One of the Boys
Dustin Guerrieri doesn't let conditions keep him from having fun during Little League
The decision to turn down playing Challenger Baseball was an easy one for Dustin Guerrieri to make.
The soon-to-be Palisade High School freshman has been diagnosed with what his mother, Jackie, said is a mild case of autism as well as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Those conditions haven’t kept Dustin from his love of competition and sports. He’s played baseball since second grade and has been an annual participant in the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games at Stocker Stadium.
Baseball is Dustin’s true passion. That’s why he chose to be part of the Orchard Mesa senior boys (13- to 15-year-olds) baseball team instead of participating in Challenger Baseball.
The Orchard Mesa team advanced to the state tournament in Cortez, and Guerrieri’s teammates say he has been a key contributor.
The senior boys are one of five local teams playing in double-elimination state tournaments. Two of those tournaments will be in Grand Junction, with Monument Little League hosting the Major Boys (10-12) state tournament and Orchard Mesa Little League hosting for Major Girls. Each tournament runs through July 18.
Orchard Mesa lost 19-1 to Sherrelwood out of Denver in the team’s tournament opener Wednesday afternoon. The loss dropped Orchard Mesa into an elimination game against Arapahoe at 2 p.m. today.
Coach Steele Graham said teamwork has been the key to the success of the Orchard Mesa Senior Boys team.
“A team is just like a chain and it’s only as strong as its weakest link,” Graham said. “Everyone has stepped up to help everyone else when in need, because not everyone can be 100 percent 100 percent of the time. Everyone takes the time to help everyone else.”
Helping Dustin has allowed the team to improve fundamentally. For example, if the 14-year-old fields a ball in right field, his teammates know not to confuse him with multiple players in the infield asking him to throw the ball to them. Oftentimes, Graham will look Dustin in the eye right before an at-bat and give him specific instructions on what to do at the plate.
These distractions wouldn’t be an issue with Challenger Baseball, which focuses on inclusiveness for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. Dustin’s mother, however, said her son feels like he should be playing with everyone, and anyone, his own age.
“In his mind, he doesn’t feel like he has any problems,” Jackie said. “And it’s understandable. He’s in a special-needs class at school, but he’s much more high functioning than most of the other kids in his class. He struggles with that a lot.”
Aside from Dustin’s overwhelming love for baseball, his desire to not have anyone feel sorry for him drives his ambition.
“It’s not really evident to people at first,” team parent Pam Luciano said. “I think people might see him out there as some goofy kid and don’t understand he has a disability. He just wants to be normal … and he really doesn’t put it out on his sleeve that he has a disability.”
Dustin’s teammates have done their part all season to help him feel included, Graham said. During a team practice Tuesday at the Orchard Mesa Little League complex, Dustin would run full speed around the bases during situational drills. He has shown improvement playing right field, and Graham said Dustin has made “some incredible catches where I’d get scared before he’d catch the ball.”
To Dustin, his improvement is more simple than that.
“I like pop flies,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I like those because they’re the easiest ones to catch.”
Plus, he’s happy. Team parents say he’s always smiling regardless of if he’s playing or on the bench. There was a lot of happiness to go around when he got his first hit of the season earlier this month, with Dustin showing jubilation after many frustrating moments.
“He loves the learning experience,” Jackie said. “He’s having fun even in practice and learning something new all the time. Yeah, he gets frustrated. But he learns.”
It’s pretty clear others have learned something from Dustin, too.