By Will Desautelle and Ethan Roy
Hours before taking the field for the Little League Baseball® World Series United States Championship, players from Central East Maui Little League (Hawaii) gathered on the outfield grass at Volunteer Stadium following the annual Little League Challenger Game to give each of the players a Hawaiian lei.
Several other World Series players and their families made the trip to Volunteer Stadium on Saturday morning to watch the unique event, which highlights the Little League Challenger Program® for intellectually and physically challenged children. Featured in this year’s game was Massachusetts District 12 Challenger Little League and Peterborough (Ontario) Challenger Baseball League.
Always a highlight of the tournament, the Little League Challenger Division participants along with their “buddies” relished the opportunity to play the game they love in front of thousands of people on Little League’s biggest stage.
“It is the Disneyland of baseball,” said Dexter Nichols of Monahans, Texas. “I love seeing the smiles on all these kids’ faces.”
Launched in 2007 by Marie Shea, Challenger Division President, as the Malden West Little League Challenger Program, the league decided to make the switch to the Massachusetts District 12 Challenger Little League to provide more opportunities to children with physical and intellectual challenges throughout the entire district. This year, the program chartered two Challenger Division programs and two Senior Challenger Division programs to provide opportunities for children ages 4-40 to play in the league. Most importantly, with the help of the league’s sponsors, District 12 Challenger Little League is completely free for all participants to play. District 12 Challenger Program has also benefited from the generous support of the Boston Red Sox through the work of the Red Sox Foundation, reinforcing the opportunity for every child to have the experience of playing baseball on the field with their teammates.
Established in May 2016, the Peterborough Challenger Baseball League provides opportunities to more than 100 players in two divisions of play throughout the city of Peterborough. In addition to the support the league provides, Peterborough Challenger Baseball League works with the Toronto Blue Jays through the Jays Care Foundation to provide a welcoming space for children to grow, learn, and build relationships throughout the community. Thanks to the help of local sponsors, the league provided jerseys and pants to each of its players participating in the program.
“It’s a great game and great to see them play,” said Frank Andrade (Metairie, Louisiana), the father of the Southwest team’s William Andrade. “It’s a great experience just to come out here and watch the support for those players.”
For other individuals, the Challenger Game was impactful for them on a personal level.
“The Challenger game is special for me because I work with individuals with disabilities, so I just really wanted to see this,” said Elizabeth Smith from Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania
“I think it’s awesome,” said Selinsgrove’s Doug Beaver. “Everybody should be included and be able to enjoy this game – It’s our national pastime.”
There were also plenty of fans who have been attending the Little League World Series for many years and always enjoy seeing the Challenger Game prior to watching the International and United States Championship games.
“I brought my son and his best friend,” said Milton Turley Clairsville, Ohio. “We always come up for the championship games and I think the Challenger Game is just a good experience for the kids to see.”
“I just think it’s excellent for all the kids to be able to come see this if they can. Even as an adult it’s fun,” said Chad Wallace, also of Clairsville. “It’s great to see the players having fun with one another, having a great time and encouraging one another.”
“I’ve been a regular attender for many years,” said Kim Zerbe from Winfield, Pennsylvania. “It means a lot.”
The family of Jason Corbett, a 2019 LLBWS umpire from Roanoke, Virginia, was in Williamsport to watch Saturday’s Championship Games. Mr. Corbett’s wife, Allison, remarked about Challenger Game, “I think it’s a very good opportunity for all kids to be able to play in Little League.”
The Little League Challenger Division Exhibition Game has been a part of the Little League Baseball World Series schedule since 2001. Little League® International supports the participating leagues with a $15,000 grant to help offset the costs for the teams to participate in the Exhibition Game.
For the ninth year in a row, the game was broadcast live on northeastern Pennsylvania’s and the Central Susquehanna Valley’s PBS Station, WVIA.