When will I play baseball?
Wally Scoggins is 11 years old and loves to play Little League baseball. He’d much rather hit the ball than stand in the outfield to play defense and when asked how fast he runs the bases, he responds “a lot fast.”
However, Wally isn’t your typical 11-year-old Little Leaguer. Wally is autistic and has Pallister-Killian syndrome. But that doesn’t keep him from playing the game he’s grown to love thanks to the Challenger Division.
Sadly for Wally and others like him in Rutherford County, they might not have the chance to take to the diamond this summer.
The Rutherford County Challenger Division allows children 4-21 years old the chance to play baseball as long as they have a medical diagnosis that prohibits them from regular Little League play and are still enrolled in the school system. The division fielded two teams in 2013, each with eight players. This year, however, they have just three players registered and verbal commitments from four others. If the numbers stand, there will be no Challenger Division in Rutherford County and those seven players won’t play baseball this summer.
The Challenger Division and coordinator Angie Scoggins, Wally’s mother, have held sign-ups as a part of Rutherfordton and Forest City Little League as well as separate sign-ups, but the kids and parents aren’t coming out.
Angie and her husband, Brian, coach a team every year. She believes that the lack of registered players has more to do with the commitment of parents than anything.
“The parents have to be interested,” Angie said. “For most of the kids, it’s hard for them to understand the concept of playing ball much less knowing that they have the opportunity to.
“We both (Angie and Brian) grew up playing softball and baseball and always wanted to be involved in the sport with our child. It was up to us to get him involved.”
Since Angie and Brian signed Wally up for Challenger baseball when he was 5, they’ve seen tremendous growth in him.
“He couldn’t run the bases at first. He would scream whenever it came time to run the bases. It scared him to death. He would get close to a base and stop like a spooked horse,” Angie said. “When he ran the bases for the the first time without crying I just about lost it. I’ve seen that growth in each kid in some way.”
Registration is just $35 which covers the cost of a jersey, hat or visor and a trophy at the end of the season. Even if a family can’t afford the registration costs, sponsors are in place to help those in need. With that in mind, Angie wants parents to understand that no obstacle is too great for either the parents or players.
“Just give it a try,” Angie said. “I don’t want parents to think that their child is severely handicapped and can’t hold the bat, that they can’t do it. We have plenty of people to help them in any way so they can play baseball. Just try it and see what it’s about.
“Don’t let physical challenges or finances be a reason not to play, that’s something that can be handled and we can make it happen.”
During games the kids have several “buddies” on the field to help them position themselves on defense or run the bases. Buddies can even help a child hold the bat and take a swing.
“Maybe parents don’t think their child can do it and they don’t understand how much assistance is out there on the field for them,” Angie said.
Angie has countless stories of children finding great joy on the baseball field, regardless of how much they truly knew what was happening or how much help they needed to play.
“We had one severely-handicapped player who was in a wheelchair and needed someone to help him hold the bat, but to see the smile on his face when he was being pushed around the bases in that chair was special,” Angie said. “I don’t know, cognitively, if he knew what was going on, but I knew he enjoyed it. He may not have understood the concept of baseball but he knew it was fun. I could see it.”
Angie isn’t ready to give up on experiencing more unforgettable moments this spring.
“I’ve thought about giving up,” Angie said. “I hate it and I don’t want to because the kids need this. They need the socialization and they need the exercise.
“It’s a big deal to us. We love seeing the players, their growth and their accomplishments. Thinking that it might not happen this year is tough”
Families of these players also reap the benefits of Challenger baseball.
“It’s great for the parents to have the support too,” Angie said. “I’ve seen families with a young child that has Down’s syndrome be able to talk to parents that have an older kid with Down’s syndrome be able to relate and talk about this together. They can meet other parents that understand. It’s not about what your kid can or can’t do, every child is everyone’s kid.”
Even if the division can form two teams and have a season, they’ll still face familiar challenges such as scheduling and field accessibility.
Many other special needs leagues offer rubberized, handicap-accessible fields that cater to those in wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility aids to avoid mud and dirt. Some even have buzzers on each base to assist the visually impaired.
Angie hopes one day to have a similar field in Rutherford County, but for now they make due with the tee-ball field at Crestview Park and another field at Forest City-Dunbar.
But despite the challenges of dirt, mud and high grass, enthusiastic players like Bryson Williams, Challenger’s lone wheelchair player last season, finds unlimited joy in baseball on Saturday morning. One day in 2008 Bryson woke up to a flat tire on his wheelchair, but instead of missing his game his mother pulled him around the bases in a little red wagon.
On the days where both of Bryson’s wheels are topped off with air, he still has to take the long way around most fields to even get to the dugouts because his wheelchair is too wide to fit through the gates.
“It broke my heart to tell that every time he wanted to come in and out of the field he had to go way out to the outfield and back around,” Angie said. “That’s not fair to him.”
However, Bryson would much rather be told to take the long way onto the field over being told there won’t be any baseball this season.
After losing players from last season to graduation, family relocations, surgeries or other circumstances, the league is relying on an influx of new players to keep the division alive. If those players don’t come out, Angie may need to explore other options.
“If we don’t get enough participation, what do we do,” Angie asks. “I’ve considered trying to play during the fall season to have more time to advertise because at this point in the year that might be a better option.”
“I love Challenger baseball, its meaning and what it’s here for,” Angie said. “I like seeing the smiles during the games and the disappointment when the season ends, but right now it’s hard not having the answers.”
With the season approaching, there’s still hope that kids like Bryson and Wally will suit up every Saturday morning for a game of hardball.
“Those faces are why I’m not going to give up,” Angie said as she looked at a picture of past players. “Now Wally is coming up to me like, ‘Mom, when do I get to play baseball?’ It breaks my heart to tell him that I don’t know if he will this year.”
For more information:
Call: Angie Scoggins (828) 289-6258 or Donna Cobb (828) 429-4520
Visit: Rutherford Challenger Baseball on Facebook
Learn more about Challenger baseball at www.littleleague.org/learn/about/divisions/challenger.htm