Waco’s Challenger Little League, founded in 1990 for disabled youngsters wanting to swing for the fences, celebrated opening day Saturday knowing its field of dreams will change addresses after this season.
There’s no crying in baseball, as the saying goes, and there is no reason to shed tears over Challenger’s relocation. Its new designated field will emerge only a ringing double or two from its current digs on North 44th Street, near Lake Air Little League and the recycling center on Cobbs Drive.
Challenger got caught up in the musical chairs involving the city of Waco, McLennan County and Waco Independent School District. When the dust settles and land swaps conclude, Challenger should find itself safe at home in a reworked baseball complex that will include newly configured Lake Air ballfields, a new Paul Tyson Field and new practice fields for Waco ISD athletes.
The swapping proved vital to development of 260 acres near Waco High School and the county fairgrounds, which recently saw completion of the $32 million Base at Extraco Events Center, which will host trade shows, sporting events, guest speakers and social gatherings. The Base and other components are being paid for, in part, with new taxes on hotel stays and rental cars.
Lupe Rosas, who started Waco’s Challenger League chapter with Don Deatherage and Michelle McCollum, busied himself Friday preparing for Saturday’s opening day, warily eyeing the dark clouds and finally deciding to push back Saturday starting times to allow the field to dry.
“They haven’t filled in all the details. All I know is construction is on the way, and we were told this would probably be the last year for the field we’re accustomed to playing on,” Rosas said of the work schedule.
Rosas said he hopes to learn more about the proposed field’s exact location when he and other Challenger representatives meet soon with city officials.
He sees the need for change, though current accommodations have well served youngsters with mental and physical disabilities, those who crave their own day in the sunshine, swinging a bat, running around the bases or rolling in a wheelchair, waving at friends and family in the stands.
“This has always been a learning process,” Rosas said. “We need much larger dugouts, larger than the ones we have now. When the Challenger field was built, they enlarged the dugouts quite a bit, and we thought there would be plenty of room to accommodate wheelchairs and other devices kids use. But we could use dugouts twice the size of what we have currently.”
Rosas said he also would suggest roomier bleachers.
“We hope as the league grows, more people come out to watch these amazing kids. You’d be surprised at the athletic ability some have,” he said. “One little boy had a prosthetic arm and a prosthetic leg when he first came to us, but as technology became better and better, he began driving his own mini-vehicle onto the field, and could maneuver around all the bases.”
The local Associated General Contractors of America office donated time, equipment, materials and elbow grease years ago to transform a corner lot into the Challenger Little League field. Basepaths were shortened from 60 feet to 35 feet and the paths covered with a surface similar to a running track, allowing walkers and wheelchairs to move easily between bases.
But Rosas said the time has come to rethink that approach. It is his understanding, he said, that the new Challenger field will return to more traditional Little League dimensions, including 60-foot basepaths.
Challenger Little League kicked off with 30 youngsters back in 1990. This year, more than 140 young people will compete for 14 teams. The teams play a 12-game schedule, and contests are scheduled most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with first pitches typically tossed evenings on weekdays to accommodate chaperones.
“No child pays to play,” Rosas said. “We have great sponsors who fund this program, providing shirts, caps, bats and helmets. We know parents and grandparents love to buy balls and gloves for family members, but if they can’t afford them, we supply those too. It doesn’t cost a penny.”
The Challenger season lasts three months, and officials say the league always appreciates volunteers, some of whom take part in the “buddy program” of assisting players in carrying out tasks throughout the games.
Jonathan Cook, Waco’s parks and recreation director, said planning continues for the reconfiguration of Lake Air Little League and the Challenger field. He said features and amenities to be included remain under review.
Meanwhile, Waco ISD spokesperson Josh Wucher said site preparation has started for the Paul Tyson Field replacement project. Northridge Construction Group won the contract with a $8.9 million bid that includes alternates for a synthetic outdoor track and artificial turf. Work should wrap up in September.
The track will have eight lanes and grandstands seating about 2,000 spectators. Other features include lighting for night events, a press box, ticket office, concession stand and locker rooms.