Take in a game
Next game: Saturday at Vacaville
Age range: 6-17
Number of Davis players: 13
Practice: Mondays at Davis Little League Complex
Number of Davis teams: 1 (hope to expand to 4)
As the sun began to set on a Friday night, turning the sky into various shades of orange, red and blue, the lights at the Davis Little League Complex came on, accompanied by their barely audible, but incessant, buzz.
The sights and sounds at DLL were typical: the sharp ping of a bat, the cheers and words of encouragement from the crowd, the soft pop of a ball hitting a glove. And, of course, there were the genuine smiles that only the game of baseball could bring.
But these sights and sounds weren’t from any ordinary Little League competition; they came from the first-ever Challenger League game at DLL.
The Challenger League was put in place for the 2014 Little League season, allowing kids with physical or developmental disabilities to play baseball. There’s no keeping score or competition; everybody involved is truly in it for the fun and the love of the game.
The Challenger Red Sox, the 13-person roster from Davis, travels to Woodland, Dixon and Vacaville to play other Challenger teams. Practices are at the DLL complex every Monday. The team members’ ages range from 6 to 17.
“It’s awesome, it’s low-key baseball and I hit awesome,” Red Sox player Corin Shields said following the April 18 game. “Everyone is nice to everyone and it makes kids with disabilities be able to play sports like baseball.”
John Shields, Corin’s father, echoed his son’s sentiments.
“It’s been tremendous. It’s a lot of fun, everybody has a great time,” the elder Shields said. “It’s really nice that all of the kids can be out here and experience the fun and joy of baseball without any of the stress.”
The idea to begin the Challenger League came up at a Little League District 64 board meeting a few years ago, but DLL president Paul Hasson couldn’t get enough players to field a team. He went to doctors’ offices, physical therapists and plenty of other places to recruit players, but Hasson got no response.
That all changed thanks to the work of Martha Ozonoff. As the “team mom,” who also serves on the board of Team Davis — a nonprofit organization to enrich the lives of people with cognitive or physical disabilities — Ozonoff helped recruit the necessary number of players.
“All I did was send maybe two emails to our listserv that said, ‘Hey, we need school-aged kids to play baseball,’ and we got them all pretty quickly,” Ozonoff said.
DLL president Hasson made it a priority to put the Challenger League into place this season.
“Having watched some other teams play in Vacaville and Dixon, you realize what a special program the Challenger division (is),” Hasson said. “You see the smiles on these kids’ faces, and I thought that Davis need(s) this.”
Hasson admits, “It was kind of embarrassing that we didn’t have it here in Davis,” which motivated the DLL board to take action.
Ultimately, the Challenger League was put into place with the best interest of the players in mind.
“The goal for the entire Challenger program is for these kids. The first practice that we had, I don’t think I could hold the tears back,” an emotional Hasson said. “The kids expressed so much joy in just hitting a ball, throwing a ball and playing baseball like the major leaguers in a uniform.”
But the Challenger Red Sox players aren’t the only people who benefit from the new league.
All Challenger Leaguers are paired with one or two buddies, current Little Leaguers who assist the players with fielding, running the bases and directing throws. During the games, buddies are all about positivity: high-fives, “Great job!” and “That was awesome!” are commonly seen and heard from the buddies.
According to Hasson, there is a group of about 25 to 30 players who consistently help with Challenger League practices and games. Many of the buddies have had wonderful experiences with the program so far.
“It’s great to see that (the Challenger League) is a whole organized thing,” buddy Sean O’Hara said. “Kids can play the sport that they want to play, and I’m glad that they’re having fun, because I’m having fun with them.”
Fellow buddy Brandon Folb added: “I feel fortunate for being able to help people. And I feel better as a person, knowing that I’m helping kids to be able to play baseball.”
As this is the first year of the Challenger program, Hasson hopes it will continue to grow from here. The goal for DLL in the coming years is to field at least four Challenger teams.
And as the program continues to grow, Hasson hopes support from the Davis community will continue to grow as well.
“Anyone who enjoys baseball would love to see these kids to be out there having a good time, because that’s really what it’s all about,” Hasson said.
— Reach Thomas Oide at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ReporterThomas