The opening baseball game of the Hollister Little League Challenger Team at Veterans Memorial Park on April 9 saw the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department suffer an ignominious defeat—though how you lose a game where outs do not count and no score is kept is a mystery.
The deputies certainly came dressed to play in their brand new jerseys, and you might have thought being at least three times bigger than their opponents would have given them some advantage, but they never stood a chance against the undefeated Challengers.
The Challenger team is made up of 11 boys and girls with either intellectual or physical special needs between the ages of 4 and 18 years old. Players may stay on the team until they are 22 years old as long as they are enrolled in high school.
“Challengers is mostly a socialization platform,” said Head Coach Shelly Veglia. “It is learning development and it helps get the kids accustomed to having activities away from their parents. We try to get them some fun opponents and when I asked the Sheriff’s Department to come to play, they immediately jumped on the bandwagon.”
The game is similar to tee-ball: the ball is placed on a stand, the batter can keep swinging until the ball is hit, and every child bats every inning. The games last two innings or about an hour.
Most of the kids are nonverbal and every player is paired off with a “buddy,” an older child who helps guide the player when needed such as assisting with fielding, teeing up the ball for the batters and running the bases.
Eileen Stone said the program has been excellent for her eight-year-old son Angel.
“He has autism and he likes to run,” she said. “His buddy catches him and helps him run all the bases, keeping him on track. It is amazing to come out here and watch him play ball with everybody. They take time with the children and teach at their level—my son would not be able to participate in a sport without that kind of help.”
On the same day that the Challengers destroyed the sheriff’s team, the Hollister Babe Ruth Bambinos played a few diamonds away. The Bambino league started in 2015 and is the adult version of the Challengers. Players with special needs become eligible at 15 years old and there is no upper age restriction. Currently, there are four teams with 30 players and they play spring and fall seasons.
“I was working with the Challengers and we started a senior division,” said Head Coach Adam Mendolla. “A lot of these players don’t have much to do in their lives. After they leave high school they are put out into the community and don’t really have activities. There are a lot of programs for school-age kids and there is very little out there for adults.”
The rules are similar, with no outs, no score, and every player either batting or fielding every inning. Players can have assistance if they need it, though most play without it. The inning is over when the entire team has had a chance to bat and the game is over after two innings.
“We are all volunteers out here and our satisfaction comes from seeing them play,” Mendolla said. “They would do this without us—we are just here to make sure the field is ready for them. The hardest thing for us is just word of mouth—getting the community to know that we are out here and getting people involved.”
Chris Lane, 62, has been with the Bambinos Green Machine team for five years and plays first or second base.
“Baseball is a really fun sport for me and I have been playing all my life,” Lane said. “It has been a really hard time for everyone and it has not been easy for me. So It is good to be back out here again to see people I have not seen in a while. I am glad we are able to play again—I am a Bambino and I am going to stay that way.”
Though the season has already started, both the Challengers and the Bambinos are still accepting players.
Both coaches are keeping registration open through the end of their seasons, with the final game for the Bambinos scheduled for May 7 and the final Challenger game slated for May 21.
“You can come on the very last day and play,” said Veglia. “We know there are not a lot of opportunities for individuals with challenges and this is something positive we can offer for them.”
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