St. Albert Challenger Baseball is back for a second year, helping children with cognitive or physical disabilities enjoy a game of ball in the great outdoors. Players gather at Legion Memorial Ball Park on Monday nights to learn the basics of baseball and hit a few balls around.
The Challenger team is for girls and boys under 18, who play an hour-long game of ball structured to their abilities. The program is about playing and learning – not keeping score.
Challenger players are partnered with able-bodied buddies from St. Albert Minor Baseball Association teams. The buddies help Challenger players one-on-one in the game by pushing wheelchairs, assisting at bat, and protecting players from fly-away balls. Challengers are teamed up with players from all of St. Albert’s Mosquito, Peewee, Bantam or Midget Rep baseball teams.
Brenda Bourassa, secretary for the St. Albert Challenger Baseball Association, said the buddies take their cues from the Challenger players. Whether the kids are in the field or in the stands, their buddy stays by their side. This ensures the children feel safe and comfortable the entire time.
“For some, the fact that they’re inside the fence is great,” Bourassa said. “Others are very involved, they want to hit and do lots of stuff. Others are sitting in the stands and that’s as far as they go.”
Bourassa said the program is all about having fun, so if players sit out one week, that’s okay, maybe next week they’ll feel inclined to join the game.
She said the program is adaptive to the players. In some cases, the program supplies special equipment to suit a player’s needs. For example, there’s a ball that makes noise and beeps, helping blind participants know when to swing the bat.
Bourassa said she knew of an association with a player that was completely paralyzed from the neck down, but could use special equipment to play. His chair was adapted so he could blow into a mouthpiece to activate a robotic arm that would swing and hit the ball. They also use soft foam balls that are easier to hit and less intimidating to catch. The balls are slightly bigger than normal baseballs, aiding those with sight impairments.
The program has been well received by both Challenger players and their parents. The kids playing in the field on Monday were visibly having a good time – squeals of joy and laughter could be heard as they made their way around the bases. Parents can also enjoy an hour off, knowing their child is being looked after. Parents can watch from the stands, take pictures, and socialize with other families.
Logan Oswald joined the program this year. He said his favourite part of playing baseball is getting up to bat. His mother, Loretta Oswald, said the buddy system has also been a huge influence in how Logan has reacted to the program. She said he loves being able to hang out with regular athletes and be a part of something that all the other kids do.
“I just think for a mom with a child with a deficit, it gives you the chance to see your child do something you never thought he could. He’s a really good kid and he’s smart. He’s come a long way for being autistic,” Loretta said.
Loretta said the Challenger program is special because it raises awareness within the community for people who don’t realize what these families go through and how secluded they sometimes feel.
The association currently has 27 members, but Bourassa said she hopes next year they can get enough people involved to start a league. She said there’s talk about opening Challenger programs in Sherwood Park and South Edmonton. Challenger programs in B.C. have become popular enough that players are placed on teams based on their abilities, and travel around to play games against other teams in the area. Bourassa said she would like to see the Alberta associations doing something similar in the years to come.
The program has sponsors that ensure the players are well cared for, including the Toronto Blue Jays, the Jays Care Foundation, Baseball Canada, Little League Canada, and the St. Albert Minor Baseball Association. Challenger baseball has no registration fees and all the necessary equipment is supplied, including T-shirts for players to keep.
“It’s fun, it’s smiles, it’s successes. Everything is a home run,” Bourassa said.