Under sunny skies and with even sunnier dispositions among the 200 kids who were on hand, the Pawtucket Red Sox staged their annual Challenger Division clinic prior to last Saturday’s game against Durham.
First pitch wasn’t scheduled for another few hours, yet McCoy Stadium’s infield surface was the picture of timely hitting and enthusiastic base running. The eagerness displayed by the PawSox players and coaches clearly rubbed off on the Challenger Division participants, who never stopped smiling the moment they stepped onto the diamond.
Whether it was Pawtucket pitching coach Kevin Walker pointing to the second-base bag, or catcher Oscar Hernandez urging the youngsters to make a break towards the plate – where hitting coach Rich Gedman was ready to slap high fives with anyone who was willing – the enjoyment was truly priceless for everyone who was on hand.
“This is the best day of the year,” proclaimed manager Kevin Boles. “Just getting those kids onto the field, it looks so big to them. You also see the parents and the caregivers and quickly see the love and sacrifices they make for those children on a daily basis. There are so many things we take for granted and to share some time with them is special.
“Plus, they get to play on a professional field,” Boles added. “What can top that?”
On a personal level, the support that Boles gives to Challenger events dates back to his days as a Single-A minor-league manager in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system. The Little League Challenger Division was developed in 1989, an adaptive baseball program for boys and girls ages 4-18 with physical and developmental disabilities. As of 2015, there were over 900 Challenger programs in 10 countries around the world.
“It was a deal where they asked for a couple of players but we had the whole team come out,” said Boles about his initial dealings with the Challenger Clinic. “Since I’ve been a manager, I’ve always made sure the whole team is present. It’s just that important.”
That becomes quite apparent when a Challenger Clinic participant reaches second base, turns, and looks in the direction of the McCoy stands to seek approval.
“You see their reaction and it’s priceless,” Boles said.
Last Saturday was believed to be the 17th Challenger Clinic outing at McCoy. After close to an hour of swings, throws, and plenty of happy faces, the youngsters mingled with the PawSox players. Some asked the Pawtucket players for their autograph, be it on the back of the t-shirt they happened to be wearing or on a baseball.
“Some of the biggest smiles you’ll see all season are on this particular day,” says PawSox infielder Jantzen Witte. “Somedays, we take the joy of the game for granted. Just seeing them put the ball in play, run to first base, and get the feeling of being safe … it puts into perspective just how much joy this game can bring. It looks like a group that has fun no matter what, but we did too.
“There’s something about genuine joy that it’s hard for that not to correspond in your life as well,” Witte continued. “They’re genuine people who automatically put you in a good mood.”
The PawSox players serve as coaches during the game. For this particular occasion, key baseball items like strikeouts and outs are inconsequential. No one keeps score, nor are stats kept.
From afar, the Challenger kids give off an aura that they’re life-long friends with the PawSox. There’s a bond that’s completely authentic and impressive. Remember, we’re talking about two groups who were complete strangers an hour earlier. In no time, barriers come down and everyone is interacting in a spirted fashion that suggests they’ve known each other for their entire lives.
“Hanging with kids like that is really special. The love they show you makes you want to give even more of yourself,” said PawSox infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr. “I always have fun with these types of events. They get to do the same things that we do every single day on the same field … come outside and run the bases. I know they had fun and we had a blast.”
“Anytime you can help people who don’t have the ability that everyone else has and give them a chance to realize something that’s part of their dream, it’s fun for us as players for sure. They’re doing what we see as our job and daily task and it’s a big deal for them. It definitely puts things into perspective and makes you enjoy outings like this even more,” PawSox outfielder Cole Sturgeon said. “Anytime someone looks up to you, you can never take that part for granted. They’re watching every single move you make. Anytime we can make them happy and cheer them on like they cheer us on is huge.”