It’s Saturday morning, the sun is shining brightly, men and women are laughing, and children are shouting. There is joy on the baseball fields of Goleta’s Girsh Park, where striking out is no shame, because it means you’re swinging a bat, you’re playing ball.
In times past, you might have been shuttered away, out of sight. You have certain peculiarities that make you seem different from most other people, brought on by conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or Prader-Willi syndrome. Your parents may not have wanted to expose you to ridicule. But on this morning, you are a star wearing the jersey of a real major league team in the Challenger Division of the Dos Pueblos Little League.
It started in 2004 when six-year-old Keaton Slay told his mother he wanted to play baseball. Retta Slay surveyed all the area’s organizations that serve children with disabilities-Keaton has Down’s syndrome-and none of them offered baseball. But she found that Little League International had formed the Challenger Division in the 1980s, and the Dos Pueblos Little League was willing to host a chapter.
“We had six to eight children for the first season,” Slay said. “It lasted two weeks.” This year, there are 62 ballplayers signed up, with more at new Challenger locations in Carpinteria and Ojai. The season started in early March and will continue to the end of May, followed by a June camp with the Santa Barbara Foresters. New members can join at any time, Slay said.
The Challengers’ weekly activities commence at 9:30 a.m. on four diamonds at Girsh Park, behind Costco. Last Saturday, it was a scene of organized chaos in the early going, as the children were sorted into teams, each conforming to a different level of ability, and dozens of volunteers swung into action. Dos Pueblos High cheerleaders were on hand to mentor youngsters who wanted to stay on the sidelines.
“Buddies” from regular Little League teams provided guidance to the Challenger ballplayers. “The boys are intimidated at first,” said Stan Soto, who became enamored of the program when his sons participated as buddies. “They end up getting a lot out of it and are glad they did it.”
Two 11-year-olds with previous experience as buddies offered their perspectives.
“These kids are not made exactly like me, and it gives me a good feeling inside to see them have as good a time as I do,” said Matt Campa. “You can have a bad day at school, but then baseball enlightens your whole body.”
Tim Heiduk said, “They get to meet other people like themselves and learn how to interact with each other. It works because they’re having fun.”
One of the dangers of highly organized youth sports is that a win-at-all-costs attitude can spoil the fun, but that’s no problem in the Challenger Division. The first half hour was devoted to practicing the simple skills of throwing, catching, and fielding. Then the players started taking turns at bat in a facsimile of a game. Only on one field, where the most advanced kids were playing, did anybody attempt to keep score.
A big challenge, because of the exertion required, is running the bases. But there was Hunter Bennett, one of the boys with a weighty condition, chugging to first, second, third, and home without stopping; there was Diego Rodriguez, who has cerebral palsy, being helped around the bases by his cousin Ben Soto; and there was Francisco Vega, his legs weakened by spina bifida, scuttling swiftly on crutches to beat the throw to home plate.
“As parents, we’re all looking for that tool to motivate these children,” Slay said. Vega, a seven-year-old who had started playing baseball three weeks ago, was plenty motivated. “I want to be a doctor,” he declared after the games ended at 10:45 a.m.
“It’s amazing how they improve their skills and their self-esteem,” said Lynn Rodriguez, whose daughter Blair joined the Challengers at the beginning. “You go home every Saturday morning feeling good.”
For more information about the Challengers, visit dpllchallengers.org. They have six more weekends on their 2009 schedule. After playing this Saturday (Apr. 18), they will be guests at UCSB’s home game against San Jose State.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Mira Costa and the Santa Barbara High Dons head a cast of 16 boys volleyball teams in the Karch Kiraly Tournament of Champions at the SBHS gym. Matches begin at 11 a.m. on Friday (Apr. 17) and at 9 a.m. on Saturday.