No-Brand Nudo

Baseball Players with Disabilities Light Up AMBUCS Park

I’d say this is the most heartwarming story I’ve ever written. I remember a sunny Saturday morning and meeting in the stands the “Voice of the Illini,” Brian Barnhart, who couldn’t have been nicer and more genuine. But most of all I remember the joy on the faces of the kids on the ball field, as well as some proud parents and happy volunteers.

Published in The Mahomet Citizen and The Hub in 2006.

When Jerry and Becky Morefield, of Mahomet, watch their three children play baseball for Coca-Cola in the Champaign-Urbana Kiwanis Challenger League, they couldn’t care less about which child has the most hits, the best throws, or even the outcome of each game.

Rather, they are just thrilled to see Tanner, Tucker, and Taylor, all 11-year-old triplets with physical and mental disabilities, on the baseball field and having fun.

“They love it,” said Becky from the stands during a May 20 game at AMBUCS Park in Urbana, Illinois. “It’s great to see them like able-bodied kids.”

Tanner and Tucker are each in wheelchairs, assisted on the field by a “volunteer buddy” who helps them swing the bat to hit the ball off of a tee, as well as push the boys’ wheelchairs on the basepaths.

Many volunteer buddies are matched up in age with the players they are assisting on the field, such as 8-year-old Caitlin Rivin-Sprague, who helped Guy from the Shelby Motors team during one of the games.

“You get to run around the bases with the people, and at the end you get to shake hands and stuff,” said Caitlin, whose 11-year-old half-brother, Brennan McClimon, also volunteers.

Volunteers make the Kiwanis Challenger League happen, and Jerry and Becky are thankful to have their support.

“Everybody out there but the player is a volunteer,” said Jerry.

Becky said the Kiwanis Challenger League, which is open to players ages 6 to 21, wouldn’t be possible without the help of the sponsors, coaches, and volunteer buddies.

“I think the volunteers get more out of it than the kids do,” she said. “It’s fun.”

“I think the volunteers get more out of it than the kids do.”

-Becky morefield

One well-known Kiwanis Challenger League volunteer is the “Voice of the Illini,” Brian Barnhart, who does play-by-play commentary for the Illinois football and basketball teams. The league captured his interest when he first heard about it several years ago.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Barnhart said. “I get a chance to meet a lot of new people and meet some pretty neat kids. It’s growing every year. I think the parents get more of a kick out of it than the kids do. It’s a good deal for everybody.”

Barnhart is one of the coaches for Shelby Motors. He’s had the same group of kids for the past few years, and every year they get better, he said.

“We’ve had kids that could barely swing the bat when they started,” Barnhart said, “and by the end of the year they’re swinging with a lot of confidence. You can tell they really enjoy it.”

Top volunteers are awarded for their efforts at the end of the season with gift certificates from several local restaurants and a grocery store. Participating restaurants include Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano, Jim Gould, Kennedy’s at Stone Creek, and Outback Steakhouse. Schnucks grocery store in Champaign also contributes gift certificates to volunteers who put in the most time.

Becky said the kids in the league had the opportunity to watch the Illinois football team practice last year and got to attend an Illinois baseball game, where one player had the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

The Kiwanis Challenger League has grown from two teams in 1999 to 65 players and eight teams presently. Tom Jones, who helped get the league off the ground with the Kiwanis organization seven years ago, said every child with a disability is welcome to participate in the baseball games.

“We modify the rules based on the skills of the individual players,” Jones said. “Everybody, every inning, gets a hit, no matter how long it takes. Everybody scores a run and all games end in ties. You just can’t believe the time they have. You’ll find more people who come out to watch our games than come out to watch a lot of Little League games.”

Jones said that a planning committee of approximately twenty people works ten months out of the year to prepare for the May and June games, which last fifty minutes or three innings, whichever comes first. The games at AMBUCS Park take place on Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. until noon and on Tuesday evenings from 6 p.m. to sundown.

There is no tournament at the end of the season, but the league does hold all-star games in June, in which players are divided up based on skill level and everyone gets to participate. A picnic and awards ceremony officially wraps up the season.

One volunteer named Anita said it is important for all parents of disabled children in the area to know about the opportunity the Champaign-Urbana Kiwanis Challenger League offers. It’s not about winning and losing, she said — it’s about camaraderie, fun, and a little exercise.

“I love it,” Anita said. “You sit and watch … it’s wonderful. To see the spirit that comes from the kids. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Hub photo by Sal Nudo. Left to right, Tucker, Taylor, and Tanner Morefield.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: