It’s a pastime in which every American child wants to take part: little league baseball.
In Central New York, kids have a plethora of options, from Seneca River North Little League to school- and town-sponsored programs to pickup games. And kids with special needs are no exception.
Kids with disabilities in the Liverpool area can play on the Syracuse Challengers, a special needs little league program sponsored by District 8 Little League. Challengers baseball offers a lax environment in which kids with special needs can learn the game without pressure; each child bats until he or she gets a hit, there are no outs and no runs and kids play two innings each game.
The popularity of Challengers is skyrocketing, according to Program Director Dom Cambareri, whose son plays on one of the Challengers’ eight teams.
“The program is exploding,” Cambareri said. “This year we have 130 children, up from 113 last year. We have a waiting list of 15 to 20 kids. It’s just huge.”
Since the Challengers don’t have a field of their own on which to play, the kids share time with area little league teams on fields in Salina, Mattydale, Lyncourt and Eastwood. Several changes have taken place this year, including the establishment of a senior division for older and more talented players and the purchase of new jerseys featuring each player’s name and number.
The league has grown exponentially from its beginnings as a tiny pickup program for kids with disabilities in Eastwood.
“It was really one of the first programs in the country,” said Deputy Program Director Dee Perkins of Liverpool, whose son Taylor plays in the senior division. “A group of really dedicated parents in Eastwood started it. It was completely parent-driven.”
The program began about 25 years ago at the behest of Eastwood resident Skip Soule and several other parents of special needs children.
“Just because their kids had special needs, that shouldn’t stop them from playing little league baseball,” Cambareri said of the parents’ motivations.
The group began using the baseball field in Eastwood for pickup games on a regular basis. Word spread throughout the community, and soon there were enough children participating to form a couple of teams. The program continued like that for the next six years or so.
In 1989, the International Little League, which governs all little leagues in the country, formed a Challenger division in all districts for kids with special needs. In Central New York, the kids playing pickup ball in Eastwood were now covered by District 8.
“They did it to cover kids for insurance under the International Little League’s umbrella policy,” Cambareri said, “and to recognize and give opportunities to special needs kids.”
Soule continued to run the program until 1997, at which point it was taken over by Bob and Sandy Nelson. When their son turned 21 and aged out of the program in 2003, Cambareri, whose son had participated for about three years, took the helm. With the aid of his coaches and assistant coaches, who act as a board of directors, Cambareri has made every effort to provide opportunities to youths with special needs in the Central New York area.
Challengers need a challenge
Among the changes made under Cambareri’s watch is the introduction of the senior division for older players.
“In regular Challengers, the rules are a lot more lax,” Cambareri said. “But in the senior division, we’re actually working on their skills. They play a modified game with real baseball rules — three strikes, three outs, the whole bit.”
Cambareri and Perkins struggled with the decision to create teams based on ability.
“The league accepts everyone, no matter their ability,” Perkins said. “This raised the question of whether we were changing the feel of the league.”
Ultimately, though, safety concerns prompted the change.
“It’s an issue of safety,” Perkins said. “You’ve got 5-year-olds in left field while 14-year-olds are belting line drives at them. You need to have an environment in which everyone’s safe, but also where kids are being challenged.”
The two senior teams have newly designed uniforms that match those worn by the New York Mets and the New York Yankees, complete with real team hats. Perkins designed the uniforms, which were made by a local business with a donation from Excellus.
“I’m really excited about it,” Perkins said. “We’re going to see a higher level of play.”
The Challengers’ season lasts seven weeks, from the end of June to the middle of August. The season is capped by two exciting events: a banquet and a game at Alliance Bank Stadium.
“The banquet is really great,” Cambareri said. “It’s sponsored by the Syracuse Loyal Order of Moose No. 625. They do it all for free and they get trophies for all of the kids.”
The game at Alliance Bank Stadium will take place on Aug. 15, when the Syracuse Challengers will play a small team fielded by ARISE of Oswego.
“They get to play on the big field,” Cambareri said. “Their names and numbers go on the scoreboard and the game is announced play-by-play by the district administrator. Sometimes some of the Chiefs are there. It’s really wonderful for the kids.”
Cambareri isn’t sure what’s next for the growing league, but he hopes a field is in its future.
“We don’t have our own fields right now,” he said, “so we have to wait for the regular little league season to be over. The district would like to build a separate Challengers field, so I’m hoping that’s next for us.”
Wherever they play, Cambareri said the reward kids get from playing Challengers baseball is palpable.
“It really is special,” he said. “It doesn’t matter — regardless of their developmental, physical or other disability, they play baseball. This is a way for kids to play on their field of dreams.”
For more information and playing schedules, visit syracusechallengers.com.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.
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