Few children can resist the lure of green, grassy diamonds under dazzling blue skies during baseball season. Children with special needs are no different and, thanks to Eddie Garretson and the other coaches in the Springfield Chargers Baseball League, they can indulge their inner home run hitter.
"I first saw a Challengers game in Dumfries in 1992," said Garretson, who had been involved with the Springfield Little League program since the early 1980s. The following year, he talked about the possibility of starting a Challengers program with members of the Central Springfield League and with nine players.
With more than 200 players on the rosters earlier this year, the Springfield Challengers program will celebrate its 15th anniversary next spring.
"It ended up turning into something much larger than we figured it would be," Garretson said.
Currently, the Challengers are gearing up for the fall program, which is slightly smaller than the spring league, he said. Eventually, he hopes to expand their fund-raising efforts to allow more families to get involved and let their league grow.
CHALLENGER BASEBALL is divided into two leagues, Garretson said: the 'minor' leagues, named after local high school teams, are made up of children between 4 and 12 years of age; the 'major' leagues, named after profession sports teams, are for those players between 13 and 22.
"I knew I had to get involved as soon as I saw it," Garretson said. "I've always had a desire to work with special needs kids, I used to volunteer with the (Fairfax County) Training Center and the Special Olympics."
Not many people were familiar with the Challengers program when it was first introduced, he said, because not all little league organizations have a Challenger division. Now, he has players from all across Northern Virginia coming together each Sunday to play games.
"We're recognized as one of the largest programs in the world," Garretson said.
In Challengers games, "everybody bats and everybody scores," said Bella Hosler, director of the major league for Challenger Baseball. "There are no outs. Some of the younger kids have buddies that run with them and if some of the older players need help, they'll have a buddy too."
Parents have told her that their child will put his or her uniform on first thing Sunday morning and wear it, grinning, until it's game time, Hosler said.
"They can't wait to play," she said. "The parents enjoy it too, they get to watch their kids do something they thought they'd never see them do."
Garretson said watching the parents is almost as fun as watching the game.
"They get to meet people from all over and make new friends," he said. "The parents are either in the stands or out in the field helping out during the games."
SOCIALIZATION, WHETHER for player or parent, is a significant aspect of what Challenger baseball is all about, Garretson said.
When children first sign up to play, they are not required to have any skill playing baseball, he said. Then again, this program isn't just about running bases and hitting.
"Baseball skills are secondary to developing good social skills," he said. "You can see their confidence levels rise during the season. They've helped me overcome some things I thought I couldn't get through."
Because the needs of each child differ, Garretson said the traditional baseball rule book is thrown out.
"We have 220 different sets of rules," he laughed. "We go by what each youngster wants and is capable of doing and go from there."
Each year, during Mother's Day weekend in May, the entire Challengers program is invited to a tournament in Virginia Beach, with teams from across the country and even parts of Europe competing, Hosler said.
"Seeing all the kids enjoying themselves is so much fun," she said. "We know we're doing something to let them have a good life."
The families of as many of the 220 players take over a La Quinta Inn in Virginia Beach, meaning no one has to worry about making too much noise, Garretson said. The hotel in turn provides buffet breakfasts before games and lets the teams have a big party at the end of the day.
Paul Sollers said his son Nolan, now 17, has been playing baseball with the Challengers since the first day they saw a game, when he was 5.
"Someone at Nolan's school told us about it and the first game we went to, Eddie put him on the team," Paul Sollers said.
Nolan, who has cerebral palsy, is eagerly awaiting the start of the fall season.
"If he could play baseball every day, he would," Paul Sollers said. "He enjoys every minute of it."
WHILE THE CHALLENGERS team has made Paul Sollers and his wife, Tracy, more aware of groups available to special needs children and their families, he said the greatest benefit is the chance to watch his son play ball.
"If we didn't know about this team, we never would have had a chance to see him play baseball," he said. "Now he loves to watch games too."
In addition to the Challengers, Garretson sponsors Eddie's Club during the off-season, from October to March, on Sunday afternoons at Irving Middle School in Springfield.
"We bring in teen volunteers from all over the area and we offer the kids arts and crafts, games, basketball, indoor baseball," he said. "We have Halloween and Christmas parties, we go bowling once a month, we have dances during the year, we go to Saturday matinees, we go to George Mason basketball games."
Bringing the children together on and off the baseball diamond is important to Garretson, who said his programs have been able to help families and children that need extra attention.
"We're going to have a big kick-off party the last Sunday in September at Accotink Park for the start of the recreation program," he said. "That will bring both organizations together (baseball and Eddie's Club). We've got something going on every weekend."
Even though the children with special needs are the ones the programs are designed for, Garretson questions who gets a bigger benefit from these outings.
"Our teen volunteers get so much out of it," he said. "We've got a great staff and unbelievable parents who really enjoy making this program a dream come true."
Hosler, who drives to Springfield from Fredericksburg during the season, agrees.
"If people think they're having a bad day, they should come out and watch the Challengers," she said. "They're so happy to play."