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Take me out to the ball game

Photo by Marshall Conner. Christian Wright, a Nationals player with the Culpeper Little League Challenger Division, holds his trophy high. Parents, family, friends, coaches and sponsors were all there to cheer as the season finished on June 19.
With his arms held high forming a v-shape he crossed home plate and a wide smile beamed from underneath a slightly tilted batting helmet. A large crowd on both sides of the baseball field erupted in cheers. A hip-swinging, fist-pumping dance of joy accentuated each step back to the dugout.

Every time a player crossed the home plate either ahead, arm-in-arm or alongside their “field buddy” the crowd’s reaction was equally enthusiastic.

Each young baseball player had their own scoring celebration that was uniquely them. Some gave a tip of the cap, others danced and nearly all slid across home plate in a cloud of red-tinted dust.

For two innings there were no troubles in the world, no doctors, no pity for being special as society refers to them. On Friday, June 19, they were simply and joyously just enjoying baseball.

Baseball has a magic that resides between the base lines----a magic that allows a kid swinging a bat at the Culpeper Sports Complex to feel like a Major Leaguer.

Culpeper’s Little League Challenger Division played its final game of the year on June 19. The division has two teams with 37 players: the Nationals and the Orioles.

“Giving these kids another opportunity to play a sport and simply have fun is so rewarding for the players, families, coaches and everyone who comes out and watches these games,” said Sharon Gregory, who coaches the Orioles.

The Challenger Division is organized by Little League President and Vice President Jon Strang and Sharon Gregory. It is also supported by three loyal sponsors (Virginia Community Bank, Rappahannock Electric and Eppard Orthodontics) that provide a venue for young baseball players with disabilities to play baseball. Sponsor Tripp Butler, provides the play-by-play and occasional flurries of color commentary on a sound system.

“One of the guys on our board, Brent Thomas, came up with a plan to start it three years ago,” said Strang. “There are no outs, everyone is safe and we have each player paired up with a buddy. The smiles and the slides into home say it all. It is a joy to watch these young players.”

The two teams begin play following introductions and the playing of the National Anthem. One team hits and the other takes up positions in the field. There are a variety of fielding styles at play in the infield and outfield ranging from active pursuit of the baseball to sitting down for a moment to play with a passing cricket—it’s all part of the fun.

It is rather refreshing to see a sport played so positively—no one is overly worried about the score.

“Two things come to mind. The facial expressions when they get a hit—it’s priceless,” said Kevin Dawson, coach of the Nationals. “Secondly, the other thing that I really enjoy is seeing these kids improve even when the baseballs are flying back at me. I just love it. The large energetic crowds really feed off the players and make it all fun too.”

After a couple of innings the teams decide that it’s time for trophies, photos, pizza and hugs. Orioles and Nationals walk away friends and stories were exchanged with all the panache of a sports writer.

“My daughter Erica has a great time playing in this league. Sharon Gregory got us involved with the Challenger League and it’s been great. My favorite moments are when I see my daughter crossing home plate to all the cheers. I also love hearing the announcers, they’re so fun. It’s also great to see the community come out and support the kids,” said Deanna Rennon, an Orioles mom.

Great as the announcer, Butler finds the entire program very inspiring and very rewarding. “I am very proud that Culpeper Little League Sponsors this endeavor providing a venue, uniforms, pictures, etc. for the participants.

Each player has a volunteer “buddy” to be with them during the game,” said Butler who encourages those who would like to learn more to contact coordinator Sharon Gregory at 540-718-0147.

Hall of Fame Orioles short-stop Cal Ripken, Jr. once said, “You can be a kid as long as want when you play baseball.”

Chalk it up to baseball magic.

Marshall Conner is a freelance writer with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at kelpiescot@gmail.com
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