By Brian Stanley
The Santa Ynez Pirates teamed up with the Dos Pueblos Little League Challenger Division on the diamonds for some baseball action at Girch Park in Goleta on March 16.
“This is the seventh year we’ve been invited to come out,” said Santa Ynez Pirates head coach Warren Dickey.
Establishing the local Challenger Division for special-needs players in 2004, Dos Pueblos Little League fielded five teams this season. The Cubs, Mets and Pirates are playing in the Little League Division while the Mariners and Phillies play in the Senior League.
“Challengers is a division of Little League just like tee ball, majors and minors,” said Retta Slay, Dos Pueblos Little League Challenger volunteer. Organizers want “all boys and girls of all abilities to play, so they are included in their community Little League programs.”
Founded by Little League International in 1989, the littleleague.org website promotes the Challenger Division as an adaptive baseball program for individuals with physical and intellectual challenges.
“We’ve been amazed, every year we come out here and we see these girls and guys, how quickly they bond with our guys,” Dickey said. “It is just awesome.”
The growth of the division over 15 years in Goleta has expanded the Challenger’s session with Santa Ynez into two groups, allowing Dickey to split his squad and pair each of his athletes with a Challenger player.
“The junior varsity is working with the older kids and the varsity are working with the more hands-on group,” Dickey said.
Led by seniors Casey Hickman and Cole Knightley, the Pirates started warmups with Challengers throwing the ball around before ball caps were passed out and the players took the field.
“Looking at Casey and Cole, especially with more varsity experience, it’s interesting to see this side of them. The caring, nurturing side and the smile on their face,” Dickey said. “They play catch without a thought every day, and now they are trying to work with kids that don’t even know how to grip a baseball.”
“When they are out here, they seem like they are having a good time and it’s really cool to see that,” Knightley said.
There were also several Santa Ynez Pirates participating in the annual team up for the first time, including freshman impact player Victor Heredia.
“It’s really great, it’s special to be out here and seeing everybody smile,” Heredia said. “I just want to see them running around, hitting the ball and enjoying the day.”
Hitting the ball and running the bases is what all the Challenger team members did, each taking two turns at the plate, taking swings until getting a hit. Those hits included a bases-clearing grand slam before Keaton Slay came up for his second at-bat.
The son of Retta Slay, Keaton stepped up to the plate and pointed to the outfield, calling his shot just like the legendary shot called by Babe Ruth in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. After a couple pitches Keaton found the one he wanted and sent it sailing into the outfield for a home run.
As Keaton rounded third, he was calling for his Santa Ynez partner Tyler Rasmussen to join him as he ran toward home plate. Rasmussen joined in to finish out the run around the bags.
Having volunteered with the Challenger Division since their freshman season, the time has come for Hickman and Knightley to pass the torch to their younger teammates.
“I hope it sticks around and more kids come into it and that our team keeps doing it year after year,” Hickman said.
With the Santa Ynez squad focused on ensuring the Challenger players were enjoying the field time, Dickey felt this was a moment for his team to move past a 15-7 loss to Santa Barbara the day before.
“We had a tough loss yesterday,” Dickey said. “It’s going to have a really positive impact today, getting our mind off a really bad Friday and seeing why we play this game, for the love of the game.”