By Sabina Mollot
Earlier this spring, the Peter Stuyvesant Little League debuted a new division for disabled players, The Challengers.
The kids were recruited pretty quickly, with just enough time for them to be able to march in the league’s annual parade on April 1. Then, last Sunday, the newly formed division played its first game on Con Ed Field.
For many of the 25 players, who’ve been placed on two teams, the Angels and the Braves, it was also their first time playing baseball.
Rick Hayduk, Stuyvesant Town’s general manager who helped form the division, said because of the severity of the kids’ disabilities, they wouldn’t have been able to qualify even to play tee-ball (which is how most Little Leaguers start). The players’ conditions include varying degrees of autism, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome.
Hayduk recalled how on Sunday, a number of parents asked if the league provided baseball gloves, “so I would guess the majority if not all have not played baseball before,” he said.
His own daughter Jamison, who has Down Syndrome, is an exception though. She’d played on a Challenger league when their family lived in Florida, and also plays other sports, including golf, at her school, The Ideal School.
But if the other players were intimidated by their lack of experience, they didn’t show it on Sunday. Hayduk recalled the ear-to-ear grin of one boy in a wheelchair, calling the game “an inspiring moment.” He was also able to convince an autistic player, who initially refused to get up to bat, to give it a shot. Then to the player’s own amazement, he hit the ball.
“Everyone was cheering,” said Jeff Ourvan, the PSLL president.
Following the first game, Ourvan said the league received overwhelmingly positive responses from parents.
“The feedback we got was that everyone was so happy,” he said.
Hayduk added that Challenger games are also inspiring to the participating buddies, non-disabled players who do things like help the Challenger player hold a bat in the proper position or block them from stray fastballs.
“A lot of the kids recognized what it is for the other children to play the game that they play so easily,” he said.
The Challenger Division is scheduled to play again this Sunday and the following two Sundays.