WINNER OF NATIONAL MURROW AWARD
By Mike Bush
St. Louis, MO (KSDK)-On every baseball field, you can find an infield, an outfield and a pitcher's mound. But on this one you can also find compassion, hope and joy.
This is the Challenger Baseball League, where every player springs to life even when their bodies won't.
"It's a range of disabilities, " says league organizer Buck Smith. "We have kids that have down syndrome, cerebal palsy, kids with autism, muscular dystrophy, anything that won't let them play on a traditional team. "
Smith.is a lifelong St. Louisan.
"Buck is a really special guy. He goes out of his way to touch the lives of each player, " says parent Bob Fisher. "He's an angel to all these kids."
Smith is a 48 year old graphic artist with Fleishman-Hillard. He read an article in Sports Illustrated about a similar league in Connecticut and like a catchy tune, he couldn't get it out of his head.
"They talked about how the kids responded, " he explained. "How these kids with disabilities really didn't have the chance to play in a traditional league and it was something they could do and they just got so much out of it."
So, he contacted the Special School District and put ads in a couple of local newspapers and as all baseball lovers know, if you build it, they will come.
"We started out with 14 kids on the field running around in winter coats and before you know it, they really liked it, " laughes Smith.
Now, 15 years later there are players and teams from all over the bi-state area.
The season culiminates with the all-star game where all 150 kids in the league are all-stars.
"With all their surgeries and their therapies this is when they forget about everything., " says grandparent Mary Morini.
Every Challenger League player is paired up with a buddy, an able bodied volunteer there to help.
"Getting them ready to bat, helping them swing if they need help and then just kind of backing them up in the field, ": says Smith.
22 year old Nellie Lavigne has been a buddy since her dad brought her
to a game when she was just 9. She's now 22.
In this league, everyone plays and everyone scores.
The last batter every half-inning hits a homerun.
And 14 year old Bryan Rhode finished with a flourish.
A head first slide into home.
"He feels like a regular kid. That's what it does for him., " laughs Mornini.
For the families, seeing these children play baseball is a marvel. For Robby Fisher, making it to his 17th birthday is a miracle.
"The future is always uncertain, " says his dad Bob Fisher. " You never know what's going to pop up but he's been a tough kid the whole way."
Fisher has been through dozens of surgeries because of complications due to cerebral palsy. He played all season in a wheelchair but for his final at bat of the year, he was determined to stand-up.
"He's dreamed of this for so long and this is the most awesome thing I've ever seen, " says his dad.
And as he came around third, it seemed every parent, coach and player in the league willed him across home plate.
"I don't know what to say about that. If I start telling you about that, " says Bob Fisher holding back tears, " I can't be on camera very long."
Those who think baseball is just a game haven't watched one of these games.
"It's the most important thing I've ever done. And it's also the most fun, " says Smith.
The Challenger League, offering some special kids fellowship, understanding, and a league of their own.