Athletes with disabilities take over Angel Stadium for Challenger Classic
Even Derek Chapman himself isn’t quite sure where he got the idea. But every time the petite 24-year-old from Santa Ana rounds third base, he doesn’t just run. He cartwheels to home plate.
The move earned him the nickname The Cartwheel Kid. And it earned him lots of fans Saturday as Chapman, who has Down syndrome, joined some 900 young people with physical and intellectual disabilities at Angel Stadium for the 12th annual Challenger Classic.
The kids are members of 40 baseball teams from throughout Southern California who play in the Challenger Division, a Little League offshoot dedicated to giving young people with special needs a chance to play ball.
The division got its start in 1989, Director Sam Ranck explained, thanks to a grassroots effort by families across the country who recognized a need for more opportunities for athletes with special needs.
Of the nearly 54 million school-aged children in the United States, nearly 3 million, or 5.2 percent, have a disability, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That doesn’t include kids who are institutionalized.
While it’s tough to find statistics showing the need for sports leagues dedicated to athletes with disabilities, Ranck said the growth of the Challenger Division speaks for itself. They now have more than 30,000 athletes playing on 900 teams across the country, with 50 to 75 new teams springing up each year.
In his job working at Target, Patrick Oswald of Laguna Niguel said he always makes sure customers who have children with disabilities know about the Challenger teams.
His son, Zach Oswald, has played in the Challenger Classic for about seven years.
Zach, 13, has cerebral palsy and uses a walker to get around. But a couple years ago, he tired of having his dad hold him up to bat. So now, the seventh-grader – who was sporting blue shoes with neon orange laces — has learned to bat with one arm so he can use the other to support himself.
Meanwhile, Sean McElwee and Steven Clark, who star together on the Emmy-winning A&E series “Born This Way,” played against each other in another corner of the stadium.
The Challenger Classic included four sets of games throughout the day, with each age division playing a two-inning, one-hour game on designated diamonds in the outfield. Adults pitch, throwing overhand or underhand until the players connect with the ball — even if that requires a little help.
Sammy Myers, 13, from San Clemente stood ready to assist her younger sister.
Eleven-year-old Rachel Myers has the genetic developmental disorder Williams syndrome. This marked Rachel’s first Challenger Classic, and the redhead was so excited she could hardly sleep the night before.
It helped that she had her friend, Sierra Lewis, by her side Saturday.
The two girls actually don’t have a lot in common. Rachel’s favorite part of baseball is playing in the field, while Sierra loves to bat. Sierra likes to watch the Angels play on TV, while Rachel finds that pretty boring. And while Rachel’s disorder causes delayed development, Sierra’s disorder — a rare one called Sotos syndrome — causes kids to grow too fast in their first years of life.
But baseball made Myers and Lewis teammates, and being teammates helped them become friends.
Jay Klein, a social work professor at Arizona State University who focuses on inclusion for people with disabilities, said events like Saturday’s Challenger Classic are a good opportunity for children with special needs to exercise and to socialize — a crucial skill that can help them in other areas of life.
Klein does hope to see more time and money dedicated to encouraging people with disabilities to participate in mainstream sports activities throughout the year, such as the 5Ks that seem to take place every weekend or other non-competitive activities.
Desegregating such sports would be good for everyone, he said, creating more options for young people with special needs while teaching mainstream kids to be more accepting.
But he said there’s no doubt that big events like the Challenger Classic are a memory these young athletes won’t soon forget.
“To play a game in Angels Stadium, that’s amazing,” he said.
There are about 25 jamboree events held throughout the country, Ranck said, with anywhere from 10 to 100 teams. But the Anaheim gathering — put on by Bank of America and the Angels Baseball Foundation — is one of the largest. And he said it’s the only one held each year in a professional ballpark.
“It’s one of the biggest honors of my life,” said Nathan Powell, 18, of getting to play at Angels Stadium.
He thought for a moment, then cupped his hand to his mouth and leaned in to whisper: “But my favorite team is the Cubs.”
Powell, who’s a senior at Tesoro High School, has autism. He talks of maybe joining the military one day and playing in a baseball league there. For now, he keeps busy with school, sports and watching movies with his friend, Jack, who’s part of the Challenger’s “buddy” program.
The program pairs mainstream students with peers who have special needs. Some of the “buddies” even offer physical assistance, helping players with more severe disabilities to hit the ball or run the bases.
Pep squads from four Orange County high schools also cheered on the athletes. That included Zyianna Preston, 14, who’s a freshman on the junior varsity squad at Villa Park High School.
Preston has her own story of overcoming challenges. On Christmas when she was just 8 years old, she saw her stepdad murder her mom, Zazell Preston, in their Anaheim apartment. She’s now being raised by her grandparents. And proud grandma Saidell Preston said she’s excelling in and out of school, with good grades, a spot as a flyer on the cheer squad and regular volunteer work.
Some of the volunteers Saturday were once players themselves. Lisanne Larsen of Mission Viejo, who’s legally blind, started playing on a Challenger team back in 1991. She’s helped coach teams since she aged out of the league in 1997, and she’s attended all 12 Challenger Classics.
Also helping out Saturday was Angels bench coach Dino Ebel, catching coach Steve Soliz and Chairman Dennis Kuhl.
Young athletes got to take their photos with former Angels players Chuck Finley, Clyde Wright and Mickey Hatcher. They also got to take part in a medal award ceremony near home plate and see the games displayed on the Jumbotron.
Chapman was up to bat when he caught sight of himself on the big screen. So he puffed out his chest and swung the bat in a circle over his head before hitting a fly ball into center field.
After cartwheeling into home plate, he turned to see his family in the stands holding signs spelling out his name just as he always signs it: “Derek A+.”
“That’s my name right there,” he shouted for all to hear.