They fielded ground balls, caught pop-ups and swung for the fences.
But mostly, the kids laughed and smiled, playing softball in the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
It mattered little that some swung and missed and let an occasional ground ball go under their legs because on this day it was all about having fun.
Making contact, hitting a dribbler in front of home plate, then running to first base or sprinting home from third after the ball cleared the infield was enough to prompt huge smiles from those involved in South Pasadena’s Little League Challenger Division, which provides players with physical and intellectual challenges an opportunity to play a team sport.
Thanks to the help and support of dedicated volunteers like Scott Parker, the local Challenger Division coordinator, participants, ranging in age from 5 to 16, came together on a weekly basis over the past 10 weeks before the season concluded last Sunday with a game and a barbecue dinner for participating families at Orange Grove Park in the city.
Before the action began, players warmed up, did a little stretching, and took to the field under the watchful eye of Parker, coaches and members of the local police and fire departments, there to cheer on the youngsters.
“What I get out of is what the kids get out of it,” explained Parker when asked what’s in it for him. “The main thing is to see a kid smile.”
Grins and giggles are in great abundance.
“That’s what makes it all worth it,” continued Parker, who, along with his wife, Dianne, have been active with the local Challenger Division for eight years. “It’s good for the parents, where they can take a little bit of a break from being around their child 24/7, sit in the stands and watch them play. They can also meet other parents who may have similar circumstances, relate stories, get some advice and help one another.”
Volunteers come from South Pasadena’s middle and high schools and are sensitive in wanting to help the players with special needs. “It helps them build character,” explained Parker. “Sometimes the players relate to a younger person like them better than an older person like me.”
The Challenger Division season is played concurrently with Little League’s baseball and softball seasons for boys and girls, respectively. A year ago, Little League began scheduling game in other cities, including Covina, Sierra Madre, Pasadena and Arcadia, which also provide the program. Road games for the South Pasadena team are played on Saturday and home contests on Sunday at Orange Grove Park.
Dr. Leigh Ramos-Platt, a specialist in muscular dystrophy at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, explained that players taking part in the Challenger Division get a sense of playing the sport like any young person. “I feel they should have this opportunity because Little League is part of childhood memories,” she said. “When you have certain challenges you don’t generally have those opportunities. It’s great that this program gives it to them. They will remember this experience.”
Aztlena Raygoza, the daughter of Javier and Rosie, was among a bunch of Challenger Division kids hitting, catching, running and laughing late in the afternoon at Orange Grove Park on Sunday. “She gets to play around just like any Little League player,” said Javier. “It’s fun to see the joy. Every time she comes here, she gets a little more comfortable in being sociable and interacting with others. We really enjoy seeing her progress.”
Rosie likes the idea that her daughter gets excited about the idea of going to play baseball. “She really gets excited about coming out here,” she stressed.
Manuel Ramos pointed out that his son, Anthony, was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and today is a diehard Dodgers’ fan. “He knows all the players, their batting averages, everything about them,” he said. “It’s amazing what he knows about the team.”
Anthony has been coming to Challenger Division games for about five years. “He loves it,” said his father. “He likes to be around his teammates. The league here helps anyone and everyone who likes to play. He gets a kick out of it.”
Among the loudest cheers on Sunday for the kids came from those wearing another kind of uniform as about a dozen law enforcement officials and firefighter/paramedics were on hand for the game.
“We’re out here to show our support for these children,” said Corporal Avick Manukian of the South Pasadena Police Department. “We’re here for them, and want them to be happy.”
Captain Anthony Porraz of the local fire department, said the players get excited seeing a group of firefighters roll up to the park in a giant rig. “To come out and play with them is cool because they really get into it,” he said. “They really want to beat us. Sometimes the ball gets past us. We have to be on our toes. It’s fun to be a part of it.”
SPPD Sgt. Jim Valencia added that he hopes the players and their parents see “we’re part of the community,” he said, “and that we have a different side to us and that it’s not all police work. For us, it’s about community relations and spending time with these great kids. It’s nice to support a worthy cause.”
Kevin Hill, an engineer with the South Pasadena Fire Department, added: “I see the excitement in their faces. When we walked in everybody had a huge smile on their face. For us it’s about giving back to the community, helping people out who are a little less fortunate. It makes us feel good and we enjoy doing it.”
Busy working behind the barbecue flipping burgers was South Pasadena Little League President Alberto Ocon, who said the best part of the Challenger Division is giving kids facing challenges in life a chance to be a part of the game of baseball.
“For them, it’s a day where they are on the baseball field and they get a chance to hit and throw the ball and play like everyone else,” he said. “We’re just glad to be a part of it.”