Baseball – America’s pastime. A sport so ingrained in our culture that it has inspired countless songs, movies and even some brand name foods (think Ballpark Franks). Many of us watch major league athletes on TV and listen to play-by-plays on the radio. Others play themselves, joining teams or participating in pick-up games at local parks. But for mentally and physically disabled individuals, getting out on the field can be difficult. This is unfortunate, as baseball has proven therapeutic and socialization abilities. For instance, participating in the sport can boost self-esteem and teach players about the disciplines of teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play. If disabled populations had access to the game, they too could experience the benefits.
This is where Challenger Baseball, a division of Little League, comes into the picture. Founded in 1989, the national program gives any individual with a physical or intellectual challenge the chance to participate in the sport. On a local level, Challenger Baseball is played as a part of Clinton Valley Little League. Twenty-six years ago, Washington Township resident Marilyn Wittstock led the charge for the program’s launch. In 1994, there were 14 players. Today, there are more than 180.
“We are very proud to celebrate 26 years of offering Challenger Baseball in our community,” said Wittstock. “We are fortunate to have many community and individual supporters who have generously donated funds throughout the years.”
In 2008, these funds helped the Clinton Valley Little League create its own Challenger Division baseball diamond. The ADA-certified field, which is located in Clinton Township’s Neil Reid Park, features extra-large dugouts and a rubberized base path that allows wheelchairs to easily maneuver. The space has seen several successful seasons, but plans for an additional field on the site are now underway.
“In 2015, Little League Baseball lifted the age requirement, thereby eliminating the previous age limit for older players,” she said. “We currently register over 90 players from the adult special needs community. Therefore, we now need to build a larger field. The new field will also allow a natural transition for the younger players to the senior league field.”
The field is expected to open in summer 2020 with new amenities for players.
“We will be adding on to the existing bathrooms in the park -- an ADA changing room,” Wittstock continued. “Many of our Challenger players are in wheelchairs or use handicap devices. They need a private place to be changed. The park restrooms do not have adequate space for changing beds, so if during a Challenger game a player needs to be changed, it will give parents and caregivers peace of mind knowing they have a private place for them.”
Work on the project has already begun. In the last few months, Wittstock has received construction approval from Clinton Township and pursued engineering and design cost estimates. Currently, those projections say the field will cost around $170,000 – so fundraising initiatives are also underway. Of course, there is still much to do, but Wittstock is up for the challenge.
“I am very blessed and humbled to have met some of the most amazing players and their families,” she said. “They struggle everyday with their limitations but when they get on the ball field they rise above those limitations and it puts a big smile on their faces! The cheers and hugs are priceless. Our Challenger family is a community beyond the backstop fence. I will continue to work hard so that every child and adult with a disability can come and play and get rewarded for how awesome they truly are, on and off the field!”
Megan Ochmanek is a communications specialist for Macomb County Planning and Economic Development.