Walking through the East Meadow Little League Baseball Complex on Merrick Avenue on select Sundays, you’ll hear the crack of baseballs and softballs on aluminum bats, shouts of support from encouraging parents, and raucous cheers as a ball rolls into the outfield grass for a hit.
But what makes the environment extraordinary is the fact that approximately 125 of the 1,200 kids who are enrolled in five divisions of play likely never dreamed they would ever have the chance to play organized baseball.
The Challenger Division is for children and young adults who are mentally or physically disabled. Its participants, ages 6 to 21, play at various levels, depending on their ability. At the highest level, the kids pitch, bat and catch themselves. At the lower levels, they are assisted by coaches and volunteers, and some even play in wheelchairs.
Baseball and softball are usually all about competition, but they take on new meaning in the Challenger Division, which offers disabled kids the opportunity to step onto a baseball diamond, be part of a team and play a game that otherwise would exclude them.
Representatives from Little League International first approached East Meadow Baseball Softball officials with the idea of creating the league in 1990. Lee Cook, who had become a Little League director just two years earlier, volunteered to follow it through. Having no knowledge of coaching children with special needs, at a time when special education was not fully understood by the public — and with no experience in creating a league from scratch — Cook had a challenge ahead of him.
Twenty-three years later, what started as a league with just two players has grown to five teams in four divisions. And on Sundays, when Cook walks across the Merrick Avenue ball fields, he hears those familiar sounds, too, and, he says, “I just see the kids having fun.”
A physical and emotional challenge