Nicki Ross Memorial Umpire School
Date: Jan 4, 2019
Xavier “Chief” Calderon can hit a baseball like nobody’s business, while Jaden Pereux boasts an outfielder’s long-throwing arm and Michael Cachia looks to have the eye of an ace pitcher.
Together, the baseball-loving trio from Central Etobicoke High School are hoping to make a formidable debut in league baseball this summer – but unlike their able-bodied peers, all three boys face barriers that have precluded them from participating in the popular pastime in summers past.
Enter Challenger Baseball.
Adopted by Baseball Canada and championed by the Toronto Blue Jays, Challenger Baseball is a program that gives kids like Xavier, Jaden and Michael with cognitive or physical disabilities the opportunity to play the game at a level structured to their abilities in a fun, safe environment.
“The goal is just to get everyone on the field and have a good time,” said Steven Pinnock, who, in his dual roles as executive director of Best Buddies and board member of the Etobicoke Baseball Association (EBA), is trying to launch a Challenger Baseball program in Etobicoke this summer.
In order to do so, however, Pinnock said he needs more player recruits to round out a least a team or two, plus some volunteers and sponsors to help make it all come together.
“We want it to be just like every other team – to have a designated field, to have a permit, to have your umpire, to have your players, to have your coach. We want this to feel just as important as any other baseball league, not just tucked away in a back field somewhere,” he said. “Because when the players come down to play, we want them to get excited to see the fields all ready and lined, and for their parents to say ‘My gosh, my son is on the field playing baseball. I never would have imaged that would happen.’”
So far, Pinnock has the full backing of the EBA in launching a Challenger Baseball program within its ranks.
Longtime EBA president Tony Di Rollo said that while the six leagues that fall under the association’s umbrella – including Bloordale, Martingrove, Rexdale, Royal York and Weston baseball, as well as the Etobicoke Girls Softball League – already boast some players with disabilities, he would like to see a Challenger Baseball program expand that participation.
“I think that, as a baseball association, it would be great if we could try to see what we can do to give the same opportunities to kids with disabilities and their parents as we currently do with our other teams,” he said, noting that EBA is currently reaching out to Etobicoke families of children with disabilities to recruit new players.
To date, there are 48 leagues like EBA in Canada that host the Challenger Baseball program – the vast majority of them in British Columbia.
How it works is this: able-bodied ‘buddies’ are assigned (one-on-one, where possible) to each Challenger player, and are tasked with assisting that player with their involvement in the game – from pushing their wheelchairs around the bases, to assisting players in how to hold the bat and swing, to providing protection for the player from a batted ball.
The key to the program is that each Challenger player is treated like every other player in more conventional baseball programs: all are outfitted with uniforms, use the same equipment and play their games at the same local baseball parks.
For teens like Jaden, Xavier and Michael, such a program would give each the opportunity to be part of a team, develop their physical and social skills, and – perhaps best of all – show off their baseball skills.
“Just because they’re in chairs doesn’t mean they can’t play,” Sandy Sarna, one of the boys’ educational assistants at Central Etobicoke High, said last week while out with the trio on the school’s baseball diamond. “So I think this is fantastic. I think it’s the best thing they can do for these guys, because they kind of get the raw end of the deal sometimes and it’s nice to see that people are caring enough to come out and support them.”
Decked out in baseball gear, meanwhile, the boys themselves were ready to get out and showcase their talents with bat and ball.
“I have a really good throw,” said Jaden, who was the very first player to sign up for Challenger Baseball in Etobicoke. “I can throw really far.”
Added a bat-swinging Xavier: “I like hitting. I have a really strong arm.”
To help make the boys’ baseball dreams a reality, however, Pinnock said EBA needs more recruits to join them in rounding out a few teams of five – and so far, they only have four potential Challenger players signed up, including eager prospective players Jaden, Xavier and Michael.
“We hope to start this season if we get enough players, but if not, it’ll be next season,” Pinnock said, noting that all Etobicoke kids aged four and up with cognitive or physical disabilities are invited to sign up for the free Challenger Baseball program. “We really want to do this right, and we need players to play.”
Anyone interested in signing up their child for Challenger Baseball, or volunteering themselves as a coach, umpire or ‘buddy’ is asked to contact Pinnock at email@example.com or 416-531-0003, or Di Rollo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pinnock said they are also looking for local businesses and companies interested in sponsoring a team.
For more information about Challenger Baseball – including a National Jamboree set to be held after the June 7 Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre – go to atmlb.com/SFwPDd