On a sunny Sunday afternoon that felt more like summer than spring, 13-year-old Kenny Fulkerson slowly stepped onto the baseball field, his ventilator tube hanging just above the grass.
The beaming, small boy lifted one hand off his walker and waved as he made his way across the diamond with help from his sister, Valerie Fulkerson, 16.
"(Playing baseball is) all he's been talking about for about a month now," Valerie said.
Kenny was one of more than 200 children who joined the League of Dreams, a nonprofit sports group for children with disabilities, on the opening day of its seventh baseball season. They celebrated the occasion at Fruitvale-Norris Park with the seasonal staples of funnel cake, face painting and a barbecue.
Some of the players were in wheelchairs and walkers, like Kenny. The teen was born with multiple health problems, including a heart defect, and he had a massive stroke when he was 8 months old, his mother, Becky Fulkerson said.
"So much of the year, (kids like Kenny are) not allowed to be children. They have to be patients. They have to have medications. They have to have equipment," Becky said.
"I think it's the most wonderful thing in the world that they get a chance to just be children."
That's exactly what Tim Terrio, the founder and chairman of the League of Dreams' board, had in mind when he started the league in 2007.
"If you look around, you'll see everybody's got just Dodgers shirts on. It doesn't say anything about that they've got a disability. They're just on the Dodgers (team) or they're just on the Angels," said Terrio, who is also the president of Terrio Physical Therapy-Fitness Inc.
The league has boomed from about 30 players that first season. It added a basketball season and swimming lessons and is forming a bowling league this year as well.
The organization got a boost with the backing of major leaguer and Bakersfield native Brent Morel, who plays for the Chicago White Sox. Terrio said all the support has made it possible for league to bring sports to children for free.
On Sunday, the players gathered on the field for pictures and to watch Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, help throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Jerai Johnson, 10, belted out the national anthem in a strong, clear voice. It was the largest audience yet for the young girl with cerebral palsy, but that didn't faze her.
"I felt really great," she said confidently afterward.
Following the opening ceremony, families sat in folding chairs or on blankets in the shade to eat and shared colorful, heaping snow cones. "It's awesome. It's so amazing to see how many families we really are touching," said Jessica Mathews, the league's executive director.
James Sabo, 7, paused from his dashing around to ask his mother, Nichole Sabo, to let him get his face painted. Nichole said the league's setup is great for children like her son, who is autistic. A family member or a volunteer, called an angel, accompanies each child through the games to help them as they play.
"For (James), we couldn't put him in a regular sport because of his issues with running off and not quite comprehending things, so it's a way for him to still get to play sports like his brothers get to," Nichole said.
The team mom said she loves to see the enjoyment that James and his teammates exude when they play.
"It wasn't about hitting the ball or making a basket, whether it's baseball, basketball. It's just getting to play, for them," she said. "Seeing their smiles, their laughs, their high-fiving each other, it's a really great thing for them to have."
The league's six-week season starts with games next Sunday.