Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Megan Bame
For the Salisbury Post
In so many ways, it was a typical Little League baseball game.
The uniformed players took to the field at Salisbury Community Park pumped-up with sheer energy.
Some kids focused on every aspect of the game. Others seemed more interested in playing in the sand. But all of them had fun playing ball.
Parents, friends and teachers sat in the stands cheering and capturing big moments with their camera phones. Coaches offered encouragement, warmed up every player before each inning and gave direction for where to throw the ball.But there were notable differences that made even the casual observer recognize this game was special. The players ranged in age from 5 to 18. Every player had a “buddy” standing nearby in case he or she needed assistance. There were no strikes, no outs and the entire line-up hit every inning.
Some of the players sat in wheelchairs. But they didn’t let that slow them down.
These kids were members of the Challenger League, a division of Little League Baseball designed to give mentally and physically challenged kids the baseball team experience. This year, Rowan County fielded 22 players. They were divided into two teams: the Civitan Reds and the ARC Braves.
The seed was planted in 2003 with the first season of play in Rowan County. Joy Childers, mother of 6-year-old Trey, credits Jeff Bernhardt and Rowan Little League for their support of the division.
“They provided uniforms and after the game, the kids get a snack and a drink, just like the other teams,” she says.
Glenn Dixon, coach of the Reds, and his wife Beth, were instrumental in organizing the Challenger Division this year.
The Dixons’ 10-year-old daughter, Grace, has a genetic condition called CDLS, but it doesn’t keep her from playing baseball. The petite girl under the red baseball cap says, “catching is my favorite part.”
For Matthew Holland, sliding into home plate is his favorite aspect of the game. He does it every time he rounds the bases.
Tyler, 15-year-old son of Kenneth and Beverly Lingle, has Downs Syndrome. But like many teenagers, he spends after-school time in front of the television playing video games. The Lingles have found that baseball is a sure bet to get him off the couch. Every day, he asks, “Ball today?”
Several parents chuckled as they recounted their kids’ shared enthusiasm for baseball. More that one admitted that as soon as their children get off the school bus on Thursdays he or she immediately puts on the uniform. Even though the games don’t start until 6 p.m., the players are ready to go.
“These kids truly understand the meaning of the phrase, ‘For the love of the game,’ ” Childers says. “That’s why they play. They encourage one another and have fun without the pressure of winning or losing.”
Kenneth Lingle said the Challenger League players’ fellow Little Leaguers could take home valuable lessons about sportsmanship and appreciating each other’s abilities by watching a Challenger game.
Teri Hart, mother of Cullin Sullivan agrees.
“It’s so inspirational to anyone watches a game,” she says.
When the two-inning game comes to a close, the teams line up along the first- and third-base lines to exchange high-fives and the usual “good game.” There’s no losing team; how could there be? These kids are all winners.
Challenger League players wrapped up their seven-game season Thursday.