By Sabina Mollot
With baseball season about to begin, the Peter Stuyvesant Little League will be debuting a new division for players with disabilities.
The Challenger Division is open to would-be players of any age up to 18 with any type of physical or intellectual disability, and was the idea of Stuyvesant Town General Manager Rick Hayduk.
One of Hayduk’s three daughters, 11-year-old Jamison, has Down Syndrome, and had participated in a Challenger Ball team where the family lived prior to moving to the community, in South Florida. However, there was no local division — until now.
Jeff Ourvan, president of the PSLL, explained that the reason such divisions exist (as opposed to just letting kids with disabilities play on any other team) is for their own safety.
“Some of the kids, I understand, have some fairly restrictive physical disabilities,” explained Ourvan. “Obviously we can’t have those kids playing against 11-year-olds who throw 50 miles per hour. So it’s mostly from a safety perspective.”
For this reason, each Challenger has a “buddy,” a player without any disability, who accompanies and stays with the other player on the field. The buddy’s job can range from helping the player hold the bat to shielding them from stray balls. Additionally, based on a player’s ability, a batter can either hit off a tee or a coach can “soft” toss. Buddies get community service credits for their participation.
Ourvan noted that Hayduk’s been very active in spreading the word to families who have disabled kids and the PSLL has already gotten quite a bit of interest from veteran PSLL parents whose kids want to buddy up with the Challenger players. The Challenger division was first promoted last Thursday through an emailed newsletter to Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village residents from management. Jamison Hayduk’s older sister Jordan, 15, is co-chair of the Challenger Division.
“(Rick) suggested to us that we make some sort of program,” said Ourvan, “and of course we were like ‘absolutely.’”
This week, Jamison Hayduk (better known as Jamie) said she’s been playing softball for three years now, and she has also played soccer and volleyball, either through Challenger leagues or her school, The Ideal School. Soon, she’ll be learning golf there.
As for her softball playing, it began after seeing Jordan get involved in Little League.
“She wanted to be like her sister,” said Rick. In Florida, the Challenger players had a soft (but firm) field to play on, ideal for kids with wheelchairs and walkers. It wasn’t long before Jamison picked up the game, even mimicking her sister’s habit of drawing pictures in the dirt by home plate with her bat.
Jamison said she was excited and not nervous about playing in New York, since she knows some of the future players are friends of hers.
Asked what she enjoyed about playing, Jamison said, “having my buddies and having fun and music.” Music is a part of Challenger events, since, explained Rick, “It’s a celebration. You have your buddies and spectators. It’s not like a regular game. If someone throws the ball to first base, nobody’s going to catch it. Everybody bats and everybody runs and goes into the field.”
He added that the idea is also to keep things low-pressure for parents.
“Any parent of a kid with a disability can tell you that even getting from Point A to Point B, nothing’s easy,” said Rick. “It’s all very laid back.” This, he noted, means parents shouldn’t get annoyed if kids get distracted from the game and start doing other things.
This year’s PSLL opening day and parade through the community, which takes place on April 1, will be led by the Challenger division as well as a speaker with Down Syndrome who’s an assistant coach at a college.
“It’s going to be a unique and exciting opening day this year,” said Ourvan.
The PSLL plans to form two Challenger teams. For Challenger players, the PSLL registration fee is waived and a uniform of a tee shirt and cap will be provided. A medal will be given out at each game “with the assumption that every kid will have a medal by the end of the year,” said Rick. “It’s a big celebration.”
Registration for Challengers will remain open even after opening day though for other players, slots for older divisions have already been filled. There is still room for younger players (age 5-7), until opening day.
The annual Little League season kickoff parade will take place on Saturday, April 1 at 8:30 a.m. with parents and players gathering at 8 a.m. at Hane restaurant at First Avenue and 20th Street. The kids will then march around Stuyvesant Oval before heading to Con Ed Field with a ceremony at 9 a.m.
Additionally, in keeping with tradition, the PSLL is currently looking for a former pro baseball player to speak at the opening ceremony. Previous VIP guests have included Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Keith Hernandez of the Mets, and last year, former Mets coach Bobby Valentine.