Field of Dreams
For an extraordinary group of Little Leaguers®, there is a special style of baseball.
“It’s open to anybody with a physical or mental delay,” said Sam Ranck, Director of the Little League Challenger Division® “We typically see anybody who cannot participate in the traditional Little League program, but we always encourage leagues to make any adaptations they can to accommodate everybody.”
On Saturday morning at Volunteer Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa., the Little League Challenger Division played its thirteenth consecutive exhibition game. This year’s matchup was between Illinois District 13 from the Chicago area and California District 57 from the San Francisco area. The teams’ travel expenses were offset through a generous donation from SUBWAY®, which was presented on the field prior to the game with the help of Nomar Garciaparra and Jared Fogel, the SUBWAY guy.
“It means everything—it makes them feel like they’re just like any other Little Leaguer,” said Assistant District 13 Administrator Mark Johnson. “Because they have some sort of challenge in their life doesn’t mean they don’t love baseball—these kids have more heart than any of the kids that I’ve coached.”
“These kids have been so excited,” shared Gina Hermann, District 57 manager. “They’ve worked hard to make it here and they just enjoyed every bit of it along with us coaches and buddies as well.”
There are more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide, and every year 40 to ,50 programs apply to play during the Little League Baseball® World Series. Ranck and his staff review stories from each aspirant and do their best to select two teams that are exemplary.
“It’s always a tough decision, but there are a lot of programs out there doing it the right way,” Ranck said. “We just do our best to choose two of the best.”
The programs that were selected experienced the trip of a lifetime. The teams exchanged gift bags between players and their “buddies,” and each player received a baseball autographed by ESPN baseball analysts Karl Ravech, Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra. Most importantly, the teams receive publicity, which results in a positive outcome.
“It brings a lot of recognition to the program in the community and both these programs will probably see a lot more players coming out to participate next year,” Ranck said.
“It’s going to mean more exposure for the league and more kids signing up for Challenger baseball,” agreed Johnson. “And that’s just a wonderful experience.”
The Challenger Division participants definitely grabbed the attention of South Williamsport. The stands were filled with family, fans, and teams that competed in the Little League Baseball World Series.
“The support of the crowd and everybody cheering for these kids is really good to see,” Australia coach Wayne Sheldon said.
Australia was one of several teams in attendance, along with Canada and Europe-Africa who greeted the Challenger teams on the field following the game with small flags and banners of their respective countries for the players. Japan even came by for the beginning of the game before taking the field themselves in the International Championship Game, as did the West team, before playing the U.S. Championship Game.
“It’s amazing how these kids get an opportunity like this to play at this level,” said Zach Donahue, who is a District 13 “buddy” to his little brother Jacob. “With the fans and the teams that came out—it’s awesome.”
“It completes our journey—we love to give back to the community, especially with the welcoming we received from everybody (in South Williamsport),” said Sheldon. “It’s good to be able to come here and let the boys experience it and see how disabled (players) get to have a game as well.”
“It’s kind of emotional because these kids are out there just trying to play baseball and they’re having fun,” Southwest manager Randy Ramirez said.
“The Challenger Division is really what Little League is all about,” Ranck said. “It’s giving every boy and girl an opportunity to play Little League.”
Simply getting a chance to play results in an abundance of smiles from these Little Leaguers—and, for every coach, that is their motivation.
“My reward is their smiles and them being able to do things like this,” Johnson said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
“This is their dream come true—this is something that all other kids work hard to get and these kids had their chance,” Hermann added. “This was their shining moment and they couldn’t be happier.”
Every batter recorded a hit, reached base safely, and scored a run. The two teams finished the game—a game in which no player is concerned about the score—happy, which is the goal for Ranck and his staff.
“Everybody has fun and everybody wins.”