The memories are many. There was the teenager, born without legs, who played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his guitar before the game’s first pitch. After his virtuoso performance, he traded his six-string for a baseball bat, and laced a line drive. The hit was impressive, but not as impressive as what followed. The young man trekked around the basepaths—some 360 feet—on his hands.
There was the blind girl with the seeing-eye dog. She hit a beeping baseball off a tee, then was escorted by her canine friend to first base, second, third and home.
There was the young boy who didn’t have arms. His ingenious and determined parents cut the handle off one of those huge, hollow Flintstone-style whiffle-ball clubs, and placed it on his stump so that he, too, could take his turn at-bat.
But of all the poignant moments that have occurred since that first Challenger Baseball World Series at old Silver Stadium a quarter-century ago, none resonated more deeply with founder Tony Wells than seeing his autistic son, Christopher, batting and fielding on that famous baseball diamond, with brother Doug by his side.
“That was special,’’ the elder Wells said recently. “Chris had always tagged along to Doug’s Little League practices and games, and they would play catch in the yard. But until the Challenger program came along, Chris never got a chance to wear a uniform and play in games. This gave him and other kids like him an outlet. Seeing him out there with his brother, who was assisting him as a ‘buddy’ that day, brought a big smile to my face and my wife Betsy’s face. Having Doug there supporting his brother the way his brother had supported him all those times was the icing on the cake.”
Saturday morning at 8:15, the 25th Challenger Baseball World Series will be played at Frontier Field. There will be a quadruple-header, featuring teams from Fairport, Greece, Pittsford, Webster, Penfield, Chili, Rush-Henrietta, Victor, Brockport and Geneva. A record number of youths, ages 6 through 18, will get a chance to hit, catch and throw balls on the same field where scores of professional ballplayers have played. For four hours and change, the focus won’t be on wheelchairs, walkers and crutches, or on the challenges of autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other maladies, but rather on joy.
Under Challenger rules, everyone bats, everyone scores, no one makes outs and games mysteriously end in ties. There aren’t any losers—just winners. Success is measured in hits, runs, hugs, smiles and high-fives. Fear and prejudice will be the only strikeout victims. The elated looks on the faces of players, able-bodied buddies, parents and grandparents will be priceless.
And no one will be smiling more broadly than Wells, who came up with this marvelous idea of a World Series in 1993, three years after the Little League-sponsored Challenger program started in Fairport. Sixty-one kids participated in the first Series. More than 400 are expected Saturday.
“Never in a million years did we expect this to take off the way it has,’’ Wells said. “My hat’s off to (General Manager) Dan Mason and the Rochester Red Wings for getting behind this.”
The Wings pull out all the stops to make this an unforgettable experience for the kids. Organist Fred Costello entertains with ballpark music throughout the games. The team’s video crew makes sure every player appears on the big screen in left field. Several Wings players show up, along with beloved mascots, Spikes and Mittsy.
“The players usually are dragging from having played the night before and are scheduled to spend an hour there,’’ Wells said. “But most of them wind up staying a lot longer after seeing the good times those kids are having.’’ The pros show up hoping to inspire the kids, and the reverse happens—the kids inspire them.
Longtime Fairport coach Dave Lanning and Irondequoit judge Joe Genier do the pitching and catching. Kevin Meath, a Rochester radio veteran, handles the announcing from the field. Zweigle’s and Rochester Coca-Cola Refreshments provide free food and beverages to players, buddies and fans. Members of Rochester Press-Radio Club volunteer in the concession stand and on the field. Admission is free, and fans are welcome to come on the field and become buddies who assist and cheer on the players.
At a time when youth sports has a black eye because of overzealous parents attempting to live vicariously through their kids, Challenger Baseball provides the perfect antidote. It is everything that is good and right about sports—and humanity. And the World Series brings it all together in one celebratory spot.
“After Greece followed Fairport’s lead and started a program, I thought it would be neat if the two teams played each other on a neutral field,’’ Wells recalled. “And what better neutral site than a ballpark where future major-leaguers play? So, I approached Dan, who was the Wings assistant general manager at the time, and he was all for it. And he has been our host ever since.”
I’ve been a buddy at the World Series since its inception, and it remains one of my favorite sporting events. You can’t help but leave the ballpark feeling better about yourself and the world because you’ve just witnessed unbridled joy and the triumph of the human spirit. I’m looking forward to doling out more high-fives and words of encouragement, and maybe even relieving Lanning, the rubber-armed pitcher, for a few batters, as I’ve done in the past. Most of all, I look forward to seeing the looks on those kids’ faces. The only person boasting a bigger smile may be Wells, who 25 years ago came up with this brilliant idea, giving his son—and hundreds more— the chance to play ball where the pros play.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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