By Harvey Cohen
It's an early afternoon in the middle of April. Clouds partially cover the skies. It's seventy-one degrees and the warmish breeze tells you winter is finally over. The weather is perfect for baseball.
As you enter the Con Ed fields near Stuyvesant Town, you see baseball being played everywhere. You see games where parents are cheering for their own kids, as if the child's future will be decided by one stroke of their bat. You also see many other kids just casually tossing a ball back and forth with skill and ease.
Then you notice something different — a game where all the parents cheer for every player on both teams. And no one shouts, “Kill the umpire!” Because there is no umpire. In this very special Little League, there are no strikes, no balls and no outs; only home runs for every player who comes to bat.
This is the Challenger Division of the Peter Stuyvesant Little League (PSLL), and every player faces some sort of physical, mental or emotional challenge. And though none of these players will ever dream of a professional baseball career, the spirit, the excitement and love of the game come through with more emotion and power than one can ever imagine seeing at any game of baseball.
All of this is the work of one man — one man who had a vision and went out and found the people and the resources to make it real. The man is Rick Hayduk. And you can tell everything you need to know about Rick by the quote he wears on the back of his tee shirt. It's a quote from his friend Dabo Swinney, the football coach of the NCAA national champions Clemson Tigers: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
Rick was born and raised in Westchester County and now lives in Stuyvesant Town but he has traveled through much of the world in his profession as a hotel and real estate executive. He and his wife Carol are both avid sports enthusiasts. Rick has a golf handicap of plus two and Carol is a former tennis pro.
Rick and Carol have three children and the youngest one suffers from Down syndrome. Years ago, while waiting in an airline terminal, Rick met the father of another Down syndrome child and Rick says that father gave him the best advice he's ever received: “Just treat them normal.”
That's why it was so important for Rick to make sure that his daughter, and any other child with special needs, would have the opportunity to play baseball, like all other kids.
The Challenger program has few rules, but the ones they have are all about being inclusive, accepting and creating a totally non-judgmental environment where every child becomes a star.
At each game they generally have about twenty players who are divided into two teams and from forty to eighty volunteers. The volunteers do everything from helping the players swing a bat and run the bases to giving out hats and shirts to each player.
But the volunteers, the parents and all the other spectators play another very critical role. They gather all along the base paths and cheer and applaud each child as the child, with the help of their volunteer “buddy,” runs from one base to another.
You can see each child's joy by their big smiles as they first hit the ball and then are greeted with support, congratulations and dozens of high fives as they run the bases. All along the way, each child is encouraged by Rick as he plays the role of announcer. Rick works up the crowd and encourages the players with color commentary like, “keep going Ray” and “come on home, Ethan” and “Ryan, you really socked it.”
Sandra Velez, whose seven-year-old son Ray plays in the Challenger program, says: “Everybody is so welcoming and accepting. It makes the child more comfortable and more competent.” Then she adds about Rick: “He remembers every child's name and treats them all as an MVP. He's an amazing teacher and mentor.”
Rick sums up his goal and philosophy by saying: “The biggest thing is that you want the kids to feel great. Not good. If they just feel good you're letting them down.”
In this game, there are no winners and losers because everybody wins — the players, the parents, the coaches, the volunteers and the whole community. As Dan Schachner, one of the other league commissioners puts it: “This level of community is something we don't often see. It's a reminder to all our kids that no matter anyone's physical ability, everyone can play baseball.”
Everyone involved with Challenger knows they are part of something very special — more special than any ball hit by Aaron Judge or thrown by Jacob DeGrom. And if baseball is America's pastime, Challenger is America's heart.
HOW TO JOIN THE TEAMPSLL's Challenger Division welcomes boys and girls with physical and developmental challenges between the ages of 4 and 18. There is no fee, as PSLL covers all fees.
Games will be held once a weekend at Con Ed Fields, on East 16th Street, just east of Avenue C. Tentative dates:
• Sunday April 21 (No games — Easter Sunday)
• Sunday April 28
• Sunday May 5
• Sunday May 12
• Sunday May 19
• Sunday May 26 (No Games — Memorial Day Weekend)
• Sunday June 2
• Sunday June 9 (Closing Challenger ceremonies)
Contact Rick Hayduk at (239) 340-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go to: www.psll.org/challenger