Rob Oxford: Challenge Accepted

Monday, May 13, 2019

Coach Tom assisting one
of his first-year players
Photo by Rob Oxford
By Rob Oxford

The last Saturday in April just happened to be one of those days I look forward to every Spring.

The Shoreline Little League Jamboree and another afternoon calling play by play for the Little League Challenger Division.

Because of scheduling conflicts, I’m not always able to participate, but when I do, being a part of Challenger Baseball is more rewarding than I can possibly express. It literally feeds my soul.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Challenger Division of Little League Baseball, I lifted this quote directly from the League's official website: 

“The Little League Challenger Division was founded in 1989 and is Little League’s adaptive baseball program for individuals with physical or intellectual challenges.”

It would be easy to simply label these athletes as “handicapped,” but spend an afternoon observing them enjoying America's Favorite Pastime and you’ll see very quickly that they are extremely “handy-capable.”

Base hit – On the way to first Base
Photo by Rob Oxford
Some of these players have Autism, some have Down Syndrome, some wear braces and others are confined to wheelchairs, but each is supported by parents, family and friends who want only for them to experience life at its fullest.

This is my fourth or fifth year as the announcer for Challenger Baseball and I must thank Melissa Banker for first inviting me to be involved.

Melissa and I were both members of the Board of Directors for North King County, now Shoreline Little League and her son Bryan played for a team that Melissa coached.

I must fully admit that at first, I accepted her offer because I am an “announcer” by trade and we announcers love to hear our own voices, it’s a fact! 

But after experiencing my first game calling the “action” I was instantly hooked.

Watching these young men and women take center stage for an afternoon warms the heart.

There are normally four teams which compete and each game is two innings. There are no outs or runs recorded and the coaches pitch.

Bryan Banker and his "Challenger Buddy"
Spencer Haddanham-Gibler
Photo by Melissa Banker

But make no mistake, this is baseball.

Just ask Nick Hawley, who refers to himself as “The Son of Baseball” and “The Ladies Man.” 

Nick has Downs and last year had a different nickname, but the same enthusiasm coursing through his veins. 

He loves baseball and he loves to show off. 

From tapping the dirt from his cleats, to twirling the bat before he steps into the batter’s box, to “calling his shot” (pointing to the direction in which he is about to launch the cowhide), Nick is all about the game.

Then there is Evan who asked if he could help me sing the National Anthem prior to the game. 

If you don’t keep your eye on Evan, he’ll steal home… all the way from first base.

Over the years I’ve personally seen the difference competing in this sport has made in some of these athletes. The first year I saw Renae play Challenger baseball, she was a bit shy and reserved. Today she not only hit the ball hard after only a few pitches, but her mile-wide smile was a clear indication to anyone watching that she loves the game.

Challenger Buddy Chace Banker
Photo by Melissa Banker

Many if not most of these kids, and in some cases young adults, have been to a Mariner game. 

They’ve heard the crowd roar for the likes of Ichiro or King Felix and for that reason, they too enjoy hearing their name called. 

That’s where I come in. A few, like Christian, will turn to their adoring fans and yell, “Come on! Cheer for me” if after being called to the plate, the initial response from the crowd doesn’t meet his expectation. After all, this is his big moment.

For the players who have difficulty holding the bat or running the bases, Mom, Dad or oftentimes a brother or sister are there to assist. 

They are an integral part of the game and through their dedication and patience, these kids are afforded the opportunity to enjoy the experience of playing baseball.

We often get so caught up in our own problems and issues that we sometimes forget the difficulties others face. 

Watching one of these players, be they boy or girl, take swing after swing after swing and then finally make contact is phenomenal. 

Even more, it’s inspiring. They simply don't ever give up.

Each and every player on the diamond today deserves special recognition and I wish I could name them all, but instead I’ll provide you with some free advice:

Treasured baseballs autographed
by Challenger players
Photo by Rob Oxford

If you ever find yourself at the sandlot with Coach Tom’s son Brandon and you’re playing the outfield, I’d back up about 20 feet.

Finally, as a hobby I collect autographed baseballs and some of them are signed by Hall of Famers.

Today, I received four autographed baseballs that will now be considered among my most treasured.

Thank you to the coaches, parents and volunteers, who for me personally, make Challenger Baseball the best part of Little League.

And to the SLL Challenger Angels, Rays, Blue Jays and Pirates… let’s Play Ball!


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