I wrote. I deleted. I pondered how to write a post about Challenger Little League’s 2016 Great River Challenge less about me and more about others. I wanted it to be about the passion of the parents, the exuberance of the players, the eagerness of the volunteers, and the glory from the fans. I found out I couldn’t discuss this day without it being about me.
As this day was looming in front of me on the calendar, I had much trepidation about attending. I have always had a purpose for being at these games. I had a daughter who was a player and I had a function to fulfill during the games, but this year I had neither. For anyone reading this who is not aware; my daughter, a Happy Joe’s Challenger Little League player, died unexpectedly earlier this year. She loved being with her friends and playing America’s game, especially on the River Bandit’s diamond. The league has been tremendously supportive of us, for which I am grateful. Yet, I was fearful of attending this event. I suppose I had fear of feeling envious of the other parents who had children playing, fear of feeling useless due to not participating in my usual capacity, fear of feeling alone without my daughter playing, and fears which are too dark and deeply hidden to bring to the surface to try to analyze or share publicly.
The day of the 2016 Great River Challenge games was the perfect Mid-western September day. Even though storms had been predicted, we ended up with white puffy clouds in a blue sky which reached down to meet the lush green field and the smooth river reflecting the same clouds and the arches of the bridge.
Hearing the chatter of the players as they walked through the fence, onto the diamond at Modern Woodmen Park was delightful. The excitement to be playing ball in that special place rang clear, but this year I noticed a different excitement. I am sure it has always been there, but I was seated closer to the diamond and had a different perspective which allowed me to notice. What I saw was friendship and camaraderie between people. Coaches were kindly giving instructions to eager volunteers. I watched players giving hugs to other players or high-fives accentuated by giant smiles to coaches. I experienced hugs, smiles, and tears from players who had not seen me for a while. They remembered me. They remembered and missed my daughter. Nothing could have moved me more. I felt ridiculous that I had feared returning to this, to these players who are the bravest people I know. These athletes face fears everyday that put my fears to shame: fears of isolation, ridicule, physical pain, hunger, and of not being able to do things so basic that you and I don’t even realize…well, some of you do realize, because you are their parents. You, their parents are the second bravest group of people I know and you just keep doing it all because that is what needs to be done. You, the parents have not only supported me through these past months, but for all of my years associated with Challenger Little League. Golly, the past twenty-four years. You, their parents welcomed me on the day of the Great River Challenge. You welcomed me with smiles, hugs, and tears showing me where these players learned their compassion, and showing me that CLL is more than a sport, more than a pastime; it is a family. It is the family of Challenger Little League. We are a family of folks related by the common bond of our children. We are siblings who have grown up together, just as our children have. We have learned from each other and leaned on each other over the years, and just as my blood siblings reminisce at holiday gatherings, we have stories to tell when we are together. Memories of our growing years, of our children’s growing years and no matter who is missing from our family we will always have those memories. Memories we get to cherish because there is a game called baseball.
This is just a drop in the bucket of what I could tell you about my perspective, about my gratitude, about my Challenger League family. With a gratitude that moves me to weeping, I thank everyone responsible for this glorious day for the bravest athletes I know.
Rain was forecast and threatening, I had a baby shower at my house the day before, there were several family birthdays and the beginning of school coinciding with the Great River Challenge; all distractions which made it seem like hours at the ball park would be a challenge to fit into the week-end. Due to a propensity for tardiness, construction traffic at attempted bridge #1, and barge traffic at attempted bridge #2 I arrived several minutes late to the ball park. I was quickly handed what I needed and rushed to the press box where I was given a quick lesson on a new microphone before announcing our National anthem volunteer guest singer and introducing the players for Game One. It was then I sat down and took in the glory of the sun glistening on the river, the verdant green of the field flanked by the shining bridge and Ferris wheel, and an unusual coolness for August, but blessedly, could see no rain in sight.
I was grateful I could rush in to do my small part for the day knowing others had planned, organized, emailed, found sponsors, made T-shirts, set up tables and chairs, hauled tents and coolers, and taken care of every minute detail for these games to flow smoothly. I was also grateful for everyone who volunteered time and money to make this day possible.
Throughout the day I had several people with me in the press box; some were returning fans and some were new to Challenger Little League. While I was announcing I could hear snippets of their conversations regarding the games. I was touched to learn of the impact our players had on their lives, on their hearts. I can never make it through a day at the Great River Challenge without tears streaming down my face at some point and it seems other people who are not CLL parents have the same reaction to the poignancy of these games. These fans talked about their lives having been changed by experiencing Challenger Little League. It is a wonder our stands are not packed to capacity. The Quad Cities is fortunate to have this incredible event happening here, I am always surprised there are people who live here who have never availed themselves of this joyous opportunity. Every parent who is ever going to enter their child in a sport should attend our game, their child’s sports experience will be different after witnessing the greatest game in the Quad Cities!
One new fan told me she wished the players wore microphones so we could hear them. She was intrigued by what the conversations might be between the runner on second and the two second basemen. She wanted to hear what words were being exchanged between the “bull” runner being blocked on his way home and the “lineman” blocking him who gave him a high-five after they crashed into each other. She didn’t need a mic to know the encouragement being given from the Augustana pitcher to the batters, it was visible in his smile.
Thank you to all who made the 2015 Great River Challenge a successful, joyous event. Thank you to everyone who came to witness our remarkable players reveling in a day of play on a magnificent ball diamond. I know lives were changed. Encourage your friends to attend next year, they will thank you for changing their perspective on life.
photo by: Alex McGill
“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.” Bob Feller
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” -Ferris Bueller
Players were easily checked in, warmed up, games played, and shirts distributed. The organization of this event could not have been better. I thought about how all of the details were handled for a day that went as smooth as clockwork and I realized that the people who made the day happen have very busy lives but have such a passion for Challenger Little League that they made the Great River Challenge a priority. Everyone who planned the day, who supported the day financially, and who volunteered their time during the day made a spectacular memory for the CLL players from Iowa and Illinois. Despite threats of rain and a stadium evacuation everyone was wearing smiles.
I have come to the conclusion that the pace of Challenger Little League is a good example of how we should live our lives. 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 heaving or sighing of impatience. There was only time. Time for fun.
A pony tail bobbed as a little girl, clinging to her walker, laboriously circled the big minor league diamond proudly tagging each base she rounded. Her enthusiasm was contagious even from a distance.
A young gal who strolled around the bases kicked into a sprint for the home stretch when she heard the fans cheering for her.
The entire crowd evacuated the premises mid-game without grumbling or exasperation when the fire alarm sounded. The staff of the ball park handled the crisis with aplomb and efficiency.
Raindrops fell between two games yet bothered nobody.
The whole pace of the day seemed to be easy-going, non-rushed. It felt like what a late September afternoon embodies. The lingering of the warmth of summer with no hurry for frosty nights, the hypnotic swaying of the ferris wheel gondolas, boats meandering 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, a life that moves pretty fast. I am glad I didn’t miss it.
Our fourth annual Great River Challenge brought a new perspective to this parent. The joy the players experience during these games has always been very evident, but what I witnessed this year was the effect of that joy on the volunteers. We had incredible community support from the stadium, the families, the friends, the sponsors, Hy-Vee, Kohl’s, Assumption High School and Psychology Associates. On the faces of the volunteers I saw raw emotion; tenderness, surprise, pride, happiness, pure joy. I heard laughter, encouragement, cheers, and congratulations. At the end of the evening I spoke with a high school girl who told me that she had an amazing time, that she wasn’t sure if there were any players who had as great of an experience as she had that day. A father of a player shared with me that he had been involved with Challenger Little League in several different cities and that he was impressed with the support from our community, not something he had seen in the other locations. A woman who helped said that she plans to be there next year even if she has to use a vacation day from work to make it happen. The most interesting part of this to me is that I, a parent of a player, am extremely grateful for everyone who made this event possible; for the happiness, the fun, the joy it brought to our players, but this time I saw it come full circle– the happiness, the fun, the joy was experienced by the people who made it all possible. I understand that people give of themselves, their resources and their time out of the goodness of their hearts. I understand that they do this not asking, wanting, or expecting anything in return, but what I now understand is that it is not possible to be involved with Challenger Little League and not get something back. If you have a heart, which everyone who cares about CLL does, it is not possible to come away from these games without being touched.
Katie VandeMoortel, 2007 Ms. You Can Do It! says that her Challenger League baseball coaches helped her win the title. They taught her to calm her onstage and interview jitters by taking a big, deep cleansing, relaxing breath just like before getting up to bat at a game. The pageant experience provided her with an opportunity to meet and interact with other girls. She loves coming back to the pageant and she looks forward each year to seeing the friends she met during her pageant years. She has been inspired by the other contestants and by all of the people who volunteer to make this pageant a night of magic. She is employed as a feeding aide at Black Hawk Area Education Center. She is a member of the Happy Joe’s team for Challenger League baseball and participates in the Great River Challenge. Katie has been active in Young Life’s Capernaum Next Step and has volunteered twice at “work weeks” to prepare a camp for hundreds of high school summer campers. Katie is a volunteer at Sacred Heart Church in Moline where she is a money counter. The determination, focus, enthusiasm and persistence that she exhibited during the pageants is evident in her daily life as she battles the effects of Prader-Willi Syndrome. She diligently works out at a water aerobics class at Black Hawk College, where she also swims laps like a fish and has a personal best of 3/4 of a mile in one hour, that’s really kicking it! Just Dance 2 for Wii provides her with hours of fun, aerobic exercise. Kathleen walks at home on a treadmill and hikes at Prospect Park, finding that using hiking sticks gives her a boost. She bowls in a Thursday night women’s league. Her favorite activity of all is being Aunt Katie to her adorable nephew Cohen and sweet niece Sophia and making them extraordinaryily creative birthday cakes. Kathleen’s enthusiasm for the pageant has encouraged many of her students and fellow baseball players to participate in the pageant. She is anxious to bring her crown out of it’s box and return to Utopia for a night again this year.
A perfect sign happened to be hanging behind her for this photo.
Along with Cohen and Sophia, Katie is aunt to Ellie Joy.
Katie has attended Wonderland Camp’s PWS week three times and always wishes that it lasted longer.
Katie died peacefully in her sleep January 25, 2016. She would have been 30 years old in April. She wore her MYCDI crown to her visitation which was unbelievably attended by over 800 community members who mourned Katie lovingly. She is remembered and missed constantly.
Two loves she did not get to meet, niece Mae Anne and nephew Everett Paul were expected to be born on her birthday, but arrived April 14, 2016
I was told the good friends at the MYCDI pageant 2016 took a moment to remember Katie. I was deeply moved to hear that happened.
Katie will be mentioned in a Jenni Pulos article for the Parade magazine featuring MYCDI.
Katie’s brother, Jacob penned the perfect epitaph for his sister. Something a brother should never have to do, but he has always done things for her that no brother should have to do. He, too, loves well and is well loved.
Imagine a baseball game where there are no strikes, no balls, no outs. Where everyone gets to hit, everyone gets to swing until the pitcher can make the ball hit the bat as it swings by. Where the first baseman gives the batter a high five when he/she reaches first base. Where a runner steps off of second base to go to third, but gets distracted and heads to the outfield……the second baseman leaves his base to chase the opposing player down, only to turn her around and run with her to make sure she gets safely to third base. Where the spectators cheer uproariously for both teams and every player. Where the fans have hands that are red from clapping so hard and eyes that are red from tears of joy, excitement, and pride. Where parents get to sit back and watch their child PLAY with other children (often times this is the only place that happens). Where a player stops to stare at the crowd bewildered because people are calling his name and cheering for HIM. Where every movement a player makes is made with 100% effort, concentration and determination.
Now, imagine a sunny, warm fall evening with an orange sun setting in the West while a full yellow moon rises in the East. The lights of the bridge sparkle on the dark Mississippi below. The smell of hot dogs and charcoal waft through the air. The cool breeze off of the river keeps the bugs from lighting on us. Listening, you hear the laughter, the clapping, the “hiddey-hiddey-hiddey-ho” from the announcer’s booth and then you hear the distinct sound of a ball hitting a bat at just the right spot, you look skyward and see that ball sailing in a huge arc from home plate to third base. The Powerful Player who hit the ball starts running toward first, but pauses to see what the ball is doing……what that ball is doing is dropping from the sky and landing smack dab center into the waiting glove of the startled and ecstatic third baseman. The crowd goes wild, the coaches swarm the field, the third baseman’s hand stings from the impact of the ball and all of the congratulatory high fives. The Powerful Player doesn’t continue to run to first base, even though an out has never been counted before. He saw that fly ball being caught and knew without any hesitation that if anything was ever going to be an out, that catch was it………this is what happened when the last player of the game was up on that incredible night during the First Annual Great River Challenge. Amazement and awe filled Modern Woodmen stadium.
Iowa and Illinois Challenger teams joined to play ball at a minor league stadium. Last game of the day under the lights….exciting……
more photos: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.274010080692.311176.552540692&type=1&l=8b314643f5