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No one strikes out; everyone has a ball at Inaugural Challenger Little League Baseball World Jamboree

BY Dave Forster

NORFOLK, Va. (May 15, 2006) — Bryce Morabito stepped into the batter’s box and pounded his bat on home plate.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
Bryce, a 10 -year-old lefty, has Down syndrome and a Major League stance. He held his bat high, wiggled his hips and came out swinging.
The Virginia Beach boy is one of hundreds of players at the inaugural Challenger Little League Baseball World Jamboree, held at the Azalea Little League complex. Organizers expected close to 100 teams from as many as nine states, all of them from the Little League’s Challenger division for players with disabilities.
The event evolved from the annual Challenger Tournament and Fun Weekend, first held in 1992 with 16 teams. The games and their feel-good atmosphere have amassed a legion of followers.
Kyle Shepherd is one. The 12-year-old from Virginia Beach said he “got hooked” while helping at a Challenger game three years ago. He met Bryce while volunteering.
“He’s been my buddy ever since,” Kyle said.
In Challenger games, players have a “buddy” join them at the plate and on the field. The other player might help swing a bat or push a wheelchair.
On Saturday, Kyle arrived at the Azalea Little League complex in the uniform of his own Little League team, the Virginia Beach Pirates, and looked for Bryce’s squad, the Red Sox.
By game time, the Red Sox had five of its 15 players on hand. This concerned no player, coach or parent. In Challenger play, all results are created equal. The games generally go two innings, and teams bat through their order each time. Everyone gets a hit, and everyone is safe. The idea is for “every run to count, every child to count,” Red Sox manager Andy Adler said.
That’s not to say some of the children aren’t competitive. Adler recalled the time he umpired a game and the first baseman made a great catch, clearly beating the runner. Adler had to call the runner safe.
“He’s out!” the first baseman yelled.
Adler held his ground. “Safe,” he said. “I forgot my glasses today.”
Some players love the games so much they don’t want to leave the league, ever. Shannon Smith is 28, developmentally disabled and a 15-year veteran of the Roanoke-area Glenvar A’s.
“We don’t have the heart to not let him play,” A’s coach Heather Landes said.
The Challenger division age bracket is 5 to 18 years, so Smith is called a player-coach. And Smith, who is larger than some opposing coaches, can play. The Red Sox cleared the infield each time he batted Saturday. Smith crushed his two shots to left field.
“He’s waiting for his pitch,” said Tony Morabito, Bryce’s father, during one at-bat. “That’s a bad sign.”

In 1989, Little League launched its Challenger Division to provide boys and girls with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy and participate in the game of baseball. Disabled children from the ages of 5-18 are eligible to participate. Challenger baseball features “buddies” who help their partners by assisting the players when needed. During the past 15 years, Challenger baseball has become Little League’s fastest growing division.

A world-wide Challenger Jamboree was the concept of Jake Hardison, Virginia State Coordinator and District 8 Administrator. A dedicated supporter and longtime proponent of the Challenger Division, Mr. Hardison began the “Challenger Tournament and Fun Weekend” in 1992, featuring 16 teams. The World Jamboree was an expansion of the Challenger weekend and drew nearly 100 teams.