NEWPORT NEWS — It's nearly 70 degrees with only the sun in the sky — a perfect morning for baseball. Digging in from the right side, Cameron Strickland sends a dribbler down the third-base line. It's going to be a close play at first.
Cameron speeds toward the bag … and then stops. He looks around and then darts to the dugout, where he finds his mother cheering him on. He gives her a kiss. Then, with his buddy in tow, he's off to first base.
Where he's safe.
Nobody complains that, technically, he was out of the base path. Nor does anyone care that he needed more than three strikes to put the ball in play. None of this is what the Challenger League, which is for players with physical and mental challenges, is all about.
It's about having fun. It's about giving every child the chance to do what many kids take for granted: play ball.
Two Saturdays ago, Challenger players also got a chance to connect with members of Bethel's varsity and JV teams, who came out in full uniform to serve as "buddies" on the field. While the goal is for the kids to get hits and make plays themselves, the buddy is always nearby to help as needed.
For the 30 or so Bruin players on hand that morning, it was something they'll never forget.
"Everybody had a ball," catcher Rashaun Chambers said. "The kids really make you look at baseball a different way. To see them coming out here and putting forth their best effort to have fun, it just makes you want to do the same."
This is the third year Bethel's team has come out to Deer Park for a buddy game.
"I looked forward to it," Bruin pitcher Ian Benner said. "I loved it last year. It really opened up my eyes and made me realize the gift I have to play baseball."
Or, as Challenger parent Lori Armer put it: "Every professional baseball player needs to come to one of our games to remember the whole reason for playing."
The Challenger Division of Little League Baseball began in 1989 for ages 4 through 18 (or 22, if still enrolled in school). According to Little League's website, more than 30,000 players participate in Challenger worldwide.
To a casual observer, the games might appear disorganized. In a sense, they are. Each player gets as many chances as he/she needs to make contact. While that's going on, those on defense play catch with their buddies.
Each team bats through the order, and the players take one base at a time. The buddies are always there to help.
Most times, the buddies are the parents. But every now and then, there are special guests — such as the Bethel team.
"Our kids love it," Bruins coach Antoine Tucker said. "Every year we go out there, there's nothing but smiles. It's a good feeling. You really see how it makes (everyone) feel good on the inside. And our kids get a chance to give something back."
It means everything to the Challenger kids, who look at these high school players as if they were Bryce Harper or Justin Verlander. And it means everything to the parents, who get to enjoy watching their kids have fun.
"One of our players, his mom just knew her child wouldn't go play with his buddy," said Kim Catalano, director of District 7's Challenger League. "He's very clingy to her. But it worked, and he had a great time. I always tell the parents at the meetings, you'll be surprised at what the kids do during buddy games."
Mike Lawson, Bethel's JV head coach, said his players get as much from it as the Challenger players. He tells a story about last year's game, when the Bruins' James Beckwith was paired with a child who after each hit took the ball to the fence and threw it over. Each time, Beckwith climbed the fence, brought the ball back to the child, and helped him get to the next base.
"I told James, 'I'm sorry you have to keep climbing the fence,'" Lawson said. "He said, 'Coach, I'd climb that fence 100 times if it makes him smile like that.'"
Last Saturday's game had plenty of special moments. Like Bethel's John Babey, with a grin wider than home plate, crouching with his buddy — Cameron Strickland, the 7-year-old with Down's Syndrome who interrupted his single to kiss his mother — for a game of catch. Like the Bruins' Logan Wetzler pushing a child in a wheelchair around the bases and even to the batting cage to work on his swing.
"I know this probably sounds crazy being a baseball coach, but this is the best baseball day of the year for me," Lawson said. "Even the most introverted (Bethel) player melts to the charm of the kid he's buddied up with."
Here's betting they come back next year.