Little League’s Challengers Division: Where Everyone’s Able
It's a warm Saturday morning at the Shasta Dam Area Little League Fields. Gray pines and maples surround the fields where baseball, that great American sport, is in full swing.
The players are here, decked out in their jerseys with team colors and names: The Angels, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Indians, Padres and Yankees.
The snack bar is open. The crowds cheer. Parents and grandparents snap photographs. The game begins with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Just another weekend baseball game in another small California town.
Look more closely and you'll see these games are just as special as the individuals who participate in the Little League Challengers Division. It's specially designed to provide a baseball experience for players ages 5 to 18 whose mental and physical conditions might prevent them from playing on a mainstream team.
If a player is willing, there's practically nothing that can get in the way of participating. Whether a player is blind, or has autism, or cerebral palsy, or is developmentally disabled. Everyone plays to the best of his or her ability.
Yes, there are some adjustments made to accommodate the players' needs, said John Barry, who's been with the games since its beginning in the early '90s.
"You could say we modify things a bit," Barry said with a laugh "Whatever it takes for the kids to play, have a good time and get that feel-good feeling."
Sure enough, a blind player might have a beeping baseball, while some other players need the assistance of a T-ball stand. Also, the teams aren't exactly competing against one another, but rather, they're playing with the other team. Sometimes, "buddies" - usually baseball players from area high schools - show up to assist Challengers players, whether it's to join them on the journey to a base, or help throw or catch a ball, or even lend a hand holding the bat and taking a swing.
One boy, No. 5, hit the ball and ran for home base, arms whirling like a wind mill all the way there. And after No. 7 hit the ball, he didn't just toss the bat, but the helmet and his baseball hat, too. A girl, No. 12, wore her team shirt over neon orange shorts above Ugg-style boots that landed softly in the field's dust with each step.
Melissa Roberts talked with her 13-year-old dark-haired son, Tanner, and coaxed him to answer her questions regarding his love of baseball, and playing for the Indians.
"When it's time for baseball season, who asks when practice starts, and when the games start?" she prompted Tanner, who plays baseball from his wheelchair, with the assistance of a "super bat" made from 2-liter soda bottles. "And who gets bummed out when the games are rained out?"
Tanner laughed. "Me" he answered.
Patrick Moriarty, who's been watching the games for years, sat in the bleachers and cheered for every kid, even if the player took many swings connecting with the ball. Moriarty laughed when one player sat down in the middle of the field and concentrated on sifting dirt through his fingers.
"Atta boy," Moriarty yelled to a player who'd hit the ball, then raised his arms in the air and shouted, "I did it!" as the boy sprinted for first base.
Moriarty said he's a fan of the program for the way it gives all kids the opportunity to play baseball, but he loves the Challengers for other reasons.
"Naturally, I'm so impressed with the kids," Moriarty said. "But I'm also blown away by the parents' efforts, too, to get their kids here week after week. It's just incredible."
Many families do make the effort, because the Challengers division is popular, and the fields are full each Saturday morning. According to Carol Matheney, who does much of the organizing for the Challengers, 102 athletes play for the eight teams.
All games are played at the the Shasta Dam Area Little League Fields. The division has been around long enough that little kids who once played on one of the Challengers' early teams are now adults. Some have become coaches, or assistants, just to stay connected to an activity they love so much.
"It is a great program for youth to participate in sports," Matheney said. "Kids and parents have an opportunity to be proud and feel good. And every ability can play."
Plus, every player gets a uniform, thanks to the sponsors who cover costs for hats, shirts and season-end trophies. And each year, to celebrate another season well-played, the Redding Rodeo Association hosts a barbecue, which is the highlight of the summer for many of the players and their families.
Matheney, the Challengers' organizer, said the division offers a great opportunity for the kids to be proud of themselves.
"All the coaches and all the fans are supportive and encouraging to everyone on the field and at the plate," Matheney said. "It is great to see the smiles on our kids but also their parents. All is good."
By the morning's end that Saturday, more than 100 Little League Challengers had played baseball.
Each game ended with enthusiastic handshakes and high-fives. The fans cheered. For all sides. Here, at these fields on these Saturdays, players aren't disabled or unable. Here, everyone's not just willing, but able.
It's clear why there's no need to keep score; everybody's a winner.
And by the expressions of elation upon their faces, it's obvious they know it.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.
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