COLUMBIA — There are 18 players on the field and two people in the batter’s box. This is not a typical baseball game. It’s a game in the Daniel Boone Little League Challenger Division.
All of the players are boys and girls between 5 and 18 who have developmental or physical disabilities that would rule out their participation in any other baseball league.
Susan Vasileff said her son really looks forward to his baseball games.
“You say baseball, and he gets his stuff and goes to the car,” Susan Vasileff said.
Val Vasileff is a 17-year-old with autism. He is nonverbal and has little to no communication skills.
The Challenger Division, with its buddies who volunteer to help the players, is the only way kids such as Val Vasileff are able to participate in the American pastime.
Each player is assigned a buddy to provide on-the-field assistance as needed. The buddies may assist with batting, moving around the bases, and throwing, but they do not take the places of the players.
In only its second season, the Challenger Division is already garnering interest from the community.
“It’s great. We have six teams and about 65 players, but that means we need a lot of player buddies,” said Bob DeGraaff, the founder of the league.
Karen Visovsky, the coach of the Cardinals team, said her team this season had 11 players and there was usually at least one buddy per player.
“I pair buddies up by age and skill level,” Visovsky said.
By knowing the kids on the team and knowing the buddies, Visovsky tries to match them up as best as possible.
“For this season, we had a great group of individuals show up to be buddies and we tried our best to keep the pairs consistent,” Visosky said. “Next season, we’re going to try to pair the same kids and buddies as much as possible so the players can develop relationships with the buddies and grow in their baseball skills too.”
Jordan See, 14, has been an active buddy since the beginning of the league last year. This season, he was a buddy for the Cardinals’ and Royals’ teams.
See said he helped several players this season. He particularly remembered helping Evan Schwinke. See was only able to help Evan once this season because he had a game of his own the next time Schwinke played. See’s dad filled in for him as a buddy.
See said at the beginning of the game, Evan didn’t really talk much, but as the innings passed, Evan began to open up to See. By the end of the game, Evan was talking a lot.
To help Evan, See went out in the field and threw Evan ground balls. Every once in a while, Evan asked for a pop fly. See also helped Evan hit the ball and run bases.
“It’s real fun helping the kids who usually get looked down upon. It’s fun seeing the smiles on their faces,” See said.
See said he first began volunteering as a buddy last year.
“I umpire out here and one day I was walking to one of the fields to umpire. The coach of the Cardinals team asked me to be a buddy for one of her players,” See said.
See asked her what time she would need his help. She told him 7 p.m. So when he finished umpiring his game, See began his career with the Challenger Division as a buddy.
Colin See, the coach of See’s little league team, has his players volunteer as buddies because he thinks it’s a good experience for them.
Colin See said that the kids help the challenger players learn how to play the game.
“They teach them how to have fun, too,” Jordan See said.
Jordan See said he would like to play with the same player every game. He thinks this will allow him to develop a better friendship with his player.
Susan Vasileff said having the same buddy every game and even having the same people back next season would be advantageous to her son.
“We know he gets a kick out of the kids because we see his subtle cues,” Susan Vasileff said.
Susan Vasileff said her son would repeatedly knock the hat off his buddy and watch the buddy chase after it. He thought it was a great game. One day he pretended not to know how to catch or throw, and Susan Vasileff had to explain to his buddy that her son was just faking it.
Both the player and the buddies are looking forward to next season.
“It’s cool to see the Challenger League and what it’s done,” Colin See said, “ It’s just people helping people.”