ELLSWORTH, Maine — It may not rival this weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series at Fenway Park or the continuing playdown to a new Little League world champion in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
But for four baseball teams from Ellsworth, Lincoln County, the Medomak Valley region and South Portland-Biddeford, those more historic locales had nothing on Demeyer Field, which was home Saturday and Sunday to the inaugural Maine State Little League Challenger Jamboree.
“This is actually my first year doing this, before the Challenger season I never played baseball before,” said 10-year-old Connor Richards, a member of Damariscotta-based Lincoln County team. “I’m having very much fun.”
The Challenger Division was established in 1989 as a separate division of Little League to provide an opportunity for youngsters with physical and mental challenges to play baseball. Teams are set up according to abilities, rather than age, and batters may hit off a tee or be pitched to by a player or coach.
Each player gets to bat in a Challenger game, and the side is retired when the offense has batted through the roster, when a predetermined number of runs have been scored or when three outs are recorded. Little League recommends that no score be kept during Challenger games.
Today, more than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger divisions worldwide, including a small number of teams based in Maine.
The Ellsworth Challenger Little League formed three years ago and has grown from 16 players in 2015 to double that number now.
“Our hope and dream was to have a jamboree like this in five years,” league president Tamara Wilson Crowley said, “but here we are three years later. We’re ahead of schedule.”
Crowley was motivated, over a Saturday morning breakfast at Sylvia’s Cafe, to help organize Ellsworth’s program along with Todd Wagstaff and Bob Dorr not because she had a child who might directly benefit from Challenger baseball, but by another parent’s dilemma.
“A friend of mine has an amazing daughter who has Down’s syndrome, and there was one time I was bragging about my son after a breakout weekend he had in Little League and she got really emotional,” Crowley said. “I said, ‘It’s nothing to get emotional about,’ and she said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever have that experience for my daughter. I won’t be that parent sitting in the bleachers.’
“The next day Todd posted a link on Facebook about Challenger baseball with the words, ‘Wouldn’t it be great.’ I sent him a private message and said I’m all in.”
Ellsworth was the first northern or eastern Maine community to field a Challenger baseball team and those organizers helped the Lincoln County program get started a year later.
“For these kids, this is their chance to be involved in the Little League program and in baseball,” said Lincoln County organizer and coach Paul Miner, whose second-year roster boasts 11 players. “It’s really their only opportunity in our area to play baseball and be on a team and enjoy that whole experience, that fun of playing the game.”
Noah Carver, a blind 13-year-old from Beals Island, makes the 130-mile round trip with his parents each weekend to play with for the Ellsworth team.
“I had been playing through the farm leagues since I was 5, but then when things got a little more competitive I found that it was quite hard for me to participate in Little League with the rest of my peers,” said Carver, an active incoming eighth-grader whose other activities include running cross-country, skiing, horseback riding, singing in a youth choir and hosting a radio show. “So I didn’t play Little League for a couple of years.
“Then one day mom got a phone call from Todd Wagstaff, who told her about the Challenger division. I said, ‘What the heck,’ and came to Demeyer Field on a Saturday morning and played a game and said, ‘This is great!’
“I’ve been playing ever since.”
Players aren’t the only beneficiaries of the Challenger program.
Most players are accompanied by “buddies” who assist them on the field but whenever possible encourage the players to bat and make plays themselves.
Carver’s father, Buzz, is his buddy, but in many cases the helpers come from the same age group as the players.
“It’s fun to watch the Challenger kids have fun and play baseball,” rising Ellsworth seventh-grader Morgan Clifford, now in her second year as a buddy, said.
Crowley sees growth not only among those who play Challenger baseball but those who help them play.
“One more thing I’m proud about with this program is that we’re raising incredible human beings, the next generation of compassionate young people,” she said. “These kids who give their time to be buddies are great kids.”
Those relationships that begin on the baseball field often take on a more complete form back at school.
“So many of these players are kids that the buddies go to school with,” Wagstaff said. “They just didn’t know much about them until they met them on the field. Now they see them in school and they’re friends.
“The players get to be out on the field and have fun in a safe way so they get a lot out of it, but while we do it for the players I think the volunteers and buddies and the parents may get the most out of it. They have a blast.”
The jamboree, which drew considerable financial support from Machias Savings Bank and other local businesses, marked the end of the Challenger season for most participating teams, but Ellsworth’s season began with the two-day event and will continue with in-house play that continues every Saturday through early October.
“We found a niche in fall ball with our kids because the fields are open and the weather is better,” Wagstaff said.
But no matter the time of year, the Challenger players are finding that any day on the baseball diamond is a good day indeed.
“Everyone has their own different abilities and quirks and all of that,” said Carver, who hits the baseball despite his lack of sight by taking audio queues from both the pitcher and his buddy. “Everyone is different no matter if you’re sighted or blind, or maybe you have motor difficulty or speech difficulty, or maybe you have mental issues.
“But you’re valued just as much as anyone else on this team. You’re accepted for who you are, and that’s a really, really great feeling.”