For the love of the game

Challenger Baseball program returns to Cloverdale after a hugely successful first season. - Challenger Baseball
Challenger Baseball program returns to Cloverdale after a hugely successful first season.
— image credit: Challenger Baseball

After an incredibly successful inaugural year, the Challenger Baseball program will return to Cloverdale.

Minor baseball coach and father Jeff Sandes, who coordinates Cloverdale’s Challenger division, said the program had more of an impact than he could have ever imagined. And this year, he’s looking to double the participation.

Challenger Baseball is a division of Baseball B.C. that provides children with physical and cognitive disabilities the opportunity to enjoy a season of baseball, and to experience being part of a team.

The program started in 2010, when Little League B.C. and the B.C. Minor Baseball Association partnered to provide the program under Baseball B.C, running in nearby communities such as Langley and Whalley.

Last year, Sandes ran the program for the first time in Cloverdale.

Initially, Sandes said, he thought that it would be the parents who got the most out of the program. It turned out that the experience was invaluable — not just for the parents but for the players and the volunteers as well.

“No one had seen their kids so happy,” said Sandes.

“I thought that the players probably would like it, but it turned out they were all counting down hours until when they got to play,” said Sandes.

The program provides a first experience of baseball for many of the players, but the real enjoyment comes from the team spirit and the time spent with buddies. For every player on (and off) the field, there is a buddy — a volunteer who assists their player in a variety of ways, whether by pushing their player around the bases, keeping them company in the dugout or teaching them how to swing the bat.

Stephanie, 15, is already counting down the days for this year’s season.

Her mother, Shannon Davison, has never seen anything like the Challenger program before.

“At first, we didn’t know if she’d like baseball. We thought, well, we’ll try it and see,” said Davison. “It’s so good, so inclusive.”

Shannon and Stephanie traveled to Victoria for the Challenger jamboree last June, an event that brought together baseball players from across B.C.

Davison recalls sitting on the bleachers, listening to everyone cheer. What sets Challenger Baseball apart from other baseball games, she said, is that every spectator cheers for every player. The competition side of the game becomes unimportant.

As Davison said, “The important thing is everyone doing their best, smiling and having fun.”

Jim Neuman and his 14-year-old daughter, who played in last year’s season, had a similar experience. Neuman hopes his daughter will participate again this summer.

“A lot of kids can’t play regular ball, because it can be too dangerous,” said Neuman. “But with this program the focus is on the team sport. The main thing is the camaraderie.”

Neuman described how it all works. The kids up to bat either hit off a tee or have a ball pitched to them, everyone in the field has something thrown their way, and everyone gets to participate.

When asked what the best part of the experience is for himself, Neuman said, “Watching (his daughter) out there, enjoying being part of the team, smiling and really enjoying herself.”

The buddies, who work one-on-one with the players, had the same grins on their faces.

Sandes said many of the high school students who volunteered didn’t do it for the school credit —they were in it for the companionship as well.

“Last year, the community volunteers didn’t even bring their sheets in,” said Sandes. “The impact, it can’t be measured. When you see a teenager do this out of the love of their heart, you can’t help but tear up.”

“A lot of the kids are more interested in just the companionship,” said Sandes. “Really, a lot of kids came out just so they could be with their buddy.”

Sandes said the program is currently looking for volunteers, as they are hoping to double their participation this year from 16 to around 30 players.

The division meets at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons from April through June at Cloverdale Ball Park (17383 61A Ave.) and anyone above 10 years of age can apply to be a volunteer buddy.

The program is free and open to any child with physical or cognitive disabilities. Sandes said the general age range for players is between 5 and 18, but that he’d be flexible and do his best to include every player who applied.

The season’s opening ceremony is on April 8, which will also be a fundraiser for the team to pay for their uniforms and for transportation costs to the season-end jamboree, an event that invites all the Challenger programs in B.C. to participate.

This year, the jamboree will be held in South Delta this year, but if all goes well, Sandes hopes to apply to host the event in Cloverdale in 2018.

To register for the Challenger program, to volunteer as a buddy or to help sponsor the players, email or call 778-708-0196.


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