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.
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