Meeting The Challenge
Last month a team from the Warwick American Little League Challenger Division got to experience what it’s like to be a member of the Boston Red Sox: hitting off a tee at Fenway Park’s indoor batting cage, hanging out in the 1st-base dugout, and stepping up at home plate to take batting practice from the Red Sox pitching coaches. It’s the path each player had to take to get there that made the day particularly special.
It is seven hours before the first pitch at Fenway Park but the batting cage for pre-game warm-ups is already in place and ready to go.
Pitching coach Chili Davis and his assistant Victor Rodriguez will work with Red Sox hitters later this afternoon, but right now: their full attention is focused on players from the Warwick American Challenger Little League team.
The players, coaches and families have made the pilgrimage to Fenway for the All Kids Can Batting Camp, launched more than a decade ago by CVS Health in partnership with the Red Sox. The challenger division of Little League Baseball gives boys and girls with physical and mental challenges the opportunity to play, as millions of others do every year across the country.
The All Kids Can program - now in its 11th summer - provides the players a chance to experience this iconic park as the players do - sitting in the dugout and stepping onto the field to hit.
The group gathers outside Fenway late on a Thursday morning in August before heading inside and making the trek down the cavernous walkway toward the first base side of the park. They emerge with a field-level view of a largely empty Fenway - and a welcome on the scoreboard from the team.
After taking it all in for a few minutes, the team heads down the tunnel to the indoor batting cage just feet from the Red Sox dugout.
David: ``We’re just here to try help you guys have some fun today.’’
Davis and Rodriguez get the players warmed up off a tee in the same batting cage that David Ortiz, Mookie Bets and Pablo Sandoval use. Taking it all it: the team’s longtime coach, Sue Conti, who has coached Warwick American for 24 years. It began when Conti’s husband showed her a video of a challenger team back in the late 1980s.
Conti: ``I was going to school for special ed and he said `What do you think’? I said, `This looks awesome - let’s try it.’”
She has been coaching some of these players for more than 20 years - and they recently formed a senior league because the kids have grown into young adults. Then, they found out early in the summer they had been chosen for the clinic at Fenway - the only Rhode Island team and one of nine from throughout New England that CVS invited to participate in the 2015 program.
Conti: ``They were ecstatic. I mean most of these kids, to come on to Fenway Park. Even for me, I’m excited, but for them, it was like: I’m going to be on Fenway Park, I’m going to eat in the dugout, see a game? The Red Sox are the best, so is CVS, it’s just an awesome thing for them to do.’’
After getting warmed up, the players head out to the field for the main event.
They each get a chance to bat, with encouragement from Rodriguez and Davis, a former major leaguer who signed on this year to be the Red Sox hitting coach.
Davis: ``It’s just a great job that CVS and the Boston Red Sox does for these kids and they enjoy it. You can tell they’re a little nervous when they come in the batting cage, but once they get a few swings in and you see that smile on their face, then they think it’s done and they come out on the field and they get to hit on the field, they love it.’’
Hummel: ``I look at the determination of these kids, it’s not easy to be out here for some of them, but their faces light up as they’re out here. What’s going through your mind as you’re watching them?’’
Davis: ``It’s very impressive to see the focus that just all of a sudden appears when they get in that batting tunnel to swing - and especially the kids in the wheelchairs. We had a young girl in a wheelchair today and I looked at her and said `Do you want me to help?’ and she said `Nope.’ And she walked in there and one-handedly, focused and locked in on the balls coming at her and hit every one of them.’’
Molly Smith has played in the league since it began 24 years ago - Conti’s first year as coach.
Smith: ``We’ve been together since it started. And I just want to say, she’s an amazing coach, she always gives up her Wednesday nights to bring us out on the field and have fun. I really wish somebody could give back to her the way she gives to us.’’
Hummel: ``What do you like about baseball?’’
Molly: ``I just love how we go out there and have fun and it’s, along with playing baseball it’s a good time and all we do is laugh.’’
The players also get a chance to go out to see the historic left field wall known as the Green Monster - and take a group picture in front of it. Many said it looks a lot higher in person than it does on television every night when the Red Sox are playing. And it isn’t just the players who are impressed.
Turgeon: ``This is amazing, my dad was a Red Sox fan, I just grew up with it; it’s like 50 years of just seeing it on TV.’’
Sharon Turgeon’s daughter Becca is 21 and has played in the league for 13 years. And while the kids enjoy themselves, she say, most people don’t know how much effort it takes to participate.
Turgeon: ``She has a lot of really high-end medical issues at this point and she spent 48 days at Hasbro last year. That’s one thing about Becca and all of these kids - they work very very hard; they work 10 times harder than any other kids to do what other kids want to do.’’
Brian Cahill is the president of the Warwick American Little League and wants to see firsthand the Challengers getting the full Fenway Experience, which also includes a tour of the park and going to the game against the Kansas City Royals that night.
Cahill: ``I’m thinking back to being 12 myself, my son and his friend help out all of the time, so they came to come and enjoy the experience with the team as well. They’re just having a blast - it brings a tear to my eye, it makes me smile.’’
Aidan Cahill his been helping with the team the past few years.
Hummel: ``When you stepped into that batting cage where Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez and Big Papi are, and you’re standing in the same place, what are you thinking?’’
Aidan: ``I’m just amazed that I’m here. I’ve been to the field like seven times now I’m sure over awhile, but I’ve never been on the field before, so it’s been a great time.’’
Davis: ``We think we’re good as athletes, then take a look at the focus they throw in there. I wish some of my hitters would focus like that.’’
At Fenway Park, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.