What’s your favorite season?
Some simply answer “baseball”. I always answer fall. Fall seems to represent the ending of the vibrancy known as summer, it ushers in a time hushed by the blanket of leaves on the ground. Fall has a contemplative quality – with less hustle than the summer and not quite the bustle of the holidays. Fall is also the ending of baseball for the year, which makes me feel bittersweet. Looking past the green outfield to the sun glowing on the river I know one more season has been wrapped up.
I was granted the opportunity to announce three games of the 2017 Great River Challenge. I came only as a spectator last year so it felt good to once again be “The Mouth” of Challenger.
As I announced the names of the sponsors listed on the back of my tee-shirt; the names of the individuals, businesses, and organizations rolled off of my tongue with great familiarity.
These are names which have supported The Great River Challenge for many years and some have supported local Challenger Little League for twenty-five years.
During that quarter of a century we have seen Dolly the sheep, horrific school shootings, the fascinating internet, the tragedy of 9/11, ever-present smart phones, and the Cubs win the World Series. We have seen loyal fans stand by their team in all the lean years and whoop with joy at the victory.
We have seen fans support Challenger teams for a quarter of a century. This is true loyalty. You have not only supported CLL, but have made it possible for CLL to exist.
I am talking about the names on the back of my shirt, but I am also talking about the fans who are family. The fans who burst with pride year after year as they watch their favorite CLL player on the QC River Bandits’ diamond. I am also talking about the biggest fans of CLL- the players themselves! Because of them we get to cheer and spend days in the sun watching the perfect game of baseball.
The loyalty of the volunteers, organizers, and sponsors is what allows The Great River Challenge to continue. As a fan, I am grateful for your loyalty.
As a loyal fan I have watched some of these players for 25 years. I have seen the changes in them and in their families throughout the years, but the constant through all the change is loyalty.
~People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. ~Rogers Hornsby
I’ll let the fall tuck our baseball equipment in the bag on a shelf to lie low through the bitterness of winter, until the warmth of spring brings the loyal players and fans out to the sandlot once more.
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.
“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.