Challenger baseball focuses on having fun
By Steve Huffman
Everyone ó members of the opposing team, included ó cheered Bo Stegall as he was wheeled to the plate Saturday afternoon.
Bo, who is confined to a wheelchair, was playing baseball for the Salisbury Challenger team.
“Come on, Bo!” shouted one of the fans lining the field. “Hit it out of the park!”
Bo didn’t quite manage to do that, but he smiled proudly after putting the ball into play and winding up safely on first base.
His buddy who pushed him down the base line cheered him enthusiastically. So did everyone else at the softball field at Catawba College.
Bo took the accolades in stride while waiting for his opportunity to advance around the bases with a swing by the next batter.In Rowan County, Challenger baseball ó for physically and developmentally disabled school-age children ó has been in existence about five years.
There are two Challenger teams ó one sponsored by The Arc/Rowan and the other sponsored by Centralina Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine ó that are a part of the Rowan Little League.
Players on the Challenger teams ó several of whom are confined to wheelchairs or strollers that are referred to as “broncos” ó play against one another several times throughout the summer.
On Saturday, for the first time ever, they played a team from outside the county when a Challenger team from Rutherford County traveled two hours to Salisbury.
It was a big deal, as are all Challenger games.
“It gives them the chance to play ball just like other kids,” said Jeff Bernhardt, president of the Rowan Little League. “They get to wear uniforms. It’s something they look forward to.”
Beth Dixon assisted with Saturday’s proceedings and put Challenger baseball in perspective.
“No one keeps score,” she said. “Everybody gets on base every time they bat. There are no outs and no strikes. We don’t worry about any of that stuff.”
Each inning ó Challenger games typically have two ó the last batter in the lineup runs all the bases, meaning that one way or another, everyone scores.
Every player has a “buddy” who helps him or her at the plate and in the field. For those who can’t walk or run, they’re pushed around the bases in their wheelchairs and strollers.
The balls are pitched by adult volunteers. Hits that dribble back to the pitcher might be picked up, then lobbed in the direction of an outfielder so that everyone gets involved in the action.
Base runners often slide into first base. Then slide into second, then third and, finally, home.
High-fives are generously dispersed by all parties when players score, hit, field or simply smile.
Some batters use their bats to knock the dirt from their cleats just like Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.
Other batters might hit the ball, then take off running toward third base instead of first.
But no one minds. The emphasis is on fun, and everyone is a winner simply by participating.
Volunteer buddies for Saturday’s game came from The Arc/Rowan, Food Lion, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Catawba College. Several members of Catawba’s softball team served as buddies.
“It’s as much an awareness opportunity for the community as anything,” Dixon said of the enlightenment that Challenger teams offer.
Nineteen players made up the two Challenger teams that were part of Rowan Little League this year. Twelve of those players participated in Saturday’s game.
Donna Cobb was one of the volunteers who organized Saturday’s trip by the Rutherford County team. She said Rutherford County has just one Challenger team.
“Normally, they just show up on Saturday mornings and we divide them up and they play one another,” Cobb said of her charges.
So she said the trip to Salisbury was exciting for team members.
“The biggest thing was, they knew they got to stay together and play as a team instead of splitting up,” Cobb said.
She said a newspaper in Rutherford County did a story about plans for the trip and the fact that volunteers were trying to raise the $1,000 needed to charter a bus for the event.
“Within two days, we had all the money we needed plus some,” Cobb said.
Brian Scoggins was one of the coaches of the Rutherford County team.
“These kids are a blast,” he said. “I’ve had a lot more fun coaching them than I ever had playing baseball myself.”