Everybody is a big hit – and makes one – in this inspirational league

This story was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, June 24, 2002.

By Tom Wheatley
Of The Post-Dispatch

It’s the aptly named Challenger Baseball League.

It’s a chance for youngsters with mental or physical disabilities to don a uniform, hit the ball and run – or wheel, if need be.

Not away from their challenges. Toward them.

That was the noble motive in 1994, when Buck Smith of Kirkwood read about Challenger ball in a magazine.

Something else appealed to Smith, a graphic designer at Fleishman-Hillard who is divorced with no children.

“It seemed like a lot of fun,” he said. “For everyone. Kids. Parents. Coaches.”

So he declared himself commissioner, put an ad in the paper, reserved a field at Tilles Park in West County and awaited developments.

“The field was kind of muddy,” he said. “We had about 15 kids and their parents and we’re all standing here like, ‘What do we do now?’ Then a van pulled up.

“It was Gene LaVigne and his two daughters and their girls softball team. Gene saw the ad, and he just showed up. His players jumped out of the van and got everything organized.”

Debbie Carter brought her son Chris, who is autistic, to play that first day.

“We were the outfield, the parents,” said Debbie. “We didn’t have enough kids. Now it’s eight teams.”

That’s eight teams and 120 players just at Tilles. Another 60 kids play on four teams in south St. Louis, with two new teams. And two new teams have cranked up in Franklin County.

“We want to start teams in Illinois, St. Charles and South County,” Smith said.

Nobody is ever out

The Challenger game plan is magnetic. Every player gets to bat every inning – and hit the ball, either off a tee or as pitched by a grownup.

Nobody is ever out, so there are no umpires or arguments. Since every batter becomes a runner who eventually winds up safe at home, there are no scores and no osers.

Ironically, this no-fail, all-fun concept was spun off 15 years ago by Little League Baseball, with its high-pressure, high-stakes World Series.

The Challenger program lets the kids revel in what they can do, not what they can’t. It has done wonders for the local players, as advertised.

Dan Heffington, a Delta Airlines pilot and boyhood friend of Smith’s, is awed by the view from the pitcher’s mound.

“One little guy came out and just screamed his entire first day,” said Heffington, who calls himself the Grand Exalted Pooh-Bah. “He wouldn’t wear his hat. He wouldn’t get out in the field.

“His name is David. I don’t want to embarrass him by saying his last name. But he’s out there today with his buddies, fielding the ball, throwing the ball, running the bases. And his dad’s elated.

“We have another guy, Brady Kedge, in a mechanized wheelchair. I’m pitching to him, and he says, ‘I’m taking you downtown.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? Where’s downtown.’ And he points. And of course he tagged one. Is that confidence? He’s out here trash-talking. I love it.”

The transformation starts with the wardrobe. To put it another way, clothes make the kids.

“The big thing is the uniform,” Smith said. “On Opening Day, they all get a full uniform. Hat, shirt, pants and socks. And they’re so excited. Once they get that uniform, they’re part of a team, like their brothers and sisters.

“And now, they’re the heroes. Now, their brothers and sisters are cheering for THEM. The self-esteem level, their confidence, is higher. And they have teammates. That’s important to these kids.”

To any kid, with or without disabilities. And Challenger kids, it turns out, are more typical than strangers would ever suspect.

All they need is a chance

“I had never spent any time with disability kids,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘They’re disabled. How do I talk to them? How do I deal with them?'”

Answer: The same as with any other boy or girl.

“Exactly!” Smith said. “I never feel sorry for these kids. Ever. All they need is a chance. And once they get a chance, it’s a whole new world.

“Every Saturday it’s something. There’s always a kid who always had to hit off a tee, who hasn’t gotten a hit with a pitched ball in two years, and all of sudden he’ll get one.

“We have a kid, Cory McMahon, who has cerebral palsy and he’s blind. And he hits a pitched ball. He’s amazing. Everybody has a story.”

Smith expected wonderful things to happen with the players. What he didn’t expect was the wondrous effect the Challenger kids had on him, coaches like Heffington and the “buddies,” or helpers, aged 10 to 18.

This is no Saturday penance in the park for do-gooders.

“We have a ton of fun, I’ll tell you,” Smith said.

Beyond that, the buddies are having their lives changed by the kids they set out to help.

Once a buddy, always a buddy

Meg LaVigne of Town and Country was 12 on that 1994 Opening Day when she hopped out of her dad’s van to pitch in. Now 20, she is the anchorwoman of the purple-shirted buddies.

“I was supposed to stay up at school this summer,” said Meg, who attends the University of Dayton in Ohio, “but I wanted to come home for this.”

The Challenger kids actually altered her schedule for life. She decided to major in music therapy, a new way to help the disabled stretch their limitations.

“I had no experience with this population when we started here,” said Meg. “That first day was intimidating at first. But if you spend five minutes with these kids, they win you over forever.”

Her sister, Nellie, 16, was also present at the creation in ’94.

“It’s just been wonderful,” said Nellie, who attends Nerinx Hall. “My friends love it, too. They come by every week. If they come out once, they just keep coming back.”

The Challenger kids have that magic pull on people.

Kids like Bryan Wheatley of Chesterfield, who just turned 16 and will be a freshman at Parkway Central.

“Bryan is nonverbal mentally retarded,” said his mom, Barbara. “He can’t talk and he also has attention deficit. There’s no medical diagnosis for what he has.

“But he likes social stuff. He likes to swim and is a good skater, but he won’t play hockey. Bryan doesn’t like anything mean. He thinks hockey is too mean.”

So Challenger ball is a perfect fit.

“He keeps working at everything”

“Bryan was off the tee at first,” said his mom, “but now he hits a pitched ball. He just likes to be out there with the people. He really liked it when the Hazelwood Central baseball team came out one day to be buddies. He thought that was just the most wonderful thing.”

Bryan can form sounds that only a practiced ear like his mom’s can decipher. But when he hustles over to her after another successful at bat, he doesn’t need a translator for his ear-to-ear smile.

“These kids are used to working for everything they get,” said Barb. “If my other son, Andrew, worked as hard as Bryan, he’d be at Harvard one day. Bryan’s made everything happen. If he was a quitter, he wouldn’t have made it through the first week of this.

“People think Bryan is my hardest son, but he’s cheerful and he keeps working at everything. Bryan’s going all the time. He’ll do yard work for all the neighbors. Andrew’s the one who’s hard. He’ll get frustrated at something and give up, but Andrew is great with Bryan.

“Bryan doesn’t know a stranger. Everyone’s his friend. Everyone looks out for him. It’s amazing: The kids who look out for him the most tend to be bullies with other kids.”

Barb was sitting with Meena Laks of Chesterfield, by way of India. Her son, Deepak, 23, is a Challenger player with Down syndrome.

“They’re just like anyone else, just slower,” said Meena. “They like to get out of the house and see their friends every Saturday. But they take it seriously. They follow the rules. They know the game. They watch the Cardinals on TV. They want to slide and imitate real baseball players. See what they do with their hats?”

Nate the Great

She nodded toward Nate Mangold of Fenton. His cap was tucked smartly into his rear waistband while he wore his batting helmet.

Nate, 16, attends Southview School. He has Down syndrome.

“He was hooked from the minute he got here,” said Lisa Suda, Nate’s mom. “There’s not too many sports he can play. He’s got a pacemaker, too. At school, they do a Special Olympics but he never had a full uniform.”

Nate is a natural athlete. He needed just two swings in his Challenger debut to jump to the most advanced group.

“His first time up, he hit a ball onto this field from the other diamond,” Lisa said. “The second time, he hit another one. The coach said, ‘I think you need to be on a different team.’

“Nate was worried. He said, ‘What did I do? What did I do?’ I said, ‘You hit the ball so far you get to go another team.”

Nate caught on quickly. He now describes his move this way: “I hit two home runs for the Eagles, then I got traded to the Stars.”

Even more impressively, he caught a fly ball.

“They let the kid keep running,” said Lisa, “and Nate goes, ‘Hey, I caught the ball!’ And his teammates are all yelling, ‘He caught the ball, he caught the ball!'”

Nate is all business at all times, bearing down in the field and sliding head first into bases.

“Put that down: I had two slides,” said Nate. “My coach said that it’s okay if I get dirty. Write down that I got a home run. I’ve got 15 of them. Put down that I’m the greatest All-Star, Number 29.”

“Not!” yelled a voice from down the bench.

Nate grinned and said, “I like this team. But I think boys can hit home runs better than girls.”

That shot did not faze Allison Murray, 19, of Richmond Heights, another agile athlete with learning disabilities. Allison is in a career training program and said, “I’d like to be a certified nurse.”

She is certainly off the tender-loving-care charts, based on the way she cradled and soothed a kitten that a spectator brought. Then, realizing that the show was going on, Allison sprinted out to play right-center field, not bothering to find her cap or glove.

What she most enjoys about her second season is, “I get to be with my friends, Lindsey and my other two friends who aren’t here today.”

She smiled at Lindsey Goldenhersh of Clayton, who is also 19.

The feminine foursome created quite a hubbub the other weekend.

“They had their prom,” said Lisa Suda, “and they brought their photos. They were all in their formal dresses, and they looked so cute.”

Challenger parents are drawn to all of the players.

“All we ask the parents to do,” said Smith, “is to bring their kids and yell their lungs out. And they do. Every week, a parent brings treats for all the kids on that team, and we have a little party.”

All are All-Stars

The season ends this Saturday. Then all 200 players will be chosen for the All-Star Game at 7 p.m. on July 12 at Berra Park on The Hill. Every All-Star is introduced over the loudspeaker for one at-bat, which will produce the usual hit and score. After the game comes a season-ending picnic.

Debbie Carter can hardly believe the growth – in her son Chris and in the program – since that first Opening Day nine years ago.

“Eight,” corrected Chris, and he’s technically right.

It’s been nine seasons but eight calendar years since that autistic boy first suited up. Now, tall and trim at 18, Chris looks as natural in a baseball uniform as fellow St. Louisan Kerry Robinson of the Cardinals.

Chris remains a big backer of Challenger Baseball. “It gets kids with disabilities involved,” he said. “It gives us a chance to bond with our buddies who help us. There are no umpires in this league. It’s more important to have fun.”

Hearing Chris speak, it’s hard to imagine him lost inside the self-absorbed autistic world. Or to imagine his main disability when he became a Challenger kid.

“Communication,” said Debbie, grinning at a stranger’s disbelief. “He didn’t start talking till he was six. I had kept talking to him, but he still wasn’t saying much when he came here. Now he’s real, real self-sufficient. This has helped a lot. It’s programs like this that give him the confidence to keep going.”

Chris also plays in the concert band at Pattonville. And he has a summer job.

“He works for the Maryland Heights Park and Rec Department,” his mom said. “He’s a junior camp counselor.”

Talk about coming full circle.

Every time a Challenger kid gets a hit, hears the buddies yelling encouragement and starts down the basepath, a little miracle is in progress.

And, remember, every Challenger kid gets a hit at every at bat.

(For details on becoming a Challenger player or buddy, call Buck Smith at 314-822-2518).

Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, June 24, 2002.
Copyright (C)2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch