ANAHEIM – This was their World Series, the biggest game of each special season, because it’s held on the field at Angel Stadium “where the big boys play baseball,” said Rancho Niguel Padres third baseman Dylan Connolly.
Dylan, 15, was breathless Saturday morning, having just sprinted home from second base, speeding, head down, through the third base coach’s stop sign, intent on scoring a run.
His father and coach, Michael, met him at the plate to slap hands in celebration. Dylan, yelling “Homer!” because just playing baseball always feels like hitting a monster shot, jogged over to the bench to sit with his teammates.
“We’re winning,” he shouted, not wanting to take off his batting helmet, while his teammates patted him on the back, head and belly. Everyone wins on this day, which marked the 10th Challenger Classic for 40 area Little League teams of more than 900 youth ballplayers with mental and physical needs.
“I’m Dylan, named after Bob Dylan, and that’s why I’m all rock and roll,” he told me before introducing me to “my buddy Bryce (Dewald), who likes to hit home runs, too.”
Playing baseball, especially here on a major league stage, makes them feel like superstars, and for this day, they were.
They posed for pictures and saw their images on the giant video screen in right field. They waved to the cheering fans in the stands, mostly team parents who rooted for everyone.
These players love baseball, not for the victories or the statistics, because nobody ever keeps score, takes statistics, records outs or even loses. In fact, everyone got medals after the game.
They enjoy this because it brings them together to do things other kids do. They take pride in simple things like putting on a uniform, wearing a glove and making a catch, swinging a bat and connecting with a pitch, and running around the bases.
It has taken great effort, patient instruction and time for some of them to learn to throw, hit or even run. But they can keep trying, which is what really counts.
Most of all, they relish belonging to a team and calling each other teammates and friends, like the Rancho Niguel Padres’ Emily Allman, 17, and Marcus Knight, 16, both of Aliso Viejo, who compared gloves before taking the field.
“I’ve got to go to the outfield,” said Marcus, running to right field.
He started playing Little League at age 5, when his mother, Aurora, had to push him around the bases in a wheelchair.
On Saturday, he got a hit and jogged to first, on his own, his left leg dragging a bit.
“We call it his ‘swag,’” said Aurora Knight, a Rancho Niguel Padres assistant coach. “Marcus was born premature at 25 weeks, had a traumatic brain injury and needed five leg surgeries to be able to walk on his feet. Seeing him run is so special to me.”
The day offered so many meaningful firsts, several moments leaving proud parents tearing up with joy between taking photographs of progress that typical youngsters might take for granted.
“It takes these kids a little longer to learn baseball but it’s just a game that brings them together with other kids like them, and that’s what’s important,” said Rancho Niguel Padres coach Michael Connolly.
“We’ve grown up together, the kids and the parents, and look forward to the Challenger event every year.”
This event, a partnership between the Angels Baseball Foundation and Bank of America, drew the most participants ever, with four sessions of five games, each scattered in miniature diamonds around the Angel Stadium outfield.
Former Angels Chuck Finley, Bobby Grich, Justin Speier, Clyde Wright and Jerome Williams and Angels bench coach Dino Ebel and Angels utility player Efren Navarro joined teams to pitch and play defense.
Finley, in sunglasses, shorts, sneakers and his Angels jersey, tossed overhand pitches through the strike zone for the game between the Rancho Niguel Padres and Ladera Ranch Padres.
“I gave up like 12 home runs today in three innings and was surprised the manager left me in,” joked Finley, 52, a five-time All-Star pitcher who retired in 2002 after 17 seasons, his first 14 with the Angels.
“I love every minute of this because I can see so much excitement from the kids and how much they love baseball. I want to hug every one of them.”
There was Colton Dupres, 17, who needed to be talked into wearing a batting helmet and guided to the batter’s box by a volunteer. Finley pitched but Colton kept getting caught looking … at the nearby pom-pom-shaking and jumping Capistrano Valley varsity and junior varsity cheer and song troupes.
Colton, grinning widely, waved at the teenage girls, showing more interest in meeting cheerleaders than hitting Finley.
“Boys will be boys,” said Melissa Watson, whose sons, Ishmael, 14, and Zebulun, 12, both play for the Rancho Niguel Padres. “Out here, we celebrate everything.”
And that’s how these players play, jumping and dancing after even a little dribbler or an errant but distant throw into another field.
Jacob Nuxoll, 17, of Laguna Niguel, swung and missed but still ran to first, where he got a high-five from San Juan Hills baseball coach Jeremy Wooten.
“Who are you?” Jacob asked after being congratulated at first.
“I’m cheering you on,” said Wooten, who had brought his high school team out to volunteer for the morning.
Watching these games had everyone cheering, believing singles were grand slams and runs were game-winners in the bottom of the ninth. Slugger Sam Nelson, 18, launched all 6-feet-2 and 250 pounds of himself over the plate for a headfirst slide. There was no play at home. He just felt like sliding because he could.
“It’s like the World Series,” Sam said, dusting himself off while his father, Paul, checked to make sure his son was still smiling.
Forget the challenges. On this day, they were all champions.