While the Challenger League is a new branch of baseball in Gillette, kids are still kids.
The league is designed for special needs children. Offered by the Little League, its the first of its kind in Wyoming. The first practice took place Wednesday.
Eager kids playing on a diamond, making new friends and learning America’s pasttime is nothing out of the ordinary.
“Remember, you’ve got to follow the ball, Jacob,” a mother said to her young son, who was tending first base.
“I know,” the little boy answered back, sounding irritated.
Some things never change, no matter who you are.
A group of kids in a variety of ages gathered on the outskirts of the baseball diamond on Field 6 at Dalbey Memorial Park.
In a sense, they are all part of a test group.
Based on the smiles that lit up the baseball field and the all-inclusive nature of the play, the experiment is going to be very successful.
“It exceeded my expectations,” said Gillette Little League vice president Kim Pederson.
For many of the players, this is the first time they fielded a ground ball or ran to first base after a hit.
Running bases and chasing down fly balls under the warm spring sun is great exercise, but it’s also a great way to socialize and make friends.
“In the past, I’ve never been able to get him out here,” David Fleming said of his son, David Fleming, Jr.
Fleming, who recently moved with his 14-year-old son to Gillette from South Carolina, has had difficulty getting his son away from video games and into an environment where he can socialize. The Challenger League could be just what the doctor ordered.
Fleming saw his son active and engaged.
“It’s going pretty well. He normally just talks,” he said.
But the Challenger League is good for the coaches, too.
“I’m having more fun doing this than I have coaching anywhere else,” said Chris Rhodes, who also coaches in Little League.
Three other Little League coaches, Donnie Franzen, Toy Buell and Mark Rumfeldt, will work in the Challenger League in its inaugural year.
“I think the kids had a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun,” said Franzen, who also coaches Little League and has a child on the Challenger team.
Franzen tried to get his son, Josh Long, involved in soccer before baseball, but it was tough to keep all the kids active simultaneously in that sport.
But baseball is a sport that Long has watched his younger brother play for years.
“He really enjoys watching, so it’s good to get him out here and get him involved in this stuff,” Franzen said.
The Challenger League also seems perfect for Rhonda Curry, who has a 9-year-old girl in the program.
“She’s tried to participate in the rec center sports, which are awesome, but she’s just not to that capability,” Curry said.
For Rhodes this was also a chance to spend time with Michelle James, a longtime friend who will play in the league this spring.
“The first thing that popped into my head was this is something I can do with Michelle,” said Rhodes, who has known the 18-year-old since she was 4.
What is the Challenger League?
Players from the Gillette Babe Ruth and Little League programs will volunteer as buddies to help out during practices and games this season.
So far, 16 players have signed up, enough to field two teams. Teams can have players ages 4-22, if they are still in school.
Rosters can have as few as six players.
League officials hope to field at least four teams before the season opener May 21, but registration is open all season.
For more information, or to register for the Challenger League, call Pederson at 689-6474 or Terry Bruce at 680-1727.