, and we try to provide lots of information and workshops for the parents of special-needs kids.”

Once all the teams were announced, Girsh Park board vice president Leslie Lund gave special thanks to the Borgatello family, owners of MarBorg Industries, for a very significant contribution.

Prior to this season’s opening, there was widespread concern about the nearest restrooms to the fields being nearly 300 yards away, creating obvious difficulties for the Little Leaguers — particularly those in the Challenger Division. Many of the children in this division are in wheelchairs, or have other physical disabilities that make it nearly impossible for them to use the standard portable restrooms that were located closer to the action. In early January, Noozhawk reported on the nonprofit park’s immediate need for a solution to its restroom problem, and park executive director Ryan Harrington issued a plea for someone to “step up to the plate” to help the courageous young Challengers.

Less than 24 hours after Noozhawk broke the story, MarBorg and the Borgatellos answered the call. The very same day, Anthony Borgatello, a company principal and general manager of the Liquid Waste Division, announced to the DPLL board of directors that MarBorg would be donating — free of charge — a handicap-accessible restroom trailer as a temporary solution to the park’s dilemma.

More than 350 kids playing for 30 different teams took the field Saturday for Dos Pueblos Little League's Opening Day.

More than 350 kids playing for 30 different teams took the field Saturday for Dos Pueblos Little League’s Opening Day. (Kevin Grose photo)

On Saturday, after several weeks of intense work and collaboration, the $80,000, 30-foot, enclosed restroom trailer, which is split into men’s and women’s sides and has full Americans with Disabilities Act access capabilities, was fully operational for the first time. Harrington, as well as grateful players and parents, couldn’t have been happier with the result, and he thanked the Borgatello family for the generosity.

“We’ve calculated that over the past 10 years, the Borgatellos have donated over $300,000 to Girsh Park,” Harrington said. “When you consider the fact that it takes about $400,000 each year to run the park, they have funded almost an entire year by themselves, so I just want to say ‘thank you so much’ to MarBorg Industires.”

Anthony, Mario, Brian, David and Kathy Borgatello were on hand to accept a plaque from Mitchell to commemorate their latest donation. Anthony Borgatello spoke humbly on behalf of his family.

“MarBorg loves to give back to the community, and we especially love to give to the youth,” he said. “We believe in this program, and we believe in the youth, so have a great season. In MarBorg’s eyes, you’re all winners.”

The ceremonial first pitch was then thrown out by members of the Borgatello family, and finally, the anxious Little Leaguers got to hear the words they had been waiting for.

“Play ball, and have a great season!” Mitchell announced to the roar of enthusiastic applause.

Goleta Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Connell and Councilman Roger Aceves were on hand for the festivities and to offer a few brief words of encouragement to the young ballplayers. Additionally, about 60 volunteers showed up to help make sure that the kids in the Challenger Division had all the support they needed.

Just before the first games of the morning began, the Challengers and their parents took a few photos in front of the brand-new restroom trailer, along with several of the volunteers, the Borgatellos, and a very happy Harrington. In the back, raised over the heads of the jubilant players, was a sign that read, “Challenger Division — Thank you Borgatellos for making one less challenge!”

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.