Each Sunday for the past couple of months, kids with physical and mental disabilities have swarmed baseball fields across East County. For a few hours, the game becomes medicine and the field a sanctuary.
“Running around with them and watching them play warms my heart,” said Meghan Bell, who runs the East County Little League Challenger Division with her husband, David. “They absolutely love the fresh air, camaraderie and community.”
The Freedom Division of the Delta Baseball League and the Challenger Division of East County Little League were forced to merge this past season due to declining registration, but the merger has created a four-team, 50-player league resting on a firm foundation.
“We used to have to play the same team with the same players at the same place in Oakley every week,” said Allison Edwards, who has two kids who play in the league. “The merger has allowed us to travel and network with families. It’s a huge support system.”
The league is funded through community sponsors and provided to players for free. All East County special-needs residents 4 to 22 are welcome to play in the Challenger Division. Since some Challenger Division players are restricted to wheelchairs or impaired in other ways, Little Leaguers are buddied up with Challenger Division players to provide assistance. All children are incorporated in the program.
“It’s amazing,” Bell said. “They can show off their athletic ability just like the other kids.”
The four teams in the East County league play between 10 and 14 games a season, traveling on Sundays to fields in Antioch, Pittsburg, Concord and Clayton. Players are assigned to teams based on age, ability and the severity of their developmental delays.
Each player gets an at-bat. A side is retired when the offense has batted through the lineup, when a predetermined number of runs have been scored or when three outs are recorded. Score is not kept.
“It always amazes me that kids with such seemingly insurmountable challenges are just, at the end of the day, kids who like to play,” said parent Lisa McBride.
Challenger players’ disabilities range from severe autism to bridle bone disease to confinement to a wheelchair. But the disabilities are a distant memory once the kids hit the field. “Watching them, you realize it’s everything you hope your child can be,” Edwards said.
East County Little League accepts players from Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay and outlying far East County. Leagues also exist in Pittsburg and Antioch. Nationally, 30,000 players take part in Challenger Baseball Divisions, which began in East County in 2000. The league is dependent on sponsors, which Bell said are always needed.
East County Little League just wrapped up its season, but is accepting sign-ups and sponsors for the 2013 season that begins in March and runs through June. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.