NEO Challenger Baseball scores big with players, fans

by Dan Holland

NEO Challenger Baseball, a special division of Little League Baseball for children and young adults with intellectual or physical challenges, is back home in Brecksville after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the national level, the adaptive sports league was founded in 1989, with the Northeast Ohio league being established in 1993 in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights area. The league received funding for many years through the Broadview Heights Lions Club under the leadership of Jim Cipriani, who took over leadership of the league beginning in 1999.

“This baseball league is for kids with all sorts of disabilities ranging in ages from 6-22,” explains current league president Brian Wolf, who also serves as a Broadview Heights councilman. “A lot of these kids don’t have an opportunity to play in an organized sport and so they get to play with their peers. Everyone gets to bat; everyone gets to play. We don’t keep track of outs or runs.”

Players are paired up with a parent or “buddy” both when batting and while playing the field. A special “beeper” ball is used to assist vision-impaired batters and a specially made, automated batting device can also be utilized.

“Last November, our president (Jim Cipriani) passed away, so someone had to take it over and restart it from scratch, because all of our money was tied up in probate,” explained Wolf. “The Lions Club was wonderful to work with and they made a substantial donation to get us going again. We were able to register with Little League, register with the state of Ohio, get shirts and hats for the kids and get them back out on the field.”

Wolf’s oldest son, Jack, 22, who has muscular dystrophy, has played in the league for many years.

“He loves baseball, so it was a perfect fit,” said Wolf. “When he was able to walk – when he was younger up until about age ten or so – he played baseball and soccer. Since then, he’s been in a wheelchair and can’t keep up with those kinds of sports. So, now we have adaptive sports.”

The league has two teams this year in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights area and two additional teams in Cleveland Heights. Games are played on Fields A & B behind the Brecksville Fire Station. Six games are scheduled for the summer of 2022.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the only sport they can do,” he added. “So, it gets them out with other kids. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Approximately 40 players on two teams showed up for a June 12 game on Field A in Brecksville. Local television and radio personality Dawn Kendrick threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

League vice-president Gus Gallucci, of Brecksville, served as emcee for the event, providing a play-by-play account of the action through a public address system. His son AJ, a former Challenger League player, filled in as coach.

Deryk Trautman, whose father, Andy, coached in the league for many years, coached the opposing team.

“We love doing this; my son was involved with it for many years,” said Gallucci. “I loved working with Jim Cipriani and helping out on the sidelines wherever I could – anything from catering to plugging in the sound system – whatever was needed. The Lions Club has done a tremendous job of supporting this Challenger Baseball group since its inception.”

Broadview Heights resident Dan Boyle participated in the game with his 19-year-old son Kevin, who has cerebral palsy.

“There are a lot of people here who are like family because we’re all in similar situations,” Boyle said. “We’re just out to have a good time, have some fun and play baseball.”

Melissa Walsh, of Brecksville, whose daughter Sierra, 23, participated in the game, said they have been involved with the league for the past 13 years.

“Challenger baseball gives all the kids an opportunity to get out there and have fun,” she said. “We just love it.”

Hinckley resident Mike Nary and his son Connor are in their second season with the league.

“All the kids have a ton of fun; it’s a really good community of people,” said Nary. “My son has cerebral palsy, and he loves being around people and loves sports, and this kind of molds both of those things together. He has an awesome time and everyone is so welcoming and so fun to be around.”

Broadview Heights resident Sanjay Shah, whose son Sankalp has participated in the league for many years, said he enjoys the camaraderie with the many families involved.

“In India, we used to play cricket,” he explained. “My son used to play cricket there, so this is somewhat similar. He loves it, because it’s good for him and he gets to socialize with everyone and work with the coaches. He’s been playing for a long time and he’s in more of a coaching-type role now.”

Wolf credits the city of Brecksville for working with the organization as well.

“I’m in constant contact with them on the status of the field – if it’s going to rain or not, if the field is in good condition or not and to make sure restrooms are open for our events,” he said. “They’ve been great to work with.

For league information, visit ∞