Four wheels and two sets of feet approach the batter’s box. Tyler Roberts takes the hand of his brother Trevor to share the grip on the red plastic bat. Trevor has cerebral palsy, but he’s about to hit a home run.
With his brother guiding the bat, Trevor connects and sends the ball five feet on the foul side of the first baseline. But when the last batter of the inning hits, everyone is supposed to score. Tyler takes hold of the stroller and pushes toward first. John Henrikson slides into home, followed by Torie Boyles, who vaults across using arm braces.
• The Daniel Boone Little League Challenger Division is still accepting players on its four summer-league teams. Children from mid-Missouri between 5 and 18 years old who have a physical or mental disability that precludes them from playing in another Little League division can join a Challenger team. • To be a player buddy who helps children on the teams, a child should be at least 10 years old and able to protect the player if, for example, a well-hit ball is coming the player’s way. • Contact Bob DeGraaff at email@example.com
“Safe at home!” she announces for herself.
As the opening day crowd cheers, 6-year-old Trevor finishes his tour around the bases with his eyes closed and mouth open wide in baseball bliss.
This is what Challenger baseball is all about. In the division added to Daniel Boone Little League this year, anyone can play, and everyone is a superstar. Players with mental or physical disabilities, who range from 5 to 18 years old, are paired with buddies that help the players as much or as little as necessary to play modified baseball on Columbia’s four Challenger teams.
There’s 11-year-old Elijah Mayfield, born with Down syndrome, who looked the most like a ball player on opening day. He was the only one wearing real baseball pants and socks. Ten-year-old twins John and Andrew Henrikson, who each only have sight in one eye, play for the Cardinals and call themselves the “home run kings.” There’s Angel Bard, 15, who used to be in a wheelchair after surgery for cleft feet. Now she enjoys pushing her teammates’ wheelchairs in and out of the dugout. And 17-year-old Greg Abbott actually gets out of his wheelchair to bat and stand in the field.
These and other children with disabilities share Field 4 at the Daniel Boone Little League Complex each week to play their own version of the game.
Three pitches have passed Tucker Johnsen. Just before the fourth pitch, he turns his Royals cap backwards.
“Here we go, my friend,” pitcher and Challenger League coordinator Bob DeGraaff says, lobbing the ball over the plate. After two more tries, Tucker swings the bat with one hand and hits a grounder past the mound. He drops the plastic bat and directs his motorized wheelchair toward first base.
Tucker was born 13 weeks early at 2 pounds, 10 ounces. A brain hemorrhage at 2-weeks-old led to a cerebral palsy diagnosis nine months later. When he was 8 years old, Tucker underwent spinal fusion surgery to correct a fractured back. Doctors are skeptical whether he’ll ever be able to walk, but he gets around the bases in his wheelchair.
Tucker’s mom Vicki Johnsen said the Challenger League has given her son a chance to play a game he used to only be able to watch.
“He doesn’t care if they don’t keep score,” she said. “He just likes being here.”
When Tucker was in second grade he wrote his first complete sentence: “I want to be a Major League Baseball player.”
“We always treated him like anyone else,” Vicki Johnsen said. “Maybe we took that too far. Until two years ago, he thought he could do anything anyone else could do. Finally we had to tell him, ‘You know, Tucker, you’re not going to be a baseball player.’
“He cried. I cried. He asked, ‘Why not? Why can’t I walk?’”
Tucker and other Challenger players have had to realize that they won’t always be like other kids. Many of them usually sit on the sidelines as their siblings play sports. Parents like Janna Watson appreciate Challenger baseball for giving their kids the opportunity to feel equal. Watson’s 7-year-old son Gregory used to watch his older brother, Matthew, play baseball.
“It was really hard to admit that Gregory wouldn’t be able to play in the other league like his brother, but now he’s out there playing just like Matthew,” Watson said.
Jeff Roberts, no relation to Trevor and Tyler Roberts, is coaching the Tigers Challenger team, which includes his 14-year-old son Jayden.
“I had been heavily involved with my daughter who plays in the regular league, but I never had a chance to do anything like this with him,” Roberts said.
Jayden gallops from the chain-link dugout to the batter’s box. His dad reminds him not to throw the bat after he hits.
“Big hitter now!” the pitcher warns the outfield.
His dad reminds him again not to throw the aluminum bat. On the first pitch, Jayden whacks the ball to center field (without throwing the bat), giving him a double and two RBI. Not that anyone is keeping track.
In the Challenger League, a team’s entire lineup bats regardless of the number of outs. Batters get as many pitches as it takes to hit the ball, and no score is kept. This works better for Jayden and most of the other players.
“I played baseball in third grade and we played with outs and strikes,” Jayden said one Saturday during practice. “This is more fair. One time when I played in P.E., I hit the ball, but the pitcher got it. I didn’t want to run outside the baseline so he tagged me, and I didn’t think that was fair.”
Jayden has autism and sensory integration dysfunction, which is a difficulty processing sensations.
“Things that he feels or sees or smells get mixed up going to his head,” his dad, Jeff Roberts, explained. “If someone brushes up against him, it could feel like he’s been pushed. Loud noises in closed spaces bother him. The movie theatre is hard for him.”
Roberts said he is glad to see his son on the field as part of a team because he knows this is something Jayden has wanted to do for a while.
“We had to pull Jayden out of baseball in third grade when it started getting competitive,” Roberts said. “We had to sit him down and tell him that it’s going to be too much. Every year he’s said, ‘I wanna play ball.’”
Challenger baseball doesn’t have rules to make the game competitive. Ask anyone involved with the league and they’ll tell you that “fun” is paramount.
“I just want to make sure every kid is having fun, and I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen,” Royals coach Lyle Johnson said. “If that means I need to entertain them, then I’ll entertain them. The fun-maker, that’s my job.”
And coaches aim to include everyone in that fun. When a player hits the ball, the coach who is pitching tosses five or six more balls out to the fielders so everyone has a chance to make a play.
“As soon as someone hits the ball, it’s like an Easter egg hunt,” parent Susan Botkin said watching her 9-year-old son Jacob practice one week. “They throw all the balls out there and everyone goes running.”
Sometimes even the players on offense will follow the ball. In the opening-day game, one boy hit off the tee facing the catcher rather than the outfield. He ran to retrieve the ball, dragging the bat in the dirt and nearly tripping over the T-shirt that reached to his ankles. After his coach and player buddy directed him to first base, he stood holding a ball and an orange plastic bat nearly as tall as he was, looking like Bamm-Bamm from The Flintstones.
“No one’s worried about who’s on first, what’s on second,” Cardinals coach Trish Wallace said. “We’re just having fun.”
“Which leg is broken?” a little boy asks Lanny Johnson while the two wait in line to take a Royals team photo.
“No leg,” Lanny tells him.
“Then why are you in a wheelchair?”
“I don’t know,” he tells the boy.
Lanny, 7, was born with spina bifida. His spinal cord did not close properly during prenatal development, so he has paralysis in his lower legs. He wears braces and walks with crutches, except during baseball, when he uses a wheelchair so he can bat more easily. And batting is his favorite part of the game. Like most Challenger players, he wants to be like major league slugger Albert Pujols.
“I’m going to hit 15 hundred home runs,” he said.
The Challenger League allows Lanny and others to play as a consistent team within a community. Parents say Challenger baseball gives kids more of a sense of team and that the participants like playing at the same fields where the other Little League teams have games. Some of the players participate in the Special Olympics, which has more individual competitions than team sports and isn’t a local weekly event.
“Lanny sees doctors in Kansas City who have for a long time suggested that he get involved in some sort of sports,” his dad and coach Lyle Johnson said. “He went to some day camps in Kansas City and St. Louis, but those were just for one day. There’s not much in the way for kids with disabilities in Columbia.”
It’s a common complaint for parents of children with disabilities in Columbia and elsewhere. Their kids don’t have enough opportunities to be active and interact with others.
“Even though they have disabilities, they still like to play and do things,” Jayden’s dad, Jeff Roberts said. “These kids like to do things that all other kids like to do.”
Trevor Roberts is still smiling after his three-run home run. His brother, Tyler, pushes the stroller to a group of family and friends, who clap and cheer “Good job!”
The brothers join the rest of the Tigers in the center of the infield happy to shake hands with the equally cheerful Yankees players. This is usually the time when one team is in good spirits and the other plods dejectedly down the high-five line.
But neither team lost. And both think they won.
“He doesn’t talk,” Trevor’s dad, Ronnie Roberts, says, “but he understands. He knows that he’s playing baseball.”