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Disabato: Challenger League provides smiles for baseball players with special needs

The Challenger League Tinley Park is big hit with players their families. SouthtownStar columnist PDisabasays field their own would make

The Challenger League in Tinley Park is a big hit with players and their families. SouthtownStar columnist Pat Disabato says a field of their own would make the smiles brighter. | Photo courtesy of Steven J. Brylka

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Updated: August 9, 2013 6:09AM



The smile on Josh Catoire’s face couldn’t have been more profound.

Or magical.

The “J-Man,” as he’s known around the Tinley Park Bobcats Challenger Baseball League, explained in great detail how he homered at Bettenhausen Park earlier in the season.

In the Bobcats organization, a home run gets your name on the “Homerun Club” sign located on the concession stand.

That’s big time, the ambition of every kid who swings a bat.

The “J-Man” not only described the homer to yours truly before Tuesday night’s Challenger League All-Star festivities, he provided proof of the prodigious blast in the form of a video from his mother’s phone.

“Here it is,” the J-Man said.

I watched. After taking the first pitch, the J-Man unloads on a belt-high offering, sending the ball beyond the 195-foot sign in center field for a home run.

The camera quickly focuses on the J-Man making his way around the bases, right fist clenched high, as the fans go wild.

“Over the green monster,” the J-Man said.

Yes, over the green monster, indeed, I say back to him.

“And I had an injury, too,” the J-Man said, referring to an ankle problem.

No “DL” for the J-Man. For that matter, I doubt any player in the Challenger League has seen the disabled list because of an ankle injury. Their love of the game and of life are too strong to allow a sprain or strain to prevent them from playing baseball.

The J-Man is the second player from the Challenger League to have gone yard.

Hey, a home run is an extraordinary accomplishment for any player — even more so if you’re a member of the special needs Challenger League, composed of participants ranging from 5 to 27 years old.

Approximately 50 players, suffering from cerebral palsy to learning disabilities, compete at Bettenhausen Park in Tinley Park every Tuesday for 10 weeks.

Some participants require the use of wheelchairs, though the majority require little to no assistance.

The smiles on the faces of the players, both boys and girls, as they play baseball are genuine.

You can’t help but smile back.

The Challenger League, started in 1995 by Mike Berkery, just completed its 18th season. Denis Murphy and his son, Kyle, have been a part of every one. Murphy is the director of the league, volunteering his time to make sure everything runs efficiently.

Murphy knows firsthand what having this league has meant to Kyle, afflicted with neurofibrometosis, a genetic disorder of the nervous system that mainly affects how nerve cells form and grow.

“Kyle looks forward to putting that uniform on,” Murphy said of Kyle, 23. “It’s great physical activity for him. He loves it. All the kids do. It’s baseball.”

A sort of carnival preceded Tuesday’s All-Star game. There were ring toss, bean bags, accuracy drills and radar-gun readings set up on the field for players to test their skills and for families to mingle. There was fun to be had for everyone.

The amount of pride and love at Bettenhausen Park was heartwarming. It was community support at its finest.

“It’s heartwarming and reminds you of what is simple,” said Gail Behrman, an Orland Park resident whose son, Andrew, 18, has cerebral palsy. “It brings things into reality and is so less complicated.”

When I mention to Behrman that many people would consider life more complicated raising a child with special needs, she thinks for a second.

“It can be complicated, but it bring rewards that you wouldn’t know otherwise,” said Behrman, who also has a 21-year-old son, Matthew, and 15-year-old daughter, Melanie. “Andrew is a blessing. We are better because of him.”

It’s obvious the Challenger League has made the lives of the players and their families better.

The Bobcats Organization, celebrating its 40th year, picks up the cost of each player in the Challenger League, including uniforms and trophies. Raising a special needs child requires additional dollars for most families. That the Bobcats absorb the cost is extremely generous.

The Tinley Park Park District has been a valuable partner as well.

“We all try to work together,” said Pat Callaghan, Bobcats president. “It’s important for the players and their families. Our kids (Challenger League) will play the Bobcats in-house and travel teams, and Andrew sends teams over here, too. I think those kids get as much, if not more, out of this than the Challenger players.”

Three teams compete in the league: the Cubs (ages 5 to 10), Sox (ages 11 to 16) and Angels (ages 17 to 27). Games are three innings. Coaches pitch to the batters. There are no outs. Every player is hitting 1.000. Not a single fielder has committed an error. It’s not about wins and losses. Every person who participates is a winner.

“My daughter (Chrissy) looks forward to this,” said Tom Wojcik, a coach and announcer for the All-Star festivities. “When she was younger, she would get upset — visibly cry — when it would rain. There’s a pretty strong relationship between the kids and the families here. The league has come a long way.”

There still is a way to go to get it where it needs to be.

Playing on a regular baseball field is difficult for many of the players, especially ones requiring a wheelchair or walker, which can become damaged and adds additional expense to families.

Murphy and the Bobcats are raising funds to build a rubber safety surface — similar to a running track — with painted bases and base lines, and with handicap-accessible dugouts at Bettenhausen Park. A picture was on display Tuesday. While a regular baseball diamond is adequate, this new facility is what’s needed to provide a safe environment and to maximize the experience for players.

Andrew Corp. generously has donated $15,000. The Tinley Park Park District has donated land for the cause. Jerry Murphy, of Mallow Builders, has offered to move a giant shed that sits on the donated land to another location in the park.

Community involvement at its finest.

The cost of constructing the new facility is approximately $350,000. Murphy said $100,000 would get the process rolling, big time.

The Bobcats have applied for federal and local grants. Murphy would love to see the new facility built in time for next season. Anyone interested in providing assistance, monetary or otherwise, can contact Murphy at (708) 476-9273 or Callaghan at (708) 979-9004.

“We have about 10 kids who have a difficult time navigating on this field,” said Rich Granata, who is a coach and has a son, Richie, in the league. “It would be amazing to get these kids a field of their own.”

Or as Wojcik said, “It would mean the world to get these kids a new field.”



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