By ERIK SOKOLOWSKI | The Haddonfield Sun
Every young baseball player’s dream, at one time or another, is to walk on the hallowed ground in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series, and one local squad is getting ready for the trip.
Cherry Hill Challenger Ball was selected to play Friendswood Little League, of Friendswood, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 28 at 11 a.m., in Volunteer Stadium, and the squad couldn’t be more ready.
“I would say I am more shocked than excited,” team member Charlie Donegan said. “I am also proud that everyone will get to see that kids with disabilities are competitors, too.”
Challenger Ball is Little League specifically designed for kids with physical and intellectual disabilities. But these kids are no different once they hit the field.
“Baseball is my favorite thing in the world to do,” team member Steve Potter said. “My whole family grew up around it. It’s more fun than any other game in the world.”
Even the parents are geared up for the coming trip.
“Words can’t express how I felt when we found out,” Steve’s dad Mike said. “Emotionally, it sent me for a loop. It’s something you think about growing up, and to have my son go there is just phenomenal.”
The league’s founder and director Steve Silverman explained how Challenger Ball works: “Every child bats every inning,” he said, “and generally we don’t go by outs. The highest levels are more similar, and the kids wear extra safety equipment. Some use a tee, some coach pitch. We do what we need to do to make every child participate as fully as they can. That includes no strikeouts.”
And the league is fully sanctioned by Little League Baseball, so kids get regulation uniforms and patches.
“It’s baseball,” Challenger coach Todd Schmidt, who has been with the league since its inception, said. “It’s running and catching and throwing and hitting as well as wearing a uniform and raiding the snack bar after the game. Kids love it — no matter who they are or what obstacles they face. This is a chance for these kids to get the same opportunity to play ball.”
And, like typical Little League, the games create a special bond, not just between players, but also with family members, and lessons learned on the field are often carried over to real life.
“My wife Marianne signed our son Mark up four years ago,” dad Mark said. “He has a younger brother, Ryan, who is his buddy during game time, and this is a component that means a lot to Mark. Having his brother on the field with him is awesome. For children with special needs, this is exactly what they need.”
Daniel Wood started playing about four years ago.
“At first,” his mom Leslie said, “he was hesitant. Because of his Autism, he has a hard time making friends and joining in. But he has come a long way in his four years of playing; he even started pitching this year. He has an easier time making friends on the team and talking to them and he actually understands what he is supposed to be doing out there.”
And the gusto and determination the players show on the field has won many fans.
“Watching Challenger has made me appreciate just how hard some kids have it,” Charlie’s brother Jack said. “It also shows me that despite any disabilities or differences, every kid should play baseball.”
And Jack is probably right.
Dr. Caroline Eggerding, the vice president of clinical services and chief medical officer at Bancroft Neurohealth in Haddonfield, stressed the lessons learned on the field are the same for every child.
“The activities build the same sense of teamwork,” Eggerding said, “and foster social interaction. The goals are the same, everyone is working together and they get a sense of pride in the team.”
Pete Meosky, whose son Sebastian has been with the team since the beginning, stressed the positives.
“They learn teamwork, it’s a good peer group for them,” said Meosky, who has been helping as a coach the last couple of years. “It shows kids they are not alone in what they are dealing with. Sometimes the disabilities are on opposite ends of spectrum, but they face the same obstacles.”
But the best evidence that the kids’ hard work, determination and team spirit has paid off won’t come until the end of August, when they will be etched into the history of the Little League World Series. Thirteen players will represent the League at the exhibition game in Williamsport.
“We selected players who represent the scope of our league,” Silverman said. “Our league has over 100 kids of all ages with disabilities ranging from Autism to Down Syndrome to Muscular Dystrophy. So the team we will field in Williamsport will show the diversity of our league.”
With the first pitch quickly approaching, the parents are brimming with anticipation.
“I never thought I’d ever see any of my kids play at the Little League World Series,” Carla Donegan, Charlie’s mom, said. “Both of Charlie’s brothers are talented ball players, so there is some kind of poetic justice that Charlie will receive the spotlight in the sport that has been so rewarding for his brothers.”
“We are really looking forward to him playing in the (Little League) World Series,” Leslie Wood said. “He (Daniel) doesn’t quite understand the magnitude of the whole thing, but once we get there and he sees all the people there to watch him, he will understand how really special it all is.”
“We couldn’t be more excited or happy for Charlie,” Carla said. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for any kid, but for kids like Charlie, this is more like witnessing an impossible dream coming true.”
“The amazing thing is the joy the kids get from playing,” Meosky said. “When the kids cross the plate and get high fives, the best part is seeing the joy in the kids and watching their reactions.”
The squad is set to take the field at 11 a.m., on Aug. 28, so there is still time to book a room and make plans to support the team in Williamsport, according to a Little League Baseball spokesman. The league is also conducting a fund-raising drive to help off-set travel expenses and is looking to raise $2,000 for the trip.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids,” Silverman said. “It doesn’t matter what obstacles they face, this is something they’ll never forget and we want to do everything we can to make that happen for them.”
To make a donation, or to get more information on the league e-mail, Silverman at email@example.com or call (609) 707–8389.