*UPDATED (7/16/2021): This story had been updated to reflect the appropriate start time for Challenger League play from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.*
BROWNSVILLE (KVEO) – Baseball is a game for everybody.
But not everybody has the chance to play.
“It’s always the same question,” Melinda Garcia said. “Why can’t I play?”
Melinda’s son Alex grew up watching his cousins play baseball at West Brownsville Little League (WBLL). When he was at his home, Alex watched even more baseball on television.
Alex, like most kids with special needs, just wanted an opportunity to play ball.
“They’ve always come here to cheer on their brothers and sisters,” WBLL Vice President Sergio Zarate said. “But today they get to enjoy baseball just like everybody else.”
In partnership with non-profit-organization Down By the Border and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, West Brownsville Little League hosted opening day of the Challenger League, a new league dedicated to providing all kids a chance to play baseball.
Thanks to a multi-million dollar renovation project, WBLL was able to renovate two fields to include Astroturf infields, which feature softer and safer playing surfaces. The project also funded the construction of a brand new turf field built on a foundation of concrete, allowing wheelchairs and walkers to roll seamlessly over the base path. UTRGV Professor Phillip Conatser spent his Sunday assisting the athletes on the new adaptive field.
“It’s like Astroturf but shorter,” Conatser said. “This has been a long process of getting people together and getting the idea together… You’ll see that this town doesn’t have turf fields,”
No turf fields? No accessibility.
Traditional grass and dirt fields provide an unsafe environment for kids with different motor skills. Aside from potential dips and holes on the base path, dirt fields are too soft for wheelchairs and walkers to comfortable glide over.
This is no longer a problem at WBLL.
With an onslaught of volunteers ready to help, dozens of families flocked to the new fields for the first Sunday of the new league. The impact was clear.
“This is very exciting as a parent because most of our kids, well, they get left behind,” Ceci Sanchez said. “It’s great for the community to learn to embrace our population. These kids, all our kids, are beautiful kids and they just want to have what everyone else has, too.”
Students from UTRGV and local high schools will play a role in assisting the kids every week. UTRGV student Jesus Ortiz was among the group volunteering at WBLL on opening day. Having experienced the limitations his autistic cousin faced growing up, Ortiz wanted to be a part of providing new opportunities for local youth.
“It is completely game-changing,” Ortiz said. “This is an opportunity for us to change things for a kid for maybe two hours out of the week. It’s something that they didn’t have before.”
The league is a step into an even better future.
Soon, Senate Bill (SB) 776 will go into effect, which would “facilitate the creation of an adaptive sports program by the University Interscholastic League (UIL), providing students with disabilities greater access to team sports,” according to the Texas Council of Developmental Disabilities website. With adaptive sports being played in high schools across the state, Zarate and the WBLL will hope to develop the athletes before they are eligible to compete in middle school and high school.
Now, Zarate says baseball game can truly be a game for everybody.
“I’m glad that everyone else that comes into this world a little different is going to be okay,” Zarate said. “Because we’ll have a place for them in our league.”
The Challenger League will play every Sunday at West Brownsville Little League beginning at 6:30 p.m beginning July 18. For more information on the league, visit Down by the Border’s Facebook page.