With a smooth left-handed swing, Alessandra Glickman drops a single down the third-base line and arrives at first base with a smile. Just like countless other kids, she is thrilled to be out playing baseball on a warm Sunday afternoon.
But Alessandra Glickman isn’t like most kids.
Alessandra was born with Down syndrome. After beginning to grow into a life that would always include certain challenges, she started losing weight and energy. A few months before her sixth birthday, doctors finally determined why when they found three tumors in her brain.
With their daughter facing roughly a 20 percent chance of survival, Alessandra’s parents opted for a very aggressive treatment strategy to combat the brain cancer. So Alessandra began a harrowing process that included chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and cranial spinal radiation.
A year later, her cancer is in full remission. But Alessandra, now 8, still goes for a blood test every other week, and every two months she gets an MRI and a spinal tap.
So it’s no wonder that after his daughter’s soft single, Rob Glickman races from behind the fence to greet Alessandra at first base with an enthusiastic two-handed high-five.
Alessandra Glickman isn’t like most kids. And neither are her teammates.
For the Menlo-Atherton Red Sox, Challenger Day is by all accounts the most eagerly anticipated day of the week. Energy bubbles over as the players start gathering on the field at Burgess Park before the game.
The Palo Alto Giants are visiting, which would get everyone’s blood pumping a bit faster in every other division of Little League. But in this case, a rivalry is far from anyone’s mind.
So is winning, for that matter.
Baseball is at hand, without question, but it’s a simplified version – one in which everyone is batting 1.000.
The Challenger Division enables boys and girls with physical and mental challenges, ages 4-22, to experience baseball along with the millions of other children who participate in the sport. Menlo-Atherton’s 10-game schedule also includes games against teams from South San Francisco, Hillsborough, Foster City and Sunnyvale. Half Moon Bay is another San Mateo County city with a Challenger team.
The basic rules? The games are two innings long. Everyone bats (and gets a hit) in each inning. Nobody makes an out – although the defense is encouraged to field and throw. Everybody scores. And the last batter of each inning hits a ‘home run.’
The other signature of Challenger ball—established as an official division of Little League in 1989—is the buddies that accompany the players at each step of the way. Buddies – largely teenagers in Menlo-Atherton’s case—assist whenever needed but also encourage players to bat or make plays independently.
When the Red Sox -- much younger on the whole and less able than their Palo Alto opponent -- head out to play defense in the top of the first inning, it’s quickly apparent that the players scattered around the infield and inner outfield are much more interested in playing with their buddies and their teammates than paying attention to the action at the plate.
If not for the buddies, real danger might loom, especially when a few of the bigger Giants start teeing off. “That guy hit the beejeezus out of the ball!” exclaims a Red Sox parent after a Palo Alto player wearing a Buster Posey jersey wallops a shot to leftfield.
But the Menlo-Atherton buddies deftly juggle keeping everyone safe and entertained, and the Red Sox eventually make it back to their dugout safely.
Now the real fun begins.
With about 15 players and nearly as many buddies crammed in, Menlo-Atherton’s dugout resembles a beehive. Most baseball teams have their characters, and the Red Sox are certainly no exception.
Robbie Batista, an 11-year-old from Redwood City who has a genetic abnormality, is so excited to be playing that he starts swiping his teammates’ caps.
“I always do that,” he says later with a knowing smile. “I try to put all the caps on.”
Joe Kaufman, also 11 and one of a handful of Red Sox with Down syndrome, starts weaving together a pile of clothes hangers while sitting on the bench.
As Menlo-Atherton co-coach Doug Kaufman, Joe’s father, heads onto the field to pitch to his players, his wife Jennifer calls out the first few batters and asks the buddies to move along what will be a long and colorful procession to the plate.
Los Altos’ Anneli Rullo, who was born with Down syndrome, leads off for the Red Sox. She promptly hits a dribbler toward third base and runs to first to the applause of a number of parents.
Next up is Cameron Todd of San Carlos, one of two Red Sox with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair. Cameron’s buddy Whitney Nelson helps roll him to the plate, and then she grips his hands around a bat and helps him make contact with Doug Kaufman’s underhand pitch. As the pair heads toward first, and then advances around the bases with Menlo-Atherton’s station-to-station offense, Cameron’s mother Sue explains how much her 9-year-old enjoys getting to experience baseball.
“He loves being out here,” she says. “He loves being out with the other kids. He loves the excitement. Swinging the bat – it’s a huge smile.”
Minutes later, Riley Dehne, a 9-year-old with Down syndrome and some sensory integration issues, steps into the batter’s box and, with an assist, smacks a grounder. As his team’s final hitter, Riley’s at-bat is a guaranteed celebration. His buddy Michael Kaufman—one of two of Doug and Jennifer’s older sons who volunteer at each game—lifts Riley onto his shoulders and jogs around the bases as everyone cheers for the inning-ending grand slam.
With the Red Sox back in the field and playing very little defense, Sue Todd observes, “It’s a little chaotic.”
“It’s a different kind of ballgame,” she continues. “Our lives are a different ballgame. It’s a ballgame of humor and spirit—let’s have a party at second base!”
Menlo-Atherton’s final at-bat is highlighted by back-to-back singles by independent swingers Chloe West and Alessandra Glickman (prompting the high-five with her father).
Chloe, a good friend of the hat-swiping Robbie, adds plenty of her own sparkle to the team, including the pink zip-up sweatshirt she sports over her Red Sox T-shirt. Asked afterwards what her favorite part of Challenger Day is, Chloe, a 10-year-old with expressive/receptive language disorder, exclaims, “When I get to run to home plate!”
After the rest of the Red Sox batters follow Chloe to home plate to complete the inning and the game, Menlo-Atherton and Palo Alto cap the day just as all other baseball teams do – with a handshake line. But with no losers, everyone walks away in a great mood, seemingly wishing the game could go on.
The above article was the first in a three-part series on Challenger baseball. Click to read Part II.
A photo slideshow will follow on Sunday to complete the series.