Persons, places and things: No strikes, fouls, errors or outs


A teenage girl escorts her brother, who is in a wheelchair, to home plate for his turn at bat during a Saturday morning baseball game. She helps him swing the bat and travels the bases with him. It’s been a privilege to watch these two participate in Challenger League for several years now and witness the bond between them.
The brother plays on the “green” team, which has four or five players who rely on wheelchairs to round the bases. During one inning, players in wheelchairs held first, second and third bases while a player from the opposing team played outfield in a wheelchair.
Challenger League gives children and adults with physical and/or cognitive disabilities the chance to play America’s favorite pastime, just like their peers. But this league offers a measure of compassion and a sense of belonging that can’t be found in the typical, competitive Little League.
Over the years since our family became involved in Challenger League we’ve seen the institution of three levels of play: minor, intermediate and major. Our older son Colin plays in the intermediate league on the yellow team because, unlike the major level, it has no strikes, fouls, errors or outs. The inning ends when every player has been to bat, hit the ball and rounded the bases. Fans offer encouragement at every opportunity; one even affirms each player by name on both teams — at bat and as the players cross home plate.
My husband Steve and our younger son Patrick volunteer as coaches, pitchers and umpires (not to call strikes, but to back up the catcher). Pitching requires the patience of a saint and provides a great lesson about life and our expectations of one another.
The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend an extended family with three infants, a couple of toddlers and other young children arrived to watch the game between the yellow and green teams.  I didn’t recognize the family members and wondered who they might be cheering on. The answer came soon enough.
“Abe” a 30-something player for the yellow team, proceeded to home plate in his wheelchair, accompanied by a man pushing the wheelchair and two young children on either side. A woman with an iPad stood out in the field snapping photographs as the man helped Abe swing the bat and hit the ball. Abe, the man and two children moved to first base.
At the end of the game, the players lined up for the traditional “high five” congratulations. The sincerity, the concentration on the faces of the players as they engage in this post-game ritual is priceless.
But the memory I’ll take away from last weekend’s game is this: One of Abe’s relatives, a young mom who minutes before had been cradling an infant in her arms, approached each player and his or her family members with a container of homemade cookie bars. “It’s Abe’s birthday,” she said. “Would you like one?”
I didn’t know Abe, but his family’s celebration of his life and their desire to share with others touched me deeply.
Jean Vanier, a Catholic layman who founded l’Arche, where people with and without mental handicaps live in community, observes that “It is through everyday life in community and the love that must be incarnate in this, that handicapped people can begin to discover that they have a value, that they are loved and so are lovable” (“Community and Growth,” 1989).
In my mind, Challenger League provides one of those everyday life experiences that create community, and love.
Barb Arland-Fye

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