The first practice was less than auspicious. A couple kids wore their baseball gloves on the wrong hand. Some refused to run around the field for warm up. The stretching exercises? Fugetaboutit!
“After the first practice, I was kind of like, ‘What did I get myself into here?'” said John Sullivan, the coach and prime mover behind East Greenwich Little League’s new Challenger Division. “But I knew at that point it was going to get better.”
Little League Challenger teams are made up of children with disabilities who otherwise would not be able to participate in Little League. This is the first year EGLL has had a Challenger team, although other Rhode Island communities have had teams for years.
Each athlete is paired with at least one buddy, a typically developing peer who helps out more or less, depending on the level of disability. The team practices Sunday mornings and has games Wednesday nights.
Thomas, at bat. Credit: Tracy Coppola
“The kids have progressively gotten better. They understand the parts of the game, so they know what’s going on,” said Sullivan. “They’re out there and they’re smiling. I get as much out of it as they do. It’s just so pure.”
For that first practice, the kids kicked the ball, then proceeded to run (or walk) to first base. For the first game, the athletes hit the ball from a tee.
“Now we’re pitching to everybody,” he said. And the kids are hitting.
A confession here: my son James is on the team. When James hits the ball, his face lights up, he turns to the stands to make sure his fans are watching, then he makes his way to first base, encouraged along by his buddies.
One of those buddies is Ella Saint, 10, who’s been volunteering with her mom, Jill.
James McNamara with Ella Saint. Credit: Tracy Coppola
“I really wanted to help out,” said Ella. “At my first elementary school, I had a good friend who had special needs and when we were on the playground, he loved to dance, so we would dance with him. And that just kind of sparked something.
“At the beginning, I just saw James as one of the athletes. Now, I see him as one of my friends.”
“Really what I wanted was for the parents just be able to come to a Little League field, sit in the stands and watch their kid play,” said Sullivan.
It’s been more than that for many families. This is an email Sullivan got from Staci Kolb, who’s son Charlie, is on the team:
“Something happened after tonight’s game that I am sure happens countless times during Little League Season. But, it was the first time it happened to my son.
After our ‘big win’ at tonight’s Challenger game, I took Charlie to get some ice cream at Hilltop. Charlie still had his uniform on. Once we arrived, he jumped out of the car and noticed a group of other 1st and 2nd graders who were also wearing their EGLL uniforms as there were a lot of boys’ games tonight. Charlie ended up joining the group of EGLL players while he ate his ice cream. One of the boys even asked Charlie if had had a game.
While all the boys were standing around in their uniforms just eating and being silly like little boys are, a car stopped at the intersection in front of Hilltop. The passenger yelled out, ‘Hey Charlie, how’d you do tonight?’ All the boys stopped and looked at Charlie as he yelled back with a giant smile on his face, ‘Great!!’ And the car drove away.
Charlie Kolb, with a buddy. Credit: Elizabeth McNamara
While you may not think anything unusual or special happened at Hilltop tonight, you would be wrong. Tonight, Charlie was just like all those other EGLL players eating ice cream after his game. He was just like everyone else – and for this, we are so grateful.”
Joyful base running. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Coming home, with a little help from some friends. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Alstyn looking ready to hit. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Karley enjoying an post-game slushie. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Andy with buddy Sean. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Alstyn with buddies Kate and Kate. Credit: Tracy Coppola
Thomas Martin with his brother after the game. Credit: Tracy Coppola