Drew Cichon chuckled as he watched the Nebraska Barons take the infield before the start of the second inning. Then he looked back at catcher Bruce Froendt.
“You guys don’t need no practice.”
The Chicago Hawks batter had a point.
The Barons — who on Saturday hosted the Hawks and teams from Minnesota and Kansas City for an invitational slow-pitch wheelchair softball tournament — are 12-time World Series champions. They’ve pulled off two four-peats, winning championships from 2007 to 2010 and from 2015 to 2018.
Froendt has been there for all of it.
Wheelchair-bound since age 23 — he broke his neck diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool — he’s been a player-coach for the Barons since 2000. He also established the invitational, now in its 19th year. Twelve other athletes with physical disabilities play for the Barons.
The team was established in 1998, and it’s a member of the National Wheelchair Softball Association, which includes 15 U.S. teams and six international teams. The Barons have defeated teams from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Tampa and more, Froendt said.
“Pick your major city,” he said. “Those cities have an infinite number of athletes they could draw from, but who they get relative to who we get, we’ve been able to maintain excellence for quite a period of time.
“And our goal is to continue that as we get older, a little bit heavier or whatever the case is.”
The Barons have enjoyed success from the start, and it’s resulted in a lot of growth, especially for adaptive sports in Omaha.
Mike Kult was a member of Omaha’s first wheelchair team, the Nebraska Drifters, which began playing in 1976. The Drifters re-formed as the Barons in ’98.
“We were playing on parking lots back then,” Kult said of the Omaha team’s early years. Kult, 64, quit playing for the Barons four to five years ago because of a shoulder injury, but he stays involved in athletics. He’s the wheelchair basketball coach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“It’s grown tremendously,” he said of wheelchair softball. “The athletes, the teams are so much better. If you’d catch one or two balls in the outfield during a game, you were lucky. Now, you’re expected to. … The game has risen so much from its early beginnings.”
Part of the growth in Omaha is the AllPlay Complex at Seymour Smith Park. With help from Froendt, it opened in 2008 and is home to the Barons, as well as the Miracle Baseball League.
The Miracle Baseball League welcomes about 400 kids and 30 teams, Froendt said, for 14 Saturdays from early May to late September. League play is free for participants and gives those with physical or mental disabilities the chance to participate.
Froendt’s formula for growth and success with the Barons is fairly simple, and it’s no different from anyone else’s, he said. It’s about developing an approach and philosophy. In his case, it’s inclusion, teaching, praising, and then being consistent.
“When you practice all year with a group of friends that develops to achieve excellence or even to get beat, you do so as a great group of friends — brothers, so to speak,” he said. In that way, it’s no different than the New York Yankees, he said.
“We probably get along better than them.”