First introduced in 1988, Challenger Baseball allows children with cognitive or physical disabilities the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of playing baseball in a setting that caters to their needs. The games are played in a safe recreational environment, where no score is kept, and each participant is assigned a buddy to act as a mentor who assist the Challenger players on the field when needed and encourage the players to bat and make plays
"Everybody that wants to give their kids a chance to be on the field and live the dream of the Toronto Blue Jays, today is their chance," said Ian Mclean, National Coordinator for Challenger Baseball Canada. "In the last three years, since we opened the door with the Blue Jays… our ability to spread our word across Canada… really comes from being able to have the Blue Jays and Jays Care Foundation brand behind us. We gain instant legitimacy of our programs by being aligned with the Blue Jays."
The Blue Jays' relationship with Challenger Baseball runs deep. Not only has the club facilitated the Jamboree for the past three seasons, but in 2014, Jays Care Foundation, the club's charitable arm, provided Erindale Lions Little League with a $29,000 grant in order to refurbish two diamonds at Erindale's Springfield Park to accommodate Challenger Baseball participants. Additionally, throughout the 2015 season, Jays Care will supply all 15 new Challenger Baseball sites with start-up kits that include equipment bags, bats, baseballs, a batting tee, blast ball bases, Blue Jays hats, a first aid kit and the Commit to Kids sports edition manual. Jays Care also hosted Challenger Baseball participants at Rogers Centre in the Jays Care Community Clubhouse during the Jamboree on June 7.
Norman Sheppard, father of 9-year-old Ben Sheppard, would tend to agree.
"To come down here and play… [Ben's] blown away, he thinks it's the greatest thing in the world. Being able to play baseball and keep up and have the environment that allows him to just have fun… it's really awesome."
In 2014, the Blue Jays facilitated an event aimed at raising funds for a surgery to reverse the effects of Ben's spastic hemiplegic cerebral palsy. At the time, Ben's dream was to run the bases on the field at Rogers Centre, a dream which seemed immeasurably distant. The event and subsequent surgery were overwhelmingly successful, and Saturday, along with 80 of his peers, Ben ran those bases.
"It's something you never think is going to happen in your life - the Blue Jays have spoiled us, it blows me and [Ben] away," continued Sheppard. "When I was asking all the families in Whitby to sign up [for the Jamboree], the selling point was that our first game was going to be on the Rogers Centre field. A couple of the families from Whitby even got selected to watch the game in the Jays Care Community Clubhouse and they were thrilled. "
Across Canada, nearly 600 Canadian kids will have the same experience as Ben, as the Blue Jays will host seven additional Challenger Baseball Jamborees from coast to coast.