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Biggest Season Yet For Plainview Little League Challengers

Baseball team for special-needs players expands with more kids, more games, and more fun in the sun

The Challengers play ball a little differently from most Little League teams. There’s no such thing as a strike or a ball, every player can stay up at bat until they get a hit, and they don’t even keep score. However, when you see the players (most of whom have special needs) running around the bases on a beautiful Sunday morning at Haypath Park in Old Bethpage, there’s no doubt about it: score or no score, strikes or no strikes, they’re having some good old-fashioned baseball fun.

Since its inception in 1998, The Plainview Little League Challengers has always been a non-competitive, co-ed league. While the players do get the opportunity to work on their batting and fielding skills, the emphasis is more on providing the benefits of the team sports experience to those who have traditionally been denied it. The real goal is getting special needs children out on the field, interacting with other kids, getting some fresh air and generally having a blast.

“Competition: we all like competition, but this is not about that,” said Gary Feit, a former special education teacher who ran the league from 1998-2011. “This is—” Feit began, only to be interrupted by cheers erupting from the sidelines; a player had just gotten a hit.

“It’s different than other Little Leagues, where you see the craziness and the competitiveness. Here, it’s nice because everybody’s just having fun,” said Charlie Devlin of East Rockaway, a parent who has watched his son play in the league for many years. Like many Challenger parents, Devlin said his son started out apathetic to the game— more interested in going to the outfield to pick dandelions than pay much attention to the ball— but now enjoys it and looks forward to playing every week during the season.

While it’s a bit of a trek for the Devlins to make it to Plainview, to them it’s worth it. According to Devlin, while there are now other special needs teams that play closer to home, nothing beats the sense of community with the Plainview Challengers. For many parents, that sense of community makes the events just as valuable for them as they are for their children— games present a rare opportunity to talk to parents of children with similar needs outside of the school setting.

Another parent, Dan Birkenhead, started out in the league just watching his son play, but decided that he wanted to do more. Now, Birkenhead has pitched almost every Plainview Challengers game for the last nine years, and watched many children grow up over home plate. Even though his son no longer plays (although he still comes down to Haypath Park to help coach the other kids), Birkenhead is still the regular pitcher. “We love being down here every week with the kids, they’re the greatest people in the world,” he said.

To accommodate different ability levels, Birkenhead throws both overhand and underhand pitches. For the smallest children, sometimes he gets down on his knees to toss them a ball they can reach. The goal is to give every child a fair chance to get a hit.

The league doesn’t only benefit special needs children. “Buddies,” or typical children who assist the Challengers players, also have fun and gain extra understanding of what it’s like to be different. Feit and Robert Pickus, who took over leadership of the league this year, feel that giving the typical children a chance to better understand and have empathy for special needs children is an important side benefit of the program.

Some buddies do more than just help the children at the plate or around the bases. One Challengers buddy is planning to parlay her experience with the league into a career in special education, and others will likely follow in her footsteps.

For Mitch Pearlstein of Old Bethpage, a new parent in the league whose 5-year-old daughter just started playing, the experience has benefits for both his children.

“It’s good for her to come down and be on a team. It’s good for my son to sort of watch and know that [she’s] on a team, because it’s usually the other way around,” said Pearlstein, who hopes to see more special needs athletic teams crop up all over the Island for the benefit of children like his daughter.

“A lot of these parents, they may have other kids who don’t have special needs, and the kids who have special needs don’t have any place to go, you know? So this is a place where they can go— they have their own team,” added Feit.

Under the leadership of Pickus, the 2012 season is turning out to be the biggest yet. Not only is the team playing more games (approximately 10), and playing away games, including trips to Bethpage and East Meadow, but the league is getting bigger. With the roster rapidly approaching 30 children, it may be time to start subdividing the players into teams of different ability levels, something the larger special needs baseball program in East Meadow already does. According to Pickus, since there’s an entire second field available at Haypath Park, the league can still accommodate many more children. Still, no matter how big it grows, it will remain non-competitive.

Legislator Judy Jacobs, who attended the Challengers opening day festivities this year on April 1, had nothing but praise for Pickus and the organization. “It just warms your heart that there are people like Rob Pickus, who care enough to give so much to help so many. Words really could never describe the compassion and happiness which could be felt by all who attended,” said Jacobs.

At the end of the season, the Challengers will get to play a special night game, complete with an announcer providing commentary, then take part in an annual tournament with several other Challenger teams. Tournament participants will receive hats, shirts, and trophies, and just like their siblings, they’ll have a big end-of-season pizza party to look forward to.

Registration for Challenger baseball remains open all season, and children with all types of special needs are invited. Though the league is located in Old Bethpage, players from all over Long Island, from ages 5 to 21, can register to participate. “Anyone who wants to play is more than welcome,” said Pickus.

For more information about the league and to register, please contact either Robert Pickus at rpickus@plainview­ or Brian Dossie at bdossie@plainview­ Volunteers are welcome as well.