The 16 teams that gathered on baseball diamonds in Thurmont, Md., last weekend for a baseball jamboree didn't focus on wins and losses, batting averages and ERAs. They were more attuned to the game's basic tenets - hitting a pitched ball, fielding and throwing, running the bases. When a physical or developmental disability makes it more difficult to play the game you love, you tend to focus on the little things - and like the saying goes, the little things often mean the most.
Since 1991, members of the Oriole Advocates have been making it easier for baseball crazy kids to take to the field, regardless of disabilities that might otherwise hold them back. Last weekend's Challenger Jamboree was another example of the nonprofit group's commitment to ensuring that the game is available to all youngsters through the Oriole Advocates Challenger Baseball program.
Ask George Bollock, the program's chairman and a longtime member of the Advocates to pinpoint the best part of his association with this unique group of players and the retired global information technology director for W.R. Grace nails the question like Adam Jones smacking a fastball over the wall at Camden Yards: "It's the look on the kids' faces."
Challenger Baseball is a little different from the typical Little League or rec league contest. There are still balls, bats and bases. The kids shriek with delight when they make contact or record an out. But the format maximizes enjoyment of the activity. An inning gives every player a chance to bat, run the bases and cross home plate. When one team is finished, the next takes its cuts. Because of this structure, games usually last only two innings.
But you'd never know the game was being compressed by looking at the passion and determination - not to mention the sheer enjoyment - of the kids on the field.
"The best part is the kids and how they express how much they love the game," explains Bollock. "Their eyes light up. The coaches, the parents thank us because everything we do for the kids is so appreciated."
The Advocates' long association with Challenger Baseball, which began with the Reisterstown Champions League, has grown significantly. The Advocates now assist Challenger League teams in the Baltimore metropolitan area and Eastern Shore, northern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Since 2000, Bollock said, the emphasis has shifted to creating more organized opportunities for Challenger Players to both play ball and interact with other players facing similar challenges.
More than 60 organized teams and some 800 players now benefit from the Advocates' involvement. The program falls under the auspices of the Oriole Advocates Charitable Foundation.
"We work with these leagues as an umbrella organization.," Bollock said. "They might be part of a Little League or rec council, but what we offer is an opportunity for the kids to have fun and for the coaches and organizers to have a chance to exchange ideas."
Having coaches and league administrators share their best practices - anything from fundraising to tournaments to grant-writing - is a logical step in the evolvement of Challenger Baseball, according to Bollock.
"We want to present more opportunities for the coaches and leaders to get together share their ideas," he said. "They don't have enough opportunity to work together."
Recently, Challenger Baseball participants in Anne Arundel County took part in a clinic that featured current Orioles Jake Arrieta and Jim Johnson and former O's Al Bumbry and Bill Swaggerty. Like most clinics, the kids were rapt with attention, soaking in every suggestion from the past and present major leaguers. Getting to bat against guys who regularly take the mound at Camden Yards was a special treat.
"The kids though it was great that they were getting a hit off a major league pitcher," Bollock said. "They were ecstatic."
But not as happy as the Advocates were to offer them the opportunity. Of the 18-member Challenger Baseball committee, it's not unusual to have upwards of 15 Advocates on site at any given activity. The group also organizes picnics, which include a visit by the Oriole Bird and grilled hot dogs, and host Challenger Day at Oriole Park, where more than 250 Challenger Baseball players attend a home game.
"The Orioles are an incredible partner," Bollock said.