Triplets' field of dreams all about inclusion

Parents built backyard ballpark for three boys with disabilities

Triplets' field of dreams all about inclusion

HAMMOND, Wisc. -- As the parents of 9-year-old triplets born with varying disabilities, Nick and Leah Feyereisen took it upon themselves to create a culture of inclusion and kindness through baseball.

In 2012, with their son, Tanner, who was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy that has required eight surgeries, scheduled to undergo a spinal cord operation that would have him in a wheelchair for the summer, they decided to build their own baseball field in the backyard of their home in a town of 1,922 located roughly 40 miles outside Minneapolis.

It started out as a small event with about 25 of their friends and family there for what they called Opening Day, and also served as a chance for the triplets' grandfather, Don, to see his grandchildren play his favorite game one last time before he ultimately passed away that December. But since then, it's grown into a large community event with a baseball field that includes its own version of Fenway Park's famed Green Monster. Hundreds of people, including 50 kids of various ages playing an organized game of Wiffle ball, attended the family's fifth annual Opening Day on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon.

"Don wasn't doing so great, and he told me on the way to the doctor's office he wanted to see the boys play baseball one last time and I guess that's how ideas are grown," Leah said. "Baseball can unite everybody. It's not hard to catch on to and everyone can play. The point of this field is to teach kids how to compete fairly and kindly."

Tanner, and his identical twin brothers, Parker and Cole, were born premature at 31 weeks. Tanner was born with cerebral palsy, two club feet and has worn at least 25 different types of leg casts, while Parker has dealt with kidney issues and Cole had to wear a helmet the first six months of his life to help reshape his head.

All three have been regulars almost since birth at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, but with Gillette's help, they've been able to live normal lives. The main thing they have in common is their love of sports, as they not only love watching their favorite teams such as the Minnesota Twins, but playing sports as well.

"I love baseball probably more than any person likes any sport combined," boasts Tanner, who calls Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier his favorite players.

Tanner had to wear leg braces two years ago while in first grade, but even then, it never stopped him from playing sports. Tanner, who was also all-region as a wrestler last year, stood out as one of the better athletes on the field on Saturday, while both Parker and Cole hit home runs over the elevated fence in center field.

The field, now named TPC Field after the three boys, itself started out modest, as they simply wanted to have a place to play for the family, but Nick has made it his mission to upgrade it every year. It now has dirt at each of the bases and the pitching mound, chalk down the foul lines, foul poles and their elevated wall in center that includes sponsors from local businesses as well as logos for the Twins and Brewers.

"We added some local business signage just to try to recreate the whole MLB thing and that dream of playing in the big leagues -- it's like the big leagues for little kids," said Nick, who owns his own contracting business. "So we've just kind of added a few things. Started out with just a few bases and then built the wall. It's just as much fun for me as it is for them. Every time I'd build something, they'd get more excited and more kids would come. It's kind of snowballed from there."

Gillette Healthcare played a major role in the event, as all the participants wore customized Gillette shirts with their names on the back and all money raised such as from concessions and a 50/50 raffle went to Gillette. Other sponsors included SuperAmerica, which donated the food, while Twins emcee Jim Cunningham was on hand to narrate the event.

The family has a tight partnership with Gillette, as the triplets served as the hospital's CurePity Heroes in 2014, and have spread their message through various talks throughout the region about why there's no reason to feel sorry for them. Instead, Leah focuses on her mission of teaching others to be kind, especially after Tanner was bullied as a first grader for wearing leg braces.

"I was a teacher before I had them so it's a cause that's near and dear to my heart with the bullying, acceptance and kindness," Leah said. "The boys and I have been able to go to events through Gillette to talk about those kinds of things."

It was only fitting that the event took place on Mother's Day weekend, considering Leah's love for her triplets and the time and effort she's put in toward making them realize they have no limitations.

"Leah is just a great advocate," said Nick Hanson, a spokesperson for Gillette. "I compare it to the Field of Dreams. It's grown a lot from just a friendly neighborhood game to an event with sponsors and all kinds of things going on. It's neat. You can't make this stuff up."

Cunningham became involved when his friend, John, a mutual friend of the Feyereisens who provided the musical entertainment as part of a two-man trombone act, asked him if he'd come emcee the event. Cunningham said once he heard the story, he didn't hesitate.

"When this thing took on a life of its own, they called me and asked if I could do it, and I said, 'Absolutely,'" said Cunningham, a familiar voice at Target Field. "It's really cool. To take something that was a challenge and turn it into something that's this fun for so many people, you can't help but get behind it."

But it's not just Opening Day when the field is used, as the triplets play baseball nearly every day during the summer. It's not uncommon for 15 to 20 of their friends to come over to play baseball all day.

"It's really fun because most people don't have baseball fields in their backyard," Tanner said. "So I'm lucky. But my dad maybe went a little bit overboard with the field."

All jokes aside, the overall message the family is preaching can't be emphasized enough, and Saturday's Opening Day was a reminder that kindness and inclusiveness can bring a community together.

"Every kid deserves to play ball and have their names called and to have a crowd cheer for them," Leah said. "We realized and know that there is a need for these types of kids who might have disabilities and can't play for a team in their town. So we have a space here for them to play. And it's about teaching people around us how to include these types of kids. It's all about the message of being kind."

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for since 2011. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.