Seventh-grader Chris Brandt’s interest in baseball first developed when he was a young child watching his older sister Megan play softball at the Lawton Little League complex. Chris, who has cerebral palsy, liked playing catch with his dad, Gary, in their yard but didn’t think he’d ever have the chance to join a team.
Seven years ago, however, the Brandt family was approached by Steve Thomas, who was then president of the Paw Paw Little League and was starting a Challenger Little League program in that town. A diehard baseball fan and former Little League coach, Thomas noticed there were a lot of area youths with disabilities who might appreciate an opportunity to play the game. Chris jumped at the chance, and now at 13, is a regular on the Paw Paw Challenger team.
The Challenger Little League was chartered in 1989 by the National Little League as a separate division that would enable young people ages 6 to 26 with physical or cognitive disabilities to play baseball. Since then, more than 30,000 children have participated in 900 Challenger divisions worldwide, including District 15 Challenger in Paw Paw and District 2 Challenger in Milwood. The Milwood Challenger division was started in 1997 and now has 78 players involved in three teams of different levels.
“When your own son is playing, you gotta be gung ho, yelling on the side and all that,” Thomas says. “With these kids, the parents sit on the sidelines and are excited just to see their child go out and hit the ball and run the bases. It gets the kids outside, and it gets them moving. They get to be with other kids and just play ball.”
In the Challenger Little League, games typically last two innings, with each player having a chance to bat. Everyone gets to first base, there are no outs, and no score is kept. “Our goal is to achieve the maximum amount of independence on the field as possible,” says Amy Knapp, chair of the Milwood Challenger Little League. For that reason, Milwood has three leagues based on development rather than age. Those who need assistance get it through the help of Buddies, who may run nonambulatory players around the bases or help them make plays.
Knapp’s daughter Natalie, now 18, has been playing in the Challenger league since she was 12 and has accumulated a wall of trophies to prove it. Natalie has epilepsy and cognitive impairments but began playing ball on a mainstream T-ball team at Portage West Little League. “Baseball is her sport,” Knapp says. “We realized after a while that her reaction time wasn’t there. The kids she played with were wonderful, but there was a need for her safety.”
At the Milwood Little League Complex in Kalamazoo there is a designated field that is handicap accessible, allowing those in wheelchairs to easily reach the field. “The kids look forward to game day,” Knapp says. “They absolutely love it. We watch the weather all week.”
An unexpected benefit of the league is the camaraderie that has developed among players’ families. “It ends up being a good resource for the parents too,” Knapp says. “They can share what they have gone through as they navigate the educational system.”
For the Brandts, Challenger baseball quickly became a family affair. Chris’ sister Megan participated as a Buddy, and Gary, a member of the Saladin Kalamazoo Shriners, encouraged his organization to support the league through the purchase of uniforms.
Chris, whose favorite position is batter but who is also partial to playing in the pitcher and catcher positions, says he loves to play baseball. “We get to go out in the field and learn how to actually play the game. I like being able to run the bases and being able to hit the ball.”
Chris already has set some goals for next season: “I want to hit the ball farther. I usually get it into the infield, and I want to get it into the outfield.”
Coach Thomas loves being part of the joy the kids experience on the field. “You have kids who can’t communicate with you,” he says. “I have a kid, Alex, who is in a wheelchair, and all he can do is squeal, but the faster you push his wheelchair around the bases, the bigger his smile gets. Am I making an impact? I don’t know any other way to measure that than by how big a smile it is that they have on their faces. And I get lots of hugs too.
“When I was a kid I played baseball. My son Josh played baseball. But this is the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”