Buddy baseball gives special-needs children a chance to play and enjoy the all-American pastime.
With the assistance of one or more baseball “buddies,” children of all abilities — including ones with cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome — are “non-competing” in regular ball games. Organized teams play at Morgan Falls, Frankie Allen, Chastain, Murphey Candler and Ocee Parks.
With altered rules such as no outs, everyone bats, everyone scores and no one is benched, the players — each assigned one or more “buddies” to assist them — take the field. And with nearly 50 kids on the diamond at any one time, games can resemble what Coach Leo Rose of Northside Youth Organization (NYO) calls “organized chaos.”
“It’s about getting on the field and everyone having a good time,” said Rose, who has been managing NYO’s Christopher League at Chastain Park for the past 12 years.
Whether called “Challenger” or “Buddy Baseball,” these programs usually are promoted by word of mouth and are underwritten by area businesses and organizations so they are free to participants. For additional information, contact your local youth sports program.
The NYO’s assisted baseball program, formerly called the Challenger League, became the Christopher League in 2001 to honor long-time player Christopher Rosseau.
The program, which is typical for most area buddy programs, has about 30 players. According to Rose, there are about 200 kids on the buddy list. Prior to games, Rose sends out an e-blast. On game day, they usually get about 30 to 40 kids, mostly middle school boys from the regular baseball program, to show up to assist.
When Rose started with the program, he was looking for a way to give back to the community. His son got involved as a “buddy” player helping the special-needs players. He’s now a 23-year-old assistant coach.
Buckhead Buddy Baseball at Frankie Allen Park takes a slightly different approach to their buddy system, according to David Barron, commissioner of Buckhead Buddy Baseball.
They aim to encourage players and buddies to develop strong bonds on and off the field. Buddies are assigned at the beginning of the season and stick with their players each game.
“The beauty of the program is getting typical, normal kids to partner with these players. There is so much patience, compassion and enthusiasm,” Barron said. “It’s almost as much a thrill for the buddies as it is for our players.”
One recent afternoon, when the Sandy Springs Braves met the Buckhead Athletics at Morgan Falls Park, positive energy radiated on the field. The sound system cranked Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” during warm ups and each player’s personal theme music when the home team went to bat.
On this day, “game face” meant a smile.
Kathy Calderon’s twin sons Christian and Zachary, players in their first year with the team, are “having an excellent season,” she said.
“They love it and I love it,” said Calderon of Sandy Springs. “It’s great seeing kids interact with other kids.”
The family-friendly atmosphere encourages camaraderie and offers parent benefits as well. Calderon said she is building friendships with new parents that face similar challenges as her family.
“Parents of special needs kids don’t get a lot of time to sit and watch their children participate in sports,” said Barron, whose 1-year-old son is in the program. “This gives them a chance to relax and enjoy being a parent.”