By Barb Arland-Fye
Playing along the third baseline, Bob holds the left hand of his 24-year-old daughter Jenny, providing physical and emotional support as she plays baseball with Davenport Challenger League. When a ball comes their way, usually a grounder, Bob picks it up, places it in Jenny’s left hand and encourages her to alert the coach before tossing the ball to him.
At the start of a new inning, a dad and son are holding hands as they walk to their position in the outfield. The tenderness I witness between players and their loved ones on and off the field on this sunny, blustery first day of baseball (May 1), causes me to wonder if this is heaven, and not just Iowa.
My husband Steve, a longtime assistant coach for the Rotary team, pitches with patience and adaptability to ensure that each batter connects with the ball, fair or foul. Sometimes Steve looks like a juggler with several balls in play to accommodate the length of time players may be at bat. He alternates pitching duties with Bill, the head coach, a longtime leader in this inclusive version of what has been America’s favorite pastime.
Participation in Davenport Challenger League has been a part of our family’s tradition since Colin, 34, began playing on the Rotary team the summer before he entered first grade. The beauty of Challenger League, a part of the Little League Challenger Division, is that any player age 5 years old and up (no upper-end age limit) can participate.
Colin loves to participate (it is a ritual, after all) but for some years his autism kept us on alert regarding changes before, during and after the game. Meltdowns have been rare in recent years. My heart soars as I watch him catch a ball in his glove and toss it to the pitcher with complete concentration.
Caring adults established Davenport Challenger League in 1990, one year after establishment of the Little League Challenger Division of Little League Baseball. Its mission is to provide youths with mental and/or physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in an athletic environment structured to their abilities.
Challenger League fosters strengthening of participants’ self-esteem and the disciplines of teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play and the opportunity to mainstream into other divisions of play. These benefits of Challenger
League resonate with me, along with this extra important ingredient: “A key to a successful Little League Challenger Division is the careful selection of managers and coaches. Qualified adult leadership must reflect positive and constructive direction tempered with patience and understanding” (davenportchallengerleague.com).
Parents and caregivers long for and need that acceptance of their loved ones with physical and/or mental disabilities; it promotes growth and well-being for the entire family. Patient, compassionate coaching is essential.
Pope Francis said, “Inclusion should be the ‘rock’ on which to build programs and initiatives of civil institutions meant to ensure that no one, especially those in greatest difficulty, is left behind. The strength of a chain depends upon the attention paid to its weakest links” (International Day of Persons with Disabilities message, 12-3-20).
I see the link in Bob holding Jenny’s hand along the third baseline as they watch the batter at home plate. I see the link in the dugouts and the stands in the eyes of loved ones and caregivers wearing face coverings because of the ongoing pandemic. We focus on the joy of baseball and don’t count the swings and misses in our lives.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)