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Little League division caters to kids with disabilities

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By Eryn Worthington

Bottom of the ninth. Runners on first and second. The batter steps into the box, elbow up and feet planted.

He steps out. Something’s not right. Another cut, then back in.

The crowd roars, but he can’t hear. He breathes and concentrates.

The pitch comes. He swings and misses. Strike one.

He shakes it off, steps out, breathes and steps back in.

Focus.

The pitcher sets and delivers.

Wait. Swing. Contact.

The ball goes over the pitcher’s head, through the infield and to the fence.

For children with mental and/or physical disabilities who have never had the opportunity to play in a baseball league, moments like this are more than an individual triumph.

The noncompetitive Challenger Division was established as a separate division of Little League for boys and girls with physical and mental challenges so they can enjoy the game of baseball alongside the millions of other children who participate in Little League.

Central Citrus Little League is inviting children between the ages of 4 to 18 to join the Challenger’s Division baseball team. Children 19 to 22 who are enrolled in a developmentally-sponsored school are also encouraged to join.

“I know children who watch their brother or sister get ready for a baseball game three times a week, and they are just sitting in their house with nothing to do,” said Tony Cairone, vice president of operations for the Challenger’s Division. “So we felt it would be beneficial to these children and young adults to get out there and play some baseball just like their siblings can. We felt it would be a great opportunity for the children to get out of their homes and have some free time to themselves and have something to do mentally and physically.”

Once children are registered and teams are formed, the league will begin practicing and fielding teams, possibly playing teams from other leagues that have a Challenger’s Division. Games are scheduled in alongside other Little League games to create support for players.

“We made sure everything was in place so that all a parent or guardian would have to do is come to the field during the sign-up dates,” Cairone said. “They will fill out the same application as Little League. Instead of checking off their child’s age division or baseball or softball, they will check off the Challenger’s Division box. All that paperwork is forwarded to me through the league and then we start putting together teams.”

Assisting each player will be a “buddy” who aids them on the field with running, catching and hitting. Managers and coaches are trained on how to interact respectfully with the children.

“All of these children and young adults are special in their own way and need to be treated as individuals both on and off the ball field,” Cairone said. “These individuals should always be treated with pride and dignity, just the way they come to the ball field and play their hearts out every game.”

Handicapped accessibility, insurance, special equipment and a good time will be available to players who want to join a team they can call their own, Cairone said.

“Later on in life, these children are going to say, ‘Wow, I remember when I was young playing Little League,’” he said. “‘I never thought I could do that because I couldn’t get out of my wheelchair.’ This will prepare these children to open doors in their adult life. I’m a true believer that every child’s life is a result of what they learned when they are young.”

There is a Challenger’s Division Little League World Series played alongside the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Selected Challenger’s Division leagues worldwide play for the title.

“With everything going on with the power plant and teacher layoffs, this is what Citrus County needs right now,” Cairone said. “It gives hope to this area and this is a good place to live. Let’s make it a little bit better for our kids.”

For more information, sponsorship or to make a donation, call Cairone at 352-601-7706, email him at ccllchallenger@aol.com, visit littleleague.org and click on “Challenger Division” or go to http://www.eteamz.com/centralcitruslittleleague.

WHO: Mentally and/or physically disabled children between the ages of 4 and 18, or 19 and 22 if enrolled in a school. Children need to attend registration to be fitted for uniforms.
WHAT: Non-competitive Little League baseball.
WHERE: Central Citrus Little League Pavilion, 6095 N. Lecanto Highway, Beverly Hills.
REGISTRATION: Jan. 12 and Jan. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Jan. 15, 17, 22 and 24 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
BRING: Three proofs of residency and parent or guardian identification. Players out of zone are welcome to participate if their zone does not have a challengers division.

Chronicle reporter Eryn Worthington can be contacted at 352-563-5660, ext. 1334, or eworthington@chronicleonline.com.