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Challenger League reminds Suns that it's just a game

May 29, 2009|By BOB PARASILITI

Jeremy Springer and Chris Curran don't travel in the same circles on most days.

On Friday, it was different. They crossed paths on common ground.

It was called baseball.

Curran and his Hagerstown Suns teammates greeted Springer and the players of the Hagerstown Challenger League on Municipal Stadium's field for a one-inning game. It was a half-hour of action that was fun and, in some cases, life-changing.

"It was exciting," said the 18-year-old Springer, an 11-year veteran of the Little League division for players, boys and girls, with physical and mental challenges. "It was a chance for special-needs players to be with people who are regular baseball players and we accepted one another."

For Curran, a 21-year-old outfielder with the Suns, it was equally defining.

"This all makes you realize what you have and it reminds you about how it was when you were a kid," Curran said. "When you stop and see how they all come out and enjoy this, you realize that this is more than a job."

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It started out as a chance for the two Challenger Division teams to play one of their games on a big, professional-sized field. On this night, it was a treat because they had some budding professional players as "buddies" to help them hit, field, throw and run the bases.

Every member of the two Challenger teams got an opportunity to hit after having their names announced over the public address system. Everyone singled, hitting live pitching or off the tee while the Suns helped encourage and direct every player in their personal victories. The Suns helped the players field the ball, pointed to what bases to throw to, and ran with or pushed wheelchairs around the bases.

On Friday, it was a tied score, but everyone won.

"I loved it," said Suns third baseman Steven Souza. Souza was the first player out of the clubhouse and sat in the home dugout, greeting the Challenger players as they came on the field. He shook hands with each one, posed for pictures and even traded hats with a newfound friend.

"I have a cousin with Downs (Syndrome) and I know what it is like," Souza said. "Anything I can do to make them happy and put a smile on their face, that's what it's all about."

The Suns took the field looking a little apprehensive with what they were about to undertake. But once they saw all the smiles and inviting faces of the Challengers, the Suns relaxed and began to mingle.

"This puts it all in perspective," said Suns manager Matt LeCroy.

The players started to follow Souza's lead, signing autographs and posing for pictures. They gave cheers and high-fives to every player, and they all giggled and enjoyed every moment.

"It was cool because I got to hit the ball farther than I ever did before," said Sara Shoemaker, 9. "And then I got signatures and a picture of my favorite player (relief pitcher Patrick Arnold)."

The outing was the idea of Suns general manager Bob Flannery, who has done similar events at three other markets where he has worked. In those venues, the Challenger Night has become a tradition, and Flannery said plans are to make it one here, too.

The motivation, though, was simple.

"I'm a parent," Flannery said. "It is great to see the kids get out there and allow the parents to forget all the issues of the day. Baseball is a kid's game. Just let them play, hit the ball and run the bases. It is kind of emotional."

Challenger coordinator Marty Lumm saw it from a different angle, pitching half of the game. The experience is everything the league wanted.

"The kids loved it," Lumm said. "It's the little things, like having their names announced before they bat, that makes them the happiest. This was special because they got to meet the players and the players were great. They all came out and asked each of the kids' names so they could talk to them. It's tough because each kid is different, but all the kids loved it."

The Suns loved it too, and got more out if it than they may have bargained for.

"This reminds you of how you were when you were a kid," Curran said. "Today, I was upset because I didn't have a very good batting practice, but it all went away when I came out here. This is a lot bigger than baseball."

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