Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times
Chase Cloeter, 16, cheers for the Titans with his mother, Susan. She worried when he started high school, but Chase came home with a happy story.
FOREST -- Chase Cloeter smiled from underneath his Hidden Valley High School baseball cap. A win! Another win!
Chase quickly circled around behind the Hidden Valley dugout and grabbed a cooler. With the help of a parent, the 16-year-old with Down syndrome lugged the drinks onto the field.
"Chase!" team members screamed as he came toward them.
"What's up, Chase!"
Hidden Valley center fielder Daniel Gills ran over, scooped Chase up in a bear hug and shouted to him.
"How'd we do, buddy?!" Gills said. "How'd we do?!"
Chase didn't need to answer. The Titans had done well Tuesday, winning 5-3 over Jefferson Forest, setting up a regional playoff game against Northside tonight in Pulaski.
Asked if he planned to attend that game, Chase grinned.
"Sure," he said. "Count me in!"
Count him in.
Count him in at the lunch table at school, where he sits with all the jocks. Count him in the inner circle of the hallways, where he gets a random high-five or a hug from everyone on this team. Count him in the post-game dinners, the parties, the jokes, the fun.
Count him in to all of it, because thanks to one young man's kindness, this team certainly does.
An invitation to lunch
Two autumns ago, Chase Cloeter came home from school one night with a story.
He'd met someone. A baseball player named Daniel Gills.
Chase's mother braced herself for bad news. At best, Susan Cloeter figured a freshman with Down syndrome would be ignored in high school. At worst, he'd be abused.
At least those were the stories she'd heard from other parents in similar situations. And she'd seen some of it herself -- the social acceptance Chase enjoyed in elementary school had eroded in middle school, and there was little reason to think high school would be any better.
"Oh, it scared me to death," Cloeter said Tuesday while watching the game. "It's hard enough for kids who are developmentally typical to fit in, much less somebody different."
But Chase's story wasn't like that at all. He said Daniel had invited him to sit at his lunch table. Along with other team members, they had talked about baseball and school and life.
"Every night after that, we would wait for the Daniel Gills story," Cloeter said with a laugh. "It just became our dinner joke. Well, what did Daniel Gills do today?"
What Daniel did, through simple acts of friendship, was make it cool to hang out with Chase Cloeter.
He would meet Chase every day in the cafeteria. They'd talk. He'd laugh at Chase's jokes ("Gotcha!" Chase liked to say after fibbing that Daniel had food on his shirt).
"I love the kid," Daniel said.
And soon, they all did. One night, several Titans took Chase out to dinner at Ragazzi's and picked up the tab. Later in the season, after a particularly big win, they asked Chase to accompany them to Buffalo Wild Wings to celebrate.
"It's just an awesome thing," said Sharon Hart, Chase's instructional assistant at school. "It's really been touching. It's made me very emotional at times because I have two kids of my own.
"These kids are just amazing."
Hugs, drinks, smiles
This season, Chase Cloeter started going to home baseball games.
And Hidden Valley started winning. A lot.
"I can tell you this right now," Hidden Valley coach Jason Taylor said. "We haven't lost a game this year that he's been at."
"So he'll be at the rest of them," he said.
Gladly. And you can bet Chase will wear the Titans baseball cap the team chipped in and bought him. He'll wear the summer baseball jersey Ryan Larson gave him earlier this year.
"He's the most outstanding kid I've ever seen in my life," Ryan said. "He's an inspirational kid."
"Chase can brighten anybody's day," Titans second baseman Adam Tucker said. "He's the best kid ever."
"He's always been there for us," Daniel said. "If you're having a bad day, you'll see him in the halls and he'll come up to you and give you a high-five and a hug. It's great to have him around.
"After the games, he brings drinks for us," Daniel added. "Brings smiles, too. And that really lifts us up."
'My best friend'
The game was tight. Lose this one and Hidden Valley's season would be over. And with Daniel being a senior bound for Emory and Henry College, there was no telling how much longer he and Chase would be able to hang out once baseball was done.
Chase, sitting next to his mother in the stands, was getting nervous.
"He needs to focus," Chase said quietly as Daniel stepped into the batter's box. "He needs to keep his eye on the ball."
Daniel watched a pitch go by for a ball.
Chase applauded. "Go D.C.G!" he yelled.
"D.C.G.?" his mother said. "What's that?"
"Daniel Charles Gills," he said. "My best friend."
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