But when fourth grade student Preston Hodges and 14-year-old Andrew Moseley, put on their Challenger baseball uniforms, they were less interested in Pete Rose, and more interested in when they would get to play baseball.
This Is It Furniture owner Mike Namoff hosts benefits annually to support local youth athletic organizations.
The Tom Jones Challenger League provides children with a varying degree of physical or mental challenges a safe environment to play baseball at the AMBUCS Park in Urbana. Children who play in the Challenger League are provided with uniforms and equipment which fit each individual needs, along with a volunteer buddy who helps each player during the game.
“Every kid has a different need, so they’ll go out of their way to fabricate some tool or apparatus so each child can play the game,” Preston’s dad Jason Hodges said.
The Challenger League is free to all players.
With approximately 300 guests in attendance, Challenger League players, including Preston and Andrew helped the night run smoothly by selling cupcakes and collecting donation envelopes or handing back receipts.
“Both Andrew and Preston thought they were going to play baseball when they put their baseball uniforms on,” Andrew’s mom Kim Woolridge said. “They enjoyed standing with the pretty girls and handing out cupcakes. That part they understood. They really hammed it up for the ladies.”
Namoff collected donated items from businesses to auction off at the event. Jason Hodges said while the auction items raised thousands of dollars, he was most impressed with the $8000 which were donated through envelopes left on the tables for 20 minutes. Challenger players helped pick up these envelopes.
“It’s really cool that Mike was able to put this together,” Jason said. “A lot of money was raised that night. Basically it’s a big part to raise a lot of money. After the party bills are paid, he donates the money to the league.”
Hodges also said that while the money raised for the Challenger League is important, the event also raised awareness.
“A lot of people in that room really weren’t aware of the League,” he said. “They weren’t aware that there are this many kids in our community who have special needs.”
Preston and Andrew live on the same cult-de-sac in Mahomet. While they’ve known each other over seven years, playing baseball on the Challenger League has brought their friendship closer.
“Preston and Andrew would parallel play before,” Preston’s mom Linda Hodges said. “Now they engage each other. They’re friends. They will actually seek each other out.”
Andrew, who has played on the Challenger League for seven years, invited Preston to join him this year. Both boys played baseball on the Mahomet Recreation League until the level of competition became too much. Andrew also has many friends from the Down Syndrome Network who play on the Challenger League.
“If you watch a typically developed child doing the best they can, you’ve got parents in the stands complaining about why their kids can’t play first base or why they haven’t got as many bats,” Jason said. “Then you have the kids who have special needs, and their families are just excited that they get to be on the field. They don’t care where they play or how many times they batted. They just care that they were able to put on a uniform, be on a team, get on the field, get some exercise and have a good time with their friends.”
Each player on the Challenger League gets to hit the ball, run the bases and play in the field. The last batter on each team gets a “grand slam” to end the inning.
“I love seeing the joy come out of them,” Linda said. “When (Preston) is playing, he’s most excited. All the kids get the ‘I did something. I accomplished something. I’m proud of it.’”
Central Illinois has many programs for children with special needs. Alongside the Challenger League, the YMCA has basketball, swimming, flag football and dance programs, Soccer Planet hosts an indoor soccer league every other Sunday and Preston and Andrew learned how to ride a bike through AMBUCS Lose the Training Wheels programs.
“It’s important to make them feel like a person,” Linda said. “Everybody is a person. Everyone should have an equal opportunity.”