Play Ball!

This story ran in the Webster-Kirkwood Times — South County Times — St. Louis, MO. on May 13 – 19, 2005.

by Fran Mannino
photos by Diana Linsley

Saturday, May 7, marked opening day of the Saint Louis Challenger Baseball League, an organization dedicated to children and young adults with developmental disabilities. On this playing field everyone is equal, and these young athletes with the mile-wide smiles have come to play some baseball.

Challenger Baseball League

Bryan Rohde shakes hands with a buddy.
Bryan Rohde, 11, a fifth grade student at Sappington Elementary School, shakes hands with a “buddy,” George Staley (right).

Challenger is a division of Little League baseball. Kirkwood resident Buck Smith got the St. Louis version started more than 12 years ago, and has been gradually growing the league with the help of volunteers and sponsors.

“I saw an article in Sports Illustrated about a league for kids with disabilities, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to do,” said Smith. “In the beginning, we had about 15 kids – we could almost make two teams.”

Smith began the league on a wing and a prayer, and continues to do all the administrative work from his home in Kirkwood. He now boasts 28 teams and nearly 300 regular players.

Kids ages 18 and over play at 9 a.m. most every Saturday, at Brentwood’s Tilles Park; those ages 8 to 18 play at 10:15 a.m. Players come from all over the Metro St. Louis area, and the league recently expanded to Franklin County.

According to Smith, the name of the game is to get these young people off the sidelines and into the baseball experience, while ensuring that everyone gets to play.

“We don’t count outs, we don’t count runs, and everybody bats,” he said. “Everybody gets a full uniform – pants, shirt, socks and a hat. Their brothers and sisters and friends on traditional teams get full uniforms, so why not them?”

Smith, a graphic designer for Fleishman-Hillard, has no children of his own. He doesn’t have any family members with disabilities. He admits to being a little nervous when the league first began.

“I didn’t know how to treat people with disabilities; I was worried that I’d hurt them,” he said. “I learned you just treat them like anybody else, they’re no different. They don’t want pity, they just want a chance, and they do a great job.”

The Volunteers

Ronnie Wren smiling into the camera.
Ronnie Wren, a member of the Poppers, with Buck Smith, founder of the Challenger Baseball League. Both men are from Kirkwood.

The first Saint Louis Challenger Baseball game would have been a wash had it not been for the help of some intrepid volunteers, said Smith.

“That first day, we were out there in our winter coats, and we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “A van pulls up, and out comes Gene LaVigne. He brought his daughter’s entire softball team, and they were our first ‘buddies.'”

Buddies are kids without disabilities who help team members on the field.

“It really works out well, because our buddies are able to interact with a group of kids they may not get a chance to work with,” said Smith.

LaVigne’s daughter Meg was on hand for that auspicious inaugural day, and was so taken with the experience that she eventually decided to purse a career in music therapy for the disabled.

“It was madness at first, but for some reason it clicked with my dad and I, and we fell into it easily,” she said.

She highly recommends the buddy experience to anyone who has a little time to share.

According to Smith, buddies should be between the ages of 10 and 20, and do not need to worry about a lengthy time commitment.

“You can come to any game,” he said. “If you can only make one, we’re glad to have you. None of our teams will ever wear purple, because that’s the color our buddies wear – we value them that much.”

The Players

Keith Barnes ready to throw the baseball.
11-year-old Keith Barnes of the Poppers Challenger Baseball team gets ready to make a throw during the May 7th Opening Day game. Keith is from Maryland Heights.

Eight-year-old Luke Vatterott of Kirkwood began playing Challenger baseball last year.

“He’s very proud of himself,” said his father Jim. “As a parent of a disabled child, I never thought I’d see my son wearing a baseball uniform for real. When he first put it on, I was very emotional. It was hard to get him to take it off.

“Luke’s two older brothers have rooms full of ribbons and trophies from soccer, baseball and swimming,” he added. “Luke’s been to a million games for his big brothers. He likes those, but this really helps him feel like he’s accomplishing something, and feel like he’s participating also.”

Ronnie Wren of Kirkwood is one of the league’s older players, and has been a part of the organization for four years. He has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair to get around.

“I try to go every week, because I know it’s a great way to relieve some stress, and hey, it’s fun!” said Wren. “I’m hoping I can help some of the younger players, and teach them how to play the game and have fun.”

Casey Florent of Kirkwood will be 17 years old in a few weeks. She has multiple learning disabilities, but is a huge Cardinal baseball fan.

“She’s one of these kids who knows every player’s number and position,” said her mother, Susie. “She loves to play. It’s something she looks forward to all winter long. She’s been going to various games of her brother and sister – in sports, she’s always been the observer. It’s a neat thing for her to participate.”

Lauren Riehm swinging and hitting the baseball.
11-year-old Lauren Riehm of Hillsboro takes a swing. She is a member of the Cougars Challenger Baseball team.

Casey’s 13-year-old sister Megan is a Challenger buddy, and her younger brother Tom can’t wait until he is old enough to help out, too.

Saturday’s opening day was the first time 11-year-old Stephen Sheehan played for the Challenger league. Born with hearing loss and possible cerebral palsy, Stephen lives in South County with his parents, Steve and Juana Sheehan.

“He seemed to really like playing,” said his father. “I used to have to struggle with him to get him to want to go to Cardinal baseball games, but this Sunday he was saying he really wanted to go.”

Michele Smugala of Affton has been bringing her half brother Andrew to games for three years, and has loved every minute of it.

“Andrew’s so happy, and so sweet,” she said. “He’s very appreciative and always says ‘Thank you for taking me to baseball.’ He has a prosthetic leg from the knee down, and this is really good exercise for his thigh.”

The highlight of the season for most players is the end-of-year All Star Game, held at Berra Park in south St. Louis.

“The people of The Hill come down and set up booths, and we have a sound system where we introduce every player,” said Smith. “Mayor Slay has been there every year, even before he was mayor. He gives each player a medal.”

Family members and players alike can’t say enough about Saint Louis Challenger Baseball, and all that Smith has done to make it special.

“I’m really impressed that the guy would do this, even though he doesn’t have a history of challenged people in his family,” said Susie Florent.

“Buck is definitely one of a kind,” said Michele Smugala. “He’s a hero to these kids.”

For schedules and more information, visit or call Buck Smith at 822-2518. More Challenger photos will be available May 13 at:

Byron Horn and Sherri Heffington give a high five to April Fruhwarth of South County as she crosses home plate.
“Buddy” Kris Gleich helps Stephen Stimag-Jones field the ball during Saturday’s Challenger baseball game
Steve Sheehan of South County looks on as his son Stephen talks to Challenger founder Buck Smith. May 7 was Stephen’s first game with the league.
Ryan Key of Wildwood (right) gets a little help from his Challenger “Buddy” Emmett Strauss of Town & Country.
“Buddy” Kate McMahill, a student at St. Joseph’s Academy, gives Patricya Carter a push during Saturday’s Challenger baseball game. Patricya plays for the Falcons.
John Eckert of St. Charles looks on as Ronnie Wren of Kirkwood takes a swing. Wren plays for the Poppers Challenger baseball team.

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