More than 2.7 million youngsters play Little League baseball. Kids of every size and skill level. Kids of every race and dozens of nationalities. Girls play too. But only in the past three years have all children been able to participate.
Thanks to the Little League Challenger Division, boys and girls with mental or physical disabilities know the unforgettable feeling of hitting a baseball on a sunny Saturday morning and heading for first base as their parents and friends cheer them on.
Those in wheelchairs are helped down the base line by "buddies," youngsters without disabilities who are there to lend a hand. The result is a healthy mix of children working together to enjoy the national pastime.
Saticoy, Conejo Valley and Moorpark Little Leagues offer Challenger Divisions in Ventura County. The Saticoy program is in its second year, and the other two are newly formed.
Challenger play has increased dramatically nationwide. In three years, the number of leagues offering the program has increased from four to 524, said Jim Ferguson, an administrator at Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.
Because Saticoy is the only Challenger Division on the west end of the county, it draws players for its two teams from Oxnard, Ventura, Fillmore, Ojai, Santa Paula and Carpinteria. The disabilities include multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome and severe learning disabilities.
"Basically, everything there is," said Joe Piles, who runs the Saticoy program along with his wife, Elaine. "There are no restrictions on who can play."
Saticoy Challenger games are played at three Ventura locations: El Camino Park, Arroyo Verde Park and the league's home field, the Fritz-Huntsinger Youth Sports Complex.
The four Moorpark teams play at Chaparral Middle School. A field for the first-year Conejo Valley Little League Challenger program was developed this year by the Conejo Valley Recreation and Park District. Moorpark teams will travel to Conejo Valley for inter-league play.
The Conejo Valley field is one of four at Fiore Playfields, and players and parents of regular Little League teams walk past the Challenger field to reach the other three.
Last Saturday was opening day for Conejo Valley Challenger play, and several people walking to regular Little League games paused to watch the disabled players.
The Conejo Valley Recreation and Park District "has done so much for handicapped kids," said Pat Hendrickson, the Conejo Valley Challenger director, "but this is one of the first programs that encourages a lot of parent participation."
The stands were full on opening day. Each time a player hit the ball--either off an adjustable chest-high tee or from a soft pitch by Hendrickson--the fans cheered mightily.
Denise Cleveland sat in the top row of the stands smiling broadly. Her 13-year-old son, Brian, was playing first base.
"For these kids to get a taste of baseball is fantastic," she said. "It elevates their self-esteem more than you can imagine. They hold their heads up."
The next batter hit a pop fly near first base. Brian Cleveland tentatively circled under the ball, reached up and made the catch. Everyone cheered.
"That's your kid!" a woman in the front row said, turning to Brian's mother.
"Yep, that's my kid!" Denise Cleveland said.