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Doug Clark: Challenger baseball brings out the best in everyone

James Conway, 5, center, gets up to bat flanked by coach Tyler Sutherland, left, and his brother, Cole, 9, right, during a Challenger Little League game on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at Roosevelt Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. The Challenger Little League team is for kids with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, and everyone gets to play. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
James Conway, 5, center, gets up to bat flanked by coach Tyler Sutherland, left, and his brother, Cole, 9, right, during a Challenger Little League game on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at Roosevelt Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. The Challenger Little League team is for kids with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, and everyone gets to play. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Doug Clark,columnist

It’s not the baseball Abner Doubleday envisioned when he supposedly (mythically?) conceived the game back in 1839.

When the Challengers come to play …

Nobody strikes out. Nobody keeps score.

And the batter, if he or she is so inclined, often will scamper around the bases for a home run whether or not a teammate might occupy first, second or third.

Yet if sheer, shrieking fun counts for anything, what goes on every Tuesday evening on the ballfield at Spokane’s Roosevelt Elementary School exemplifies the spirit of what the National Pastime was intended to be.

“It’s controlled chaos but they love it,” said Heather Sutherland, a second-grade teacher and Challenger Spokane coordinator for the last 10 years. (There is a West Plains Challenger league, too.)

The Challenger program falls under the auspices of Spokane Region Little League. The teams are designed for kids with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, ages 5 to 18 years old.

Games last three innings or one hour – whichever comes first. Everybody gets to bat. Everybody gets to play. Everybody gets to be a star.

But that’s just part of the magic.

Before a game each Challenger is assigned a “buddy” who comes from the ranks of one of the Spokane South Little League teams.

Here’s a tip to anyone stressed out or bogged down by the pressures of existence. Go to a Challenger game like I did Tuesday.

I dare anyone to watch the tender relationships that develop between buddies and Challengers without getting choked up. I did. There were moments watching the Challengers play when I couldn’t speak.

It wasn’t so long ago when Challengers were not given opportunities to wear uniforms and chase baseballs with abandon.

They were often institutionalized or marginalized and bullied by the ignorant able-bodied.

We’ve come a long way.

“There’s not a bad buddy in the bunch,” said Heather, whose son, Parker, plays on one of the two Challenger teams.

Parker, 15, didn’t walk until he was over 4.

He was born, said Heather, with a chromosome disorder so rare that only seven cases have been documented.

Parker’s condition didn’t affect his sweetness any. Or his desire to play ball.

Watching the Challengers, I also couldn’t help but think back to the days when I coached my son Ben’s baseball team.

Some of the parents who attended those games should’ve been tranquilized or fitted for a muzzle. I remember one jerk of a dad who tried to get me to fight him after I tried to get him to stop calling the teenage umpire names.

“The parents here are happy. They get to cheer for their kids just like any other parents,” added Heather.

“There’s no yelling. There are no fights, although collisions in the field have been known to happen.”

A Challenger game is modified to fit the needs of the players.

Some can swing a bat. In that case Tyler Sutherland, Heather’s hubby, will patiently pitch overhand – ball after ball after ball – until contact is made.

Other Challengers can only hit a ball off a T, which is OK, too.

I watched as buddy Cole Conway, 9, helped his 5-year-old brother, James, hit from a T.

Cole did most of the swinging. Then, patting James’ head and uttering words of support, he pushed his wheelchair-bound sibling toward first.

“They’re brothers,” said Eric, the boys’ dad. “But Cole is like his guardian angel – very protective.”

I found Eric and wife, Teresa, watching the game near the backstop. They told me that while their sons like to wrestle, Cole often gives James “hugs and kisses.”

In their first season in the Challenger program, the Conways have become believers.

“James loves being outside,” said Eric. “He doesn’t get to get out as much as he wants so this is a real treat.”

Ability notwithstanding, many Challengers have picked up the Big League swagger. Some pound the plate before batting. Others dive into home the way Pete Rose once did.

Hands raise. Fingers point.

“They want to play ball, they want to wear the uniform,” added Heather.

It’s cute stuff. A buddy, for example, will catch a ball and then hand it to a Challenger who nine times out of 10 will toss it home no matter where the runner might be.

Heather remembered one young player who, after dribbling a hit, would dive off his wheelchair and “pull himself” to a base.

“You just can’t go away without a feel-good attitude,” said Carl Crowe, a retired educator.

Crowe is also the grandfather of 14-year-old Jaxon Morris, who loved being a buddy so much that he came back to be an assistant coach.

In addition, Morris last year raised over $1,000 for the Challengers as the community service project for his bar mitzvah.

When the hour or three innings was up, the players, like always, lined up to say good game, thank the buddies and head for home.

And next Tuesday the Red Sox and the Angels will take the field once again and controlled chaos will ensue.

“They mean business, I’m telling you,” said Heather before we said goodbye. “Everyone deserves to be part of a team.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.

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