A mask couldn’t hide the fact that Lee Cook, the director of the East Meadow Baseball Softball Association’s Challenger League, was in his glory, riding a golf cart from one baseball field to another last Sunday morning, the first day of the season.
The Challenger program is designed for children, teenagers and young adults with special needs. It consists of five teams of players whose skills vary widely. The program, which is free, was founded by Cook in 1988.
“This is the first day of our spring season, and it’s going great,” said Cook. “They would’ve played last week, but [not with] the rain.”
“I’ll take you from field to field and show you different levels,” he told a Herald reporter, steering his cart toward a field that is named after him. “This is my entry-level team. This is my Yankees team.”
On the field, near Merrick Avenue, players of all ages stood ready at their positions, each accompanied by a family member, as 18-year-old Timothy Mui, who uses an electric wheelchair and was assisted by his father, was at home plate, ready to bat.
“When Timothy started, he couldn’t even swing the bat,” Cook said. “Timothy is blind.”
It wasn’t long before there was the high-pitched ping of a ball hitting a metal bat, and the spectators cheered. “That was a good pull ball,” Cook exclaimed.
Before the pandemic, he said, players from the other EMBSA divisions and local high schools volunteered to accompany the Yankee players on the field. But with the coronavirus pandemic dragging on, it’s safer to have family members do so.
“It’s one thing that they can get out there and play . . .,” Cook said. “But what’s really special is the interaction between the buddy and the player.” Even non-family “buddies” often come to care deeply about the players they assist and their needs, Cook explained, and become more aware and compassionate people.
On the next field over was the Ducks team, roughly 24 young adults, many of whom were cheering for one another, with chants like, “Let’s go, Ducks!”
“All the way through — swing all the way through,” Cook said, watching a young woman bat. “All the way, all the way.”
Then, after more encouragement from her fellow players, coaches and spectators, their words turned to cheers as the ball flew off her bat.
On the next field over, the Cyclones and Dodgers, who range in age from teens to young adults, were in the middle of a game. The cheers and encouragement were just as loud there as they were for the Ducks.
Off the field, during a break in the action, Dodgers player Vincent Markoski said that what he appreciates most about being a part of the Challenger program is the friends he’s made.
“Getting along with each other, playing with each other and learning about different people’s strengths and weaknesses,” his friend Jonathan Beiner added.
Adam Straus, a father of two boys, 18 and 14, who play for the Challenger Mets, said the social aspect of the program is an important component. “This is my third year with both my boys in the East Meadow Challengers,” Straus said. “They love it. They get all their stuff ready the night before so that they’re ready to go Sunday morning. They like that it’s not a high-pressure game, that if they make an error they won’t be looked down on.”
His family, Straus said, was thrilled that the season began in the spring this year. Last year, because of the pandemic, it began in the summer.
“A little more time out of the house — blow a little steam off,” Straus said. “It’s just all positive.”
For more information on the Challenger program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.