Meeting the Challenge: The Touching Bases adult league baseball serves disabled athletes

BY BOB BAIRD

John Ferri, an alumnus of Challenger Little League, now plays in Touching Bases, a baseball league for adults with disabilities.
John Ferri, an alumnus of Challenger Little League, now plays in Touching Bases, a baseball league for adults with disabilities.

Back in 1993, when I was a Suffern Little League board member, it was my honor to be among a group of dedicated people who organized Rockland’s Challenger Little League for children with disabilities.

For many of the players, Challenger was their first opportunity to play baseball. For the teary-eyed parents and grandparents witnessing the first game in June 1993, it was the fulfillment of what they thought was a lost dream that so many of us take for granted. For those of us who made it happen, it was a magical moment, allowing more children and more parents to enjoy the game we love.

Challenger eventually grew to as many as 10 teams and this spring played its 21st season, each week visiting another town as the county’s Little Leagues take turns hosting games.

But even the six-, seven- and eight-year-old original Challenger players eventually hit 21 and aged out of the Little League program.

Michael Botwinick with his Touching Bases Player of the Year plaque in 2006. His parent's Arnie and Gloria Botwinick, were the league's Volunteers of the Year in 2004.
Michael Botwinick with his Touching Bases Player of the Year plaque in 2006. His parent’s Arnie and Gloria Botwinick, were the league’s Volunteers of the Year in 2004.

As a former physical education major at Manhattan College, who had coached youth baseball, basketball, soccer and football and spent evenings and weekends umpiring baseball and softball, I found it frustrating that there was no place for Challenger graduates to keep playing.

That frustration brought about the 2002 creation of Touching Bases Baseball of Rockland, a program patterned after Challenger, with coaches and volunteers assisting players at the plate, on the bases and in the field.

I originally expected to have 30 to 40 Challenger alumni on the rosters. We would play two games on Saturday or Sunday morning and be home by noon.

But in meetings with the executive directors of Camp Venture, Rockland ARC and Jawonio, the idea so resonated with them that we started with about 80 players, many from community residences.

Mary Bahr played four seasons with the ARC Canaries before retiring in 2012 at 92.
Mary Bahr played four seasons with the ARC Canaries before retiring in 2012 at 92.

The rosters have grown each year since then and along the way we’ve added teams from Another Step, the Rockland County Association for the Learning Disabled / Young Adult Institute’s Coffee House program and from the Hudson Valley Developmental Disabilities Service Office.

When Touching Bases takes the field for its 13th season on Sept. 6, there will be 15 teams totaling 230 players ranging in age from 21 to their upper 80s.

From the beginning, our highest priority has been that games be safe and enjoyable for everyone. Word of our success in Rockland using that philosophy spread and we’ve helped create Touching Bases programs in the Buffalo, N.Y. and Richmond, Va. Areas. A number of Challenger Little Leagues or agencies providing services for adults with disabilities have expressed an interest in organizing leagues around the country.

Our players in Rockland have a wide range of physical or cognitive issues, but their enthusiasm for baseball is boundless. In the process of playing they learn about teamwork, cooperation and many life skills that carry over in work or home settings. There’s also a socialization component, as players meet and make new friends from other agencies and teams at games and special events.

Norman and LoraMay Silverman have coached the two RCALD/YAI Coffee House teams for a decade and were our Coaches of the Year in 2006. “Participating in Touching Bases,” Norman Silverman says, “has given the RCALD team members an opportunity to play the national sport and flex their baseball muscles, something they were denied while growing up.” He adds that “They have learned teamwork while experiencing the thrill of hitting that ball and rounding the bases while being cheered on by their teammates and others.”

Many of the Coffee House players live and work independently and some drive to their games.

Some other Touching Bases players use wheelchairs, walkers or arm crutches, but they take joy in hitting a ball, making their way around the bases and celebrating when they cross home plate to score a run.

Although we discourage sliding for safety reasons, one Challenger alumnus named Christopher Wilson, had learned the skill. While playing in Touching Bases before moving from the area, Chris insisted on sliding across the plate and bouncing to his feet with arms raised in celebration.

Others, like ARC’s Mary Bahr, make their way around the bases with a walker. Mary played about four seasons before retiring after the 2012 season at the age of 92.

Every season there’s been a moment when, either on the field or in doing the administrative work that keeps the league running, I’ve said, “That’s why we do this.”

One year it was realizing we had our first 80-year-old player. Another season it was watching Arnie Botwinick, then in his late 70s, having a pregame catch with his son Michael, who was about 50. It was a Field of Dreams moment, something Arnie had yearned to do for perhaps 40 years.

None of that would be possible without dedicated residential and recreation staff from each of the participating agencies and from a corps of volunteers from local high schools and colleges. We’re always recruiting potential volunteers who don’t need baseball skill or knowledge as much as they need compassion, understanding and enthusiasm. At each end-of-season awards luncheon, now held annually at North Rockland High School, we present a token scholarship to a graduating teen volunteer.

We’ve been fortunate over the years to have help from the Modell Sporting Goods family, the Steve Drummond Foundation, Roy White Foundation and several other groups and individuals. But no sponsor has been as generous as the Vincent Crotty Memorial Foundation, created by Peter and Jean Crotty, whose son Vincent died along with Suffern High School teammate Chris Konkowski in a car crash on their way to baseball practice. The Crotty Foundation covers the league’s insurance costs and in 2012 provided new uniform shirts for that season’s 14 teams. Their generosity it matched only by the enormity of their loss.

You can’t play baseball without fields. From our first game in 2002, Ramapo has made the Reisman Sports Complex available. We’ve added games at the South Orangetown Little League / Town of Orangetown complex in Orangeburg. Since weeks of rainouts during the 2009 season, Touching Bases has played October games in Ramapo’s Torne Valley Bubble in Hillburn. When it was knocked out of commission by Hurricane Irene, Rockland Community College allowed us to play in the Eugene Levy Field House. Congers, Suffern and Stony Point Little Leagues, among others, have also provided us fields.

Touching Bases has a new partner this year and a new place to play. On Sept. 16, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., we’ll play eight brief games at Provident Bank Park, assisted by varsity baseball players from St. Thomas Aquinas College. Baseball coach Scott Muscat learned about our program last year and immediately wanted to find a way to involve his players.

Clarkstown North High School baseball coach Mike Pisano and assistant Rocco Fiorillo brings varsity and travel team players to volunteer at our annual luncheon, helping to set up the dining room and distribute food and trophies. The event wouldn’t be possible without their players’ help.

But before this year’s luncheon, there is a season of baseball to be played. Following Opening Day at South Orangetown Little League from 9 to noon on Sept. 6, we’ll play Saturday mornings throughout September there and at the Reisman Sports Complex. After a week off for Yom Kippur, we’ll play from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Torne Valley Bubble on Oct. 11, 18 and 25.

Please come out to see Touching Bases in action on Opening Day Sept. 6 or at Provident Bank Park on Sept 16.