A few feet away, inside the metal backstop, Charlie Hughes, No. 24, was warming up. He gave warning with two sharp hits on home plate with his aluminum bat.
"Watch out!" he called out — to everyone and no one in particular at the same time.
Parents and grandparents settled in on the bleachers and nearby grass. The game between the Palo Alto Giants and the Oakridge White Sox was about to begin.
Just another Little League afternoon? Yes — and no.
Like young athletes worldwide, the Giants love playing baseball. But unlike many others, the two dozen or so members play in the league's Challenger Division, which the national league created for kids with physical or mental disabilities. Now in its fourth season, the Palo Alto team has taken off like a line drive, growing in numbers as word has spread.
There are, naturally, differences between the Challenger Division team and others in the league — ones that go beyond the fact that a few athletes use wheelchairs and some players' limbs move a bit differently.
The division accepts all skill levels. Competing against other leagues' Challenger groups, the Giants travel throughout the Bay Area.
Games are two innings long. All players bat; all players run the bases. There are no outs; no one keeps score.
Teamwork looks a little different as well, thanks to the use of "buddies." During a recent game, 18 players swarmed the field, including one parent who covered centerfield with her daughter and a brother who helped out in left field.
"It gets pretty crowded out there," coach Bob Rorro said with a chuckle.
A sales executive for a Mountain View Web-hosting company, Rorro's been with the team since the first season, when a young college graduate, Andrew Dantzig, founded the group.
The teamwork extends to the Giants' at bat, too.
Jenn Hinton accompanied her daughter, Jane, to home plate, Wrapping her arms around her 16 year old's and positioning the Easton bat over their shoulders, the pair went for the first pitch and hit a grounder to third. Then they bolted for first base, hand-in-hand, the teenager's pink-striped, white leather sneakers moving swiftly.
"Alright Jane!" her teammates called out. "Go Jane!"
Reaching their destination, mother and daughter stood together on base in a comfortable hug, waiting for the next hit.
"The program is so great for the kids — such a confidence builder," Hinton said in an interview. Jane participates in the Kiwanis Special Games, too, but that event "is a one-shot deal. This is a whole season. ... They really live for it."
Hinton has seen her daughter's abilities improve through her participation with the league.
"When Jane started, she couldn't throw the ball; now she can throw," Hinton said. Other children — affected by cerebral palsy — couldn't run on their own. With the aid of therapy and the incentive of playing on the team, now they love to run.
"Seeing them grow is just great," Hinton said.
Team members have grown emotionally too. Rorro recalled the scene during the team's initial season.
"Some were afraid to get out on the field the first day. It was their first time to put on a uniform," he said. "Now they can't wait."
Although some headline-grabbing Little League teams may reflect a win-at-any-cost mentality, parents say that in the Challenger Division, it's all about the game. In fact, when it comes to offering words of encouragement, team members practice equal-opportunity cheerleading.
"Yeah, White Sox!" a Giants outfielder called out to the other team's batter during a recent game.
When a White Sox player with Down syndrome stepped up to the plate and finally succeeded in getting a hit, clapping erupted among the coaches, parents and players — of both teams.
"Go runner! Go runner! Go!" a Giants' father urged as the boy took off, grinning, for first.
Such is the spirit of the game, Challenger-style.
"It's very community-minded," said Michael Steinberg, father of 16-year-old Giant Justin Steinberg. "In sports, that's often missed. You focus on the competition."
Some of that camaraderie shows in the easy relationships teammates have with each other.
Justin and his buddy, Spencer, stood near each other in the infield recently. When a White Sox batter got a hit, Spencer scooped up the ball and threw it to the pitcher.
"That's what it's about, dude!" Justin enthused, high-fiving his friend.
Next up, a slugger from the other team approached the plate and the two players became wide-eyed.
"I don't wanna get hit," Spencer piped up.
"Me neither!" Justin said.
Spencer's father, Brad Elman, sees nothing but good coming from the Challenger experience.
"It's youth athletics at its best. It's about camaraderie. Showing up is good enough," said Elman, who helps coach.
Perhaps most significantly, the team —sponsored by the league and the nonprofit Community Association for Rehabilitation — gives the youth a chance to be a part of group activities, just like their brothers and sisters.
"For these kids, it's the one day a week where they can feel like other kids. It makes them feel special — and makes them feel ordinary," Elman said.
Giants player Charlie, 17, holds fond memories from the years he's been involved. He rattles off the positions he enjoys playing: pitcher, catcher, left and right field and short stop. Last year, he hit a home run.
"I'm happy about playing baseball and being on a team," he said. "We're all friends."
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