It was a moment Scott Parker won’t soon forget, watching a young member of the team, wearing a facemask, as he sat in a wheelchair ready to take a swing at the baseball.
“I’ve never seen a kid smile so much with his eyes,” explained Parker, talking about one of a dozen players who participated in last Sunday’s season-ending game for those involved in South Pasadena’s Little League (SPLL) Challenger Division, an international program for individuals with physical and intellectual challenges. “It was just incredible to see his excitement for being out there.”
Another player, Max, ran around the bases flailing his arms, exhilarated in having an opportunity to be a part of America’s pastime, described Parker, a key component in why the program has become a local success, while one more, Anthony, went up to the plate, encouraging the crowd to cheer as he took his turn to hit.
And most did, admiring the fun and frolic displayed by a bunch of the kids and teens, all donning face coverings in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, immersed in the game. Caught up in the excitement, applauding their seemingly every move, parents, grandparents, and friends of those playing between the lines marveled from the stands as great efforts were made to provide an opportunity for the players to participate in a Little League environment structured to their abilities.
South Pasadena Little League’s participation in the Challenger Division began 11 years ago when then South Pasadena Little League President Joe Payne asked Parker if he knew anything about the Challenger Division. An immediate “no” was heard but Parker quickly did his research, discovering the Challenger Division was part of Little League International, along with its traditional organized baseball and softball divisions, and thought it sounded “kind of interesting, kind of cool” looking back.
And not long after, the program was launched in South Pasadena under the guidance of Parker and cohort Lorne Platt, whose wife works with kids with physical disabilities. Parker contributed his knowledge doing some volunteer work with the Special Olympics, and together they have made the program – the first in Little League District 18, which includes South Pasadena – one of the most sought after in the area.
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 once 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.”
Over the years she has offered advice to parents watching their child perform. “It’s a real win-win having her presence,” said Parker. “Sometimes parents can talk with her, ask questions and get some ideas in working with their children. All around, it’s just fantastic.”
Today it’s part of more than 950 Challenger programs worldwide in 10 countries, with 30,000 athletes playing in the Challenger Division, with the fundamental goal of giving everyone a chance to play.
In that initial effort 11 years ago, the South Pasadena Challenger Division started with just one special needs player, Scott recalling: “He liked to hear the sound of the bat hit the ground. He would get up to the plate, drop the bat, hear the clink, and it would make his day.”
That was okay with Parker and Platt – one child kicking it all off into what has become a robust effort in adding a little enjoyment to a young person’s life. In their role, the pair serves as SPLL Challenger Division coordinators.
“As long as one kid was having fun, that was good,” said Parker of the beginning, noting that over the years more and more players signed up and three years ago South Pasadena started playing other Little Leagues with Challenger divisions in the area, scheduling four home games and four away. Contests were suspended this year on account of COVID-19, but local players still managed to get together weekly at Orange Grove Park from mid-March through last Sunday’s season ending party.
On hand for the event were members of the South Pasadena police and fire departments, Mayor Diana Mahmud, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Cacciotti, joining in as the players took to the field playing defense while others garnered the opportunity to swing for the fences, to borrow an old phrase. Trophies were presented to all participants amid wide grins.
Following the game, longtime community volunteer and former South Pasadena Little League President Sam Hernandez, known for working behind the barbecue grill over the years at softball games, was back at it, working his magic, smiling in true fashion, as he served up burgers and hot dogs, along with chips, water and dessert for players and those in the crowd.
“Just seeing the kids outside and happy,” is all it takes for Parker to come back for more every spring, adding: “It’s really about the players getting a chance to play with others like them. It’s about seeing them get some exercise, giving the parents a break, if possible. Some kids can’t be left alone at all, while some can, so it’s good to give them a chance to sit in the stands and watch their child play some ball and relax for an hour and a half.”
For the players, Parker simply enjoys providing them a chance to play some baseball, saying: “They are pleased with their successes, happy to hit the ball and celebrate in various ways.”
Some beam with joy as they run to first base after belting the ball. Others raise their arms to the sky, enjoying the triumphant moment as they are pushed in wheelchairs by helpers – a South Pasadena middle or high school students – eager to give the kids fist bumps, recognizing their achievement.
“It’s good for the middle and high school students to see kids with challenges,” said Parker. “They might think they sometimes have it rough until they discover they don’t have it so bad.”
A baseball fan going way back, Parker regularly attends Dodger games, played the sport in his youth, and coached his own children in baseball and softball as they grew up in South Pasadena. “I realized as my kids got older, I’d be doing a disservice if I kept coaching them,” he said. “So, I kind of let the professional coaches do that. With the Challenger kids, it was more up my alley. There’s not a lot of strategy involved. It’s more about keeping them safe, letting them hit the ball, let them run, let them celebrate, have fun, get a little exercise.”
Parker, who worked at Boeing “forever,” before retiring for a month and a half only to begin new employment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (JPL), grew up in Indiana with strong mid America values, where helping thy neighbor was an everyday act, watching auto racing at the Indianapolis 500 and Hoosiers style of college basketball was tops on the sports entertainment list. With no professional baseball in the state, the Cincinnati Reds, or notably in its heyday as the ‘Big Red Machine,’ became his favorite team growing up, “not really liking the Dodgers back then,” he added, until life changed with his move out west.
Humble, unassuming and self-deprecating are also characteristics that make up the man who has become so willing to make life better for others. “It’s a blast,” said Parker, who gets plenty of support from his wife Dianne in making the SPLL Challenger Division a hit. “What I get out of is what the kids get out of it. The main thing is to see a kid smile.”
Mindful that while he’s taken a dedicated role in bringing a little joy to those with challenges, Parker is quick to say, “I’m not the only Little League coach. There are dozens and dozens of coaches who coach baseball and softball and they put in a lot of time and effort, too. I don’t want to sell them short. Everybody works hard in Little League to help make our program one of the best around.”
Cacciotti, who has sat on the South Pasadena City Council for 20 years, was among those beaming brightly, taking in Sunday’s action. “It was very touching to me to watch Scott and his co-coach work with the kids, and to see members of the local police and fire departments come out and support the endeavor,” he said, “I’m just so grateful that we have residents and families in the community willing to pitch in and help those faced with these kinds of challenges. The police and fire, Sam Hernandez grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, myself, all of us got more out it than the kids. It touched my heart to see everybody come together to do this. It was a great event.”