This summer, CVS Health welcomed the Sudbury Red Sox Challenger Team from Massachusetts to an All Kids Can baseball camp at Fenway Park. We spoke with Challenger Division Commissioner, Carole Ann Baer, about her team and their recent experience at one of the country’s most beloved baseball parks.
All Kids Can blog: What is the Sudbury Red Sox Challenger Team?
Carole Ann Baer: The Sudbury Red Sox Challenger Team is a sub-division of our little league in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which offers children of all abilities an opportunity to be a part of a real baseball team, with the same uniforms and regularly-scheduled games that they would experience as part of their local community little league, but in a better suited environment for their individual needs. This team is comprised of mildly to severely disabled children, ranging in age from 6 to 22 years old, and our games are played on a beautiful field in a great family-setting with bleachers, dugouts, and a perfect environment for playing.
AKC: What inspired you to start a challenger division in your community? When did you launch the program?
Carole Ann: My son has always played baseball, and the sport became an integral part of our lives as he grew up. I believe it helped keep him focused, goal-oriented and committed to a healthy lifestyle, and has taught him invaluable life lessons. He has also formed irreplaceable bonds with players from around the area that he may have otherwise never met.
About 10 years ago, I saw a story on TV about the Miracle League, and the amazing work the organization is doing. It made me think about how hard it would have been for my son, who loved baseball so much, to not be able to play simply because of the lack of opportunities to fit his needs in our community, and that inspired me to pursue the launch of a new program.
I went to the Little League Committee in our town, and together with local representatives, was able to develop the community’s very first challenger division.
AKC: How many kids are on the team now? How many have participated since the league was created?
Carole Ann: This year, our team had about 14 players, and one young man who used to play for us has now been promoted to Assistant Coach!
Any given year we have between 14 and 30 kids on the team. Over the years, we have probably had about 50 to 60 players participate.
AKC: The Sudbury Red Sox just recently attended a CVS Health All Kids Can Baseball Camp at Fenway. Was this your team’s first time? How did they enjoy their experience?
Carole Ann: This was actually the second time we’ve been honored with an invitation to attend an All Kids Can Baseball Camp at Fenway Park. Needless to say, it was an absolutely exceptional experience for so many different reasons, and we were we treated with immense kindness and welcomed by everyone.
The kids and their families were in awe of all the opportunities they were presented with that day. Between being so close to professional baseball players and watching them practice, participating in their very own batting practice with Victor Rodriguez, the terrific hitting coach for the Red Sox, touring the Green Monster, and eating lunch at Fenway Park - the day was nothing short of magical!
AKC: Do you have any fun stories you can share from your team’s day at Fenway Park?
Carole Ann: Oh gosh, where do I start?!
This was a team-building experience for sure. Watching the kids interact with each other and seeing the true joy and excitement it gave them was beyond touching. One of our players, Matt, just felt so overjoyed that he could hardly contain himself. Victor Rodriguez made him feel like he was quite the slugger, and the smile on Matt’s face truly spoke for itself.
One of my favorite moments, and one I will always cherish, was getting to watch the kids hit from home plate, when the bat was almost as big as they were.
AKC: Can you tell us about one of your most rewarding experiences as commissioner of the challenger division?
Carole Ann: While there have been many moments each season that have brought me to tears (happy tears, of course!), I think one of the most memorable was when the commissioner of the Sudbury Little League, Mike Walsh - who does not charge any player on our team to play in the league, and also provides them with free uniforms and equipment, as well as a beautiful field to play on - asked me if it would be okay to start a tradition of having his little league teams watch our games during their All-Star Day.
It is hard to put into words how much this truly means for these kids, and for everyone involved. Many of our players have faced times in their lives when they felt like outsiders, or were unable to participate at the same level as their peers. Now imagine their overwhelming joy, and feeling of acceptance, as they are cheered on by more than 150 little league players, many of whom are their neighbors, classmates and peers. In this moment, my kids get to feel like professional baseball players, just like the Red Sox, with an adoring crowd cheering them on. Every ball that they hit, no matter the result, is celebrated as if Big Papi hit a walk-off grand slam in extra innings.
The support our team has received continues to bring us all to tears, and we’re so appreciative of our local community fan-base.
AKC: Why do you think it’s important to offer these types of opportunities within the community for children of all abilities?
Carole Ann: First and foremost, it offers children of all abilities the chance to be a part of a team in the capacity that makes the most sense for their needs. It also gives them the ability to learn about, and participate in team building activities.
Our team has grown to create incredible bonds, and we all sincerely love and care about each other. I have watched many of these children grow up, and it is a joy to see them return each season to play the game they love with the same excitement as they did the first time they stepped foot on the field.
For me, and my players, this experience has gone way beyond just playing baseball. I am thrilled to be able to be a part of such an amazing program, and look forward to many more years with my team. I sincerely hope and encourage other communities to get involved and to reach out and start their own teams. The rewards are endless, and I can't thank CVS Health, the Red Sox, or Sudbury Little League enough for providing such an inspirational group of kids with this incredible opportunity.
All Kids Can thanks Carole Ann Baer for sharing her team’s recent experience at a baseball camp at Fenway Park, and for continuing to support children of all abilities in her community.