By Sabina Mollot
On Sunday, April 22, the Peter Stuyvesant Little League’s Challenger Division for players with disabilities, kicked off the season with its first game at Con Ed Field.
The division has grown since being introduced last year and there are now 30 players with over 100 buddies. The division has players from ages 4-19 with developmental or physical disabilities and depending on ability, batters can hit off a tee or a ball is soft tossed. Meanwhile, buddies, other members of the league, assist or just stay with players for support throughout the game so parents can watch their children from the stands. Little League fees, which include things like uniforms, are waived for Challengers.
The Challenger division was the idea of Stuyvesant Town General Manager Rick Hayduk, whose younger daughter Jamie has Down Syndrome and played Challenger ball where she used to live before the family moved to the city. Rick and his older daughter Jordan are the PSLL Challenger Division’s co-founders and co-commissioners.
Seth Coren, the PSLL’s president, recalled how when he met Rick, “The first thing he said was, ‘How come you guys don’t have a Challenger division?’ There was no reason we didn’t have it other than it was completely unfamiliar to us.”
After what Coren called a successful “test run” last season with over 20 players, this year, the division is officially chartered. On opening day, the players led the parade alongside last year’s district champs for baseball and softball. Additionally, all of last year’s players have returned with the exception of one whose family moved from the city.
Players’ conditions range from Down Syndrome to autism at various levels including severe and cerebral palsy. Three of the players use wheelchairs.
“It’s a huge opportunity for these kids to participate with the league to the extent they’re able to,” said Coren. “And for the kids that are able-bodied, it really humanizes what special needs might look like and making their families as much a part of the community as anyone else.”
He added that it helps that Con Ed Field is an accessible venue.
“One of the advantages of Con Ed Field is that it’s flat,” said Coren, “which is actually more unusual than you’d think.” Often, the only available active play spaces are rocky or recessed, making them less navigable to a player with mobility problems. Additionally, Coren noted, the high volume of buddies and family members who show up for support has made the field a safer place for players. “No one’s getting hurt.”
Because there are so many people on the buddy list, they’re there to cheer and offer moral support just as often as they’re called on to help a player position a bat or batting tee.
“They have fun and they cheer for everyone,” said Coren, whose own kids have signed up as buddies. “If the worst problem we have is that there are 100 buddies and 30 kids, that’s a good problem to have. There’s a huge demand to be involved.”
The only difficulties the division has faced is that players’ medical conditions can hinder attempts to plan things in advance.
“It’s a big challenge to get families out of the door,” said Coren. “They come late. They show up early. They want to have a grandparent on the field with them. Anything goes. But they have the support of the league and the community no matter what.”
Meanwhile, the concept seems to be taking off elsewhere in Manhattan as well. Downtown Little League has a Challenger Division and Greenwich Village Little League is getting one started.
The PSLL Challengers played again last Sunday, and even got some coverage from the “Today” show. They’ll be playing every Sunday at 3 p.m. through June 2 with the exception of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekends.