Old Glory rose to the top of the flagpole. Voices joined in the singing of the national anthem. Players, some in wheelchairs and most accompanied by “buddies,” huddled near the dugouts and soaked up the atmosphere.
“Let’s play ball,” the PA announcer bellowed. With that, the 28th season of Challenger Little League baseball for special needs youngsters sprang into action at Don Deatherage Challenger Field on New Road, though the unspringlike temperatures and wind gusts Saturday morning had fans and players bundled up in caps and sweats but still shivering.
To the relief of many, it was announced the game would last only one inning “due to weather conditions,” despite the pomp of opening day.
“They should be selling hot chocolate,” said Pamela Hernandez, whose 5-year-old daughter, Ramyiah, is starting her second season in Challenger. Diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Ramyiah attends China Spring Elementary School and finds interacting with teammates “awesome,” her mom said.
“She wouldn’t be able to play in the typical league, but here she can participate and not be judged,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said she and her husband, Bob Hernandez, became concerned because their daughter “wasn’t talking, wasn’t socializing.” They have learned to cope with the diagnosis, with help from Challenger Little League.
More than many, baseball is a game of statistics. And Challenger volunteer and board member Mandi Barnes tossed out a few numbers Saturday. The league has 71 new players this year, the most ever, and they mostly come from Hill, McLennan and Coryell counties to play on 14 teams during a six-week schedule that culminates with an awards ceremony May 29, Barnes said during a break in the action Saturday.
“The youngest player is 4, and our senior league allows play until someone wants to stop. There is no age limit,” she said.
Players face physical, emotional or learning challenges. They may suffer from autism or cerebral palsy, and several use customized walkers or wheelchairs to navigate the playing field. Most have their names emblazoned on the sides of their methods of movement. Barnes said 113 official “buddies” assist players on a personal level, and another 60 volunteers help when needed.
Players have their own personal pitchers, buddies who toss balls to be struck as participants stand at the plate or crowd it with assistance. A bat striking a ball for any distance brings a roar of encouragement from the crowd.
The buddy program matches each player with a buddy who is 12 years old or older. Each buddy helps his or her player bat, catch, field, go around the bases, and stays with the individual in the dugout.
Jennifer and Kurt Salisbury, of Woodway, huddled against the cold Saturday and heaped praise on Challenger and their 6-year-old son, Mason, who has not let a diagnosis of autism crimp his style.
“This is his first year, and he enjoys this so much,” Jennifer Salisbury said of Mason, who takes special education classes at South Bosque Elementary School. “He loves playing alongside the others. He’s a pretty happy kid.”
Adam Clapp, an assistant coach and buddy coordinator, said his 7-year-old son, Adam Clapp Jr., plays Challenger Little League baseball, but is not its biggest fan. He enjoys attending games, and interacts with other youngsters and volunteers. But the games themselves hold no charm for him.
Clapp said teams typically prepare for their seasons with two organized practices. After that, “it’s nothing but games,” he said.
The league started in 1990 when Little League Headquarters in Waco approached Don Deatherage, who had served as an umpire since 1984, to start a Challenger Little League chapter in Waco. Deatherage, along with Michelle McCollum and Lupe Rosas, decided to tackle the project.
The Associated General Contractors donated time, equipment, materials and skills to transform a field in the Lake Air Little League complex into a suitable park for Challenger. They decreased the length of the basepath from 60 feet to 35 feet and covered the basepaths with a surface similar to a running track. This allows walkers and wheelchairs to move easily from base to base, while still providing a little cushion for kids who may stumble and fall.
Other donations over the years have included lights, from the Retired Major League Players Association, a sprinkler system, restroom remodeling to make them handicapped-accessible and parking lot paving.