An ‘Exceptional’ Day

Falconer Teacher Brings Love Of Baseball To Students

An “Exceptional Stars” baseball game was held Sunday at Falconer Little League Field on Phetteplace Street. The game was organized by Rich Bianco, a kindergarten teacher at Temple Elementary School. The game teamed Falconer special-education students and their “buddies” from the Falconer Little League and Babe Ruth programs. Submitted photos

FALCONER — It was quite a weekend.

On Saturday, my son and I sat in Section 554 at Progressive Field in Cleveland for the Indians-Yankees game. The weather was perfect, the upper-deck seats were directly behind home plate and the view was spectacular.

And even though our beloved Yanks were beaten by the Tribe, I couldn’t have had a more memorable day.

Then Sunday came around.

It was even better.

Bianco pictured Sunday hugging Patricia Kibbe, a special education teacher at Falconer Central School who was the recipient of a double-lung transplant and a heart valve replacement last September at Cleveland Clinic.

The Falconer Little League Field, located on Phetteplace Street in the village just east of Jamestown, measures probably 180 feet to center field, but there is no way to adequately measure the impact of what went on for about an hour on that diamond during the early afternoon.

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Rich Bianco is a kindergarten teacher at Temple Elementary School, and he’s made a connection with Braeden Pangborn, a special-education student there.

“The kids are always a riot,” Bianco said. “Every time you see them, they want a high-five or a fist-pump. This year I started volunteering, and I take my prep time on Fridays and I spend it with Braeden. … We practiced running the bases in preparation for today.”

Actually, Bianco had been preparing for the “Exceptional Stars” baseball game for several years. Modeled after a Facebook video he’d seen, courtesy of Little League International’s “Challengers Division,” the 22-year teaching veteran was finally able to connect all the dots to make it happen.

Armed with a team made up of Falconer Central School special-education students ages 6-15 and their “buddies” from the Falconer Little League and Babe Ruth programs, Bianco treated the participants and a large crowd to an entertaining two innings of America’s pastime.

While Bianco handled the public-address duties, disc jockey Deven Payne played music and each of the “special” kids — clad in orange T-shirts — took their turn hitting off a tee or connecting with one of Bianco’s offerings. Once contact with the ball was made, the players toured the bases, accompanied by their blue-shirted friends.

“Most of these kids don’t get the opportunity to enjoy the game of baseball,” Bianco said. “Having coached 20-plus years, I just wanted to give them that experience. Actually, I was hoping for five or six kids and I ended up with 15. It was a little overwhelming at first, but the kids who were the ‘buddies’ were awesome.”

That was only one of many awesome moments on this picture-perfect day.

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Nancy Baker was a speech therapist in the Falconer Central School district for three decades, and had the privilege of working with many of the students who were playing in the “Exceptional Stars” game. So, it was only appropriate that she was asked to throw out the first pitch yesterday.

With sons Mike and Paul, daughter-in-law Lauren and a couple of grandchildren rooting her on, Nancy threw a strike. That wasn’t a surprise to Bianco. What was a surprise to him, however, was that Patricia Kibbe was watching from behind the backstop.

A recipient of a double-lung transplant and a heart valve replacement last September at Cleveland Clinic after a years-long battle with pulmonary hypertension, the FCS special education teacher had just recently returned home after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

“I texted her this morning and said that Nancy was throwing out the first pitch and that we’d love to ‘Facetime’ (with her) at 1 o’clock so (Pat) could see what was going on,” Bianco said.

So, right before Nancy fired to the plate, Bianco attempted to connect via Facetime with his friend and teaching colleague.

“The (cellphone) was ringing, (Pat picked up) and she said, ‘I came in person,'” Bianco recalled. “I almost lost it. It was so special for her to be here.”

Pat had been driven to the game by her daughter, Maureen, who had undergone a double-lung transplant just six weeks ago after enduring a long battle with pulmonary hypertension, beginning when she was 13.

On a day celebrating students and baseball, Bianco had batted a figurative 1.000.

“Not only was it a wonderful thing that Rich organized for these ‘Exceptional Stars,'” Nancy Baker said, “but he’s got an exceptional teacher who made it through a double-lung transplant and a heart-valve (replacement here, too).”

“You can’t make this up.”

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Being a first attempt, Bianco really didn’t know what to expect with the “Exceptional Stars” game.

“I didn’t sleep much (Saturday) night,” he admitted. “I was worried what kind of crowd we were going to get, were the kids going to be nervous and did I forget anything. I was here by 9 o’clock making sure I had everything in place.”

About five hours later, Bianco was figuratively walking on air.

“I’m thrilled. I’m absolutely thrilled,” he said. “Pat Kibbe showing up was the highlight of the day for me. … I’m surprised I haven’t cried.”

Maybe there IS crying in baseball