I watched as a pitcher repeatedly threw a ball until it connected with a bat, only to fall at the batter’s feet. The batter cheerfully picked up the ball and tossed it to the pitcher who patiently began lobbing the ball over home plate again and again until the batter got the hit he desired. There was no rushing the batter. No impatient sighing. There was only time.
This was at a Challenger Little League Great River Challenge game a few years ago. Challenger Little League offers people ages 5 and older the opportunity to participate in America’s pastime, regardless of their ability. Although baseball is about counting everything, smiles are the only things counted at a Challenger game. There are no strikes, no balls, no outs, no counted runs. Everyone bats and everyone plays in the field. Volunteer baseball buddies push wheelchairs, or hand players a ball to throw. There are Challenger Little Leagues in both the Iowa and Illinois Quad Cities. Once per year the Leagues combine to play baseball at Modern Woodmen Ballpark. The games held that day are called The Great River Challenge.
I never have been a sports fan, but I adore the nostalgia and passion of baseball. Last year during the Cubs’ World Series journey, I was caught up in the excitement of the long-suffering fans. It intrigued me to hear grown men tell memories about their first trip to Wrigley Field as a child and how, in turn, they raised their own children to become Cubs fans.
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Movies about baseball grip me every time. Most recent to capture my attention was Kevin Costner’s character, Billy Chapell, in “For the Love of the Game.” He found himself in the quest for the “perfect game.” A perfect game would be pitching a game in which no one reaches base. Challenger Little League makes me reflect on a different picture of "perfect."
These are the things that make a perfect game for me. When a young girl standing on wobbly legs inside her walker has let go of the handles long enough to hit the ball before laboriously making her way around the bases, or when the shortstop runs hand-in-hand to third base with the opposing player because he realizes she doesn’t know which way to go. Parents of players sitting side by side cheering for every player and chatting with each other while their child is entertained for the length of a ball game. A player in the batter’s box smiles and gives a thumbs up as he hears his name announced over the sound system of the grand stadium of the Quad City River Bandits. Amid the caws of the seagulls and the distant train whistle, a beeper ball insistently clamors toward home plate so a visually impaired player knows where to swing his bat. This is the Great River Challenge. This is the perfect game.
The pace of the day seemed easy-going, nonrushed. It felt like what a late September afternoon embodies. Summer warmth lingered with no hurry for frosty nights, boats meandered up the river not yet ready to be docked for the winter. It was a peaceful, congenial day filled with cheers, smiles, laughter and a few tears of joy. It was an escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life, it was an ideal day to watch a perfect game of baseball.
The 7th annual Great River Challenge will be Sept. 30 at Modern Woodmen Park. Six games will be played by about 140 athletes. Games start at 11:30 a.m. and 1, 2:30, 4, 5:30 and 7 p.m. Admission is free. Concessions will be available.
Anne VandeMoortel is Moline school nurse, grandmother of five, Prader-Willi mother, serial hobbyist, and collector of people and their stories.