On a warm, sunny Saturday morning a game of baseball was being played. Some players needed some help along the way, but no one needed help having fun.
On a warm, sunny Saturday morning a game of baseball was being played at Thayer Field. Some players needed some help along the way, but no one needed help having fun.
On Saturday, June 14, in the final game of the Challenger Baseball League’s inaugural year, physically and mentally challenged kids ages 5-16 took turns playing the field and hitting the ball.
Joe Kennedy, involved with Lancaster Little League since 1993 and having retired in 2007, started calling parents and recruiting players and “buddies” to play alongside them this February. His 16-year-old son P.J., who has Down syndrome, is a league member.
“It’s fun because you get to help kids who have never played baseball before,” said 9-year-old Andrew Pasquale of Lancaster, who was P.J. Kennedy’s buddy.
The season culminated with Saturday’s game, which included an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants singing “Sweet Caroline” and pitching to several batters; players, buddies and parents lapping down ice cream in a post-game celebration; and players being handed trophies.
“It’s all about having fun and there’s a lot of great smiles,” said Kennedy.
Twenty-one players signed up for the Little League-sanctioned Challenger squad, hailing from Central Massachusetts towns including Lancaster, Clinton, Bolton, Stow, Lunenburg, Maynard, Princeton, Worcester, Boylston, Groton and Leominster. The league played a game every Saturday morning for six weeks, starting May 10.
Besides players, there are roughly 20 “buddies” that participate each week, including students from Nashoba Regional High School and kids from the Lancaster Little League and neighboring town leagues. Kennedy said he meets at least one-on-one coverage between buddies and Challenger players. Players and buddies can come and go as they like, as the league doesn’t require commitments. The game does not follow traditional baseball rules, and players are encouraged during and after each at bat.“There’s no strikes,” said Challenger player Brandon Nauman.
Kennedy said he gives players the option of hitting a ball off the tee or from his underhand tosses.
“Everyone hits, runs the bases, steals,” he said. “We have a special ball that makes a beeping sound for the blind boys, so they know when to swing. The kids hold onto a float on a rope [to run to first base]. Two people hold it and it leads the blind children to the base.”‘A different atmosphere’
Sophomore Nashoba baseball player Zachary King of Lancaster said he was inspired by the league.
“It gives them a chance to see what it it’s like,” said King of the players.
King and junior high school player Dan Heffernan from Lancaster said they held the nylon rope along which blind players could run to each base.
Fellow high school player Alex Doucette, a sophomore from Lancaster, was also at his first game. He said helping the Challenger players was completely new experience for someone used to the highly competitive high school leagues.
“It takes some of the pressure off, I guess,” he said. “This is just for the kids. They don’t have as much as some other people do.”Doucette was partnered with player Ryan Reardon of Lancaster.
Twelve-year-old Matthew Mudgett of Lancaster, who plays in Lancaster Little League, has attended every game. He was buddied with Nicholas Giovinazzo of Stow, and now also helps Reardon make his way down the base path.
“Most of the kids that do it are from my school, and we’ll hang out afterwards,” said Mudgett. “We fit together like a team and I compare them to teams that work very hard. I’ve learned respect, loyalty and to help people when they need it.”
Robert Falvey, a junior high school player from Lancaster, also attended one week of the Challenger League.
“It was a different atmosphere and everyone was having so much fun. It allowed me to take a step back from all the competitiveness and see how fun the game can really be,” he said. “One kid bunted and he ran around the bases for a homerun. Everyone was laughing and joking, it brought everyone together.”
Although he was not buddied with anyone specifically, Falvey helped hold the rope for blind players and helped several players bat. He said the experience taught him a valuable lesson.
“It taught me not to take anything for granted,” he said.
‘These kids are all smiles’
Clinton resident Robyn Yalian, whose son Tyler plays on the team, was appreciative of the league.
“He loves sports and things that are outside,” said Yalian. “Social situations are hard for him. To be accepted for who he is, to let him be a 10-year-old kid, this allows him to do that. There’s positive reinforcement. To have that, and not have someone telling him he’s doing things the wrong way, is huge.”
Yalian said she was thankful her son could play in a league that did not judge him for his motor disabilities. Tyler has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a central auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder and anxiety disorder.
Mary Murtland of Lancaster, speaking of her 12-year-old son Paul, who has Down syndrome and is also part of the program, said she is also satisfied with the program.
“He’s outside, moving around and playing with his siblings and kids he’s comfortable with,” she said. “I can’t find a thing I don’t like about it, let’s put it that way.”
Murtland said Paul, who also has vision problems, was more comfortable with the local league.
“We’ve been in other Challenger leagues, [but] what we liked about this one more is there are more kids than adults,” she said. “There are regular kids there, too. Paul can watch them and learn from them.”
David Reardon, father of 16-year-old Ryan Reardon, who is blind, credited Kennedy for starting the league and for the joy kids receive from the event.
“These kids are all smiles, they really have a blast out there. They go to school and they talk about it like a million other kids in this country,” said Reardon.
With a big smile on his face after the game, Ryan was also thankful.“I love it, I love hitting the ball,” he said.
Paul Giovannazzo, father of 12-year-old Challenger player Nicholas Giovinazzo of Stow, sees positives in the present and future for players and buddies.
“This is awesome, the wide range of kids here will remember this,” he said. “The other thing that impresses me is the maturity of their buddies, they’re going a long way in life.”
Kennedy said the program was successful enough to run next year, from mid-May to mid-June. He said he will advertise the league in newspapers and on lancasterlittleleague.com.
Times & Courier writer Jason Crotty can be reached at 978-365-8046 or email@example.com.