The 2018 Challenger Exhibition Game at the Little League Baseball® World Series drew a packed crowd at Volunteer Stadium, an annual event that gives players with physical and mental disabilities a chance to play under the Williamsport spotlight.
This year’s participants were Hazleton Little League from the nearby Hazleton, Pa., and Highland Baseball Club Little League from Evansville, Ind., who traveled more 700 miles to play in the game.
Former MLB slugger and recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero was in attendance, who gifted all the players with their medals as their names were announced. He also threw out the first pitch.
“It feels special,” said Guerrero. “They’re doing it (Challenger Leagues) in the Dominican Republican now, so I’m really proud of it. I’m happy to be here.”
It was clear from the start that players would be showcasing more than just their baseball talents, as Highland player Allie Shanks performed the national anthem from her wheelchair prior to the game.
Players made the most out of the unique experience, accompanied by their volunteer buddies and coaches on the field. Joe Wiener, Highland’s assistant coach, reflected on what it took for his team to get to Williamsport.
“We had a dream several years ago, about doing this,” he said. “I tell you what, the smiles … they were worth it.”
He said the player were screaming with joy when they heard they would be this year’s participants.
“These kids watch the Little League World Series every year, they love baseball,” he continued. “For Little League to do something like this is amazing, it shows the ability these kids truly have.”
The abilities Wiener was referring to were evident once the game began, as every player put the ball in play and got to round the bases. Guerrero served as the third base coach for both teams.
Jim Burns, Pennsylvania District 18 Administrator, has Hazleton Little League in his district, and was thrilled with the crowd’s support for his players, who were ecstatic to be in a new environment.
“It’s priceless,” he said. “To see the smile on their faces, it makes it all worthwhile, and the reaction that the crowd gave the players was fantastic…we appreciate that.”
After the game, players and coaches from the Little League Baseball World Series teams filed onto the field to shake the Challenger players’ hands. It was a moment neither side will forget, as the Challenger Exhibition Game continues to demonstrate that baseball is a universal sport that can be accessible to any human being.