These athletes up to the challenge (slide show)

ARLINGTON – You won’t hear “kill the umpire” at this game.

You’d be more likely to see someone hug an ump – if there was one.

These athletes play for fun. They are in the Challenger Division of the Stilly Valley Little League.

The baseball players are disabled, but the only thing that’s really disabled is the negativity surrounding many youth baseball games.

“Nice hit,” an Arlington team member said to a Mill Creek player who rounded third base as they exchanged high 5’s.

Now in its second year, the team includes players ages 4 to a senior in high school. The team has 18 players this year, up from 11 a year ago.

Moms like Melanie Irish, who’s now the Challenger coordinator, wanted to have the team so their disabled children could play, too.

Her son Jacob, 17, has a rare genetic disorder. “He’s been watching his brothers play for years,” Irish said. “He’s their biggest fan.”

But now they can support him, too. Noah, 12, helped Jacob this game – he guided him at the plate, ran the bases with him and helped him in the field, too. “The opportunity for him to play is amazing,” Irish said of Jacob. Even though he is nonverbal, “He asks about it all week. He knew it was game day.”

Players on Bryce Krein’s Major League team, which brother Noah plays on, helped the Challenger League players against Mill Creek. Krein, vice president of the league, said his players get so much out of helping.

“It’s an eye-opener for them,” he said. “It’s not just baseball – it’s a life thing.”

His Lumber King players were all smiles helping out.

“It’s an experience for our kids to see,” their coach said, adding they become more grateful for what they have.

Stephanie Crawford of Lake Goodwin said her son, Nicholas, 19, played in the Challenger League last year, too. “He watched his siblings play, and he wanted to play, too,” she said.

She admitted with a smile that her son, who graduates this year from Lakewood High School, likes to play mostly for the free hot dog given out to their team at the concession stand after the game.

Jennifer Bjornson has seven kids, so they have always been around baseball. Her daughter, Ally, is nonverbal, “but I think she has fun,” her mom said.

Like Ally, Phil Lundberg’s son Ben, 9, also is in his second year on the team. “They treat us first class,” Lundberg said, adding they get to play on the new turf field at the Boys and Girls Club. He likes that instead of trying to integrate them onto other teams, the disabled players get to play against each other.

“It takes the pressure off the kids – and the parents,” he said. “They can be themselves.” Lundberg said he has heard people say their games are the best ones they’ve been to all year. “They get back to the spirit of sportsmanship,” he said.

Lefty Wyatt Staffenhagen, 10, who was playing first base, displayed some of the sportsmanship.

“Wow, good hit, keep going,” he told one Mill Creek player.

Wyatt, who is in his first year, is one of the few players on the team who is verbal. He likes hitting best.

“It’s cool that you can run the bases, too,” he said.

Along with a buddy system to help the players stay on task, there are other special rules in this league.

“We modify it up pretty big,” Irish said.

Players can hit off a T or have someone on their own team pitch to them underhand or overhand. They can use a yellow or white ball.

“Whatever they’re comfortable with,” Irish said, adding moms and dads often help with the hitting. Besides Mill Creek, other teams in the league are in Lynnwood, Oak Harbor, and a new one in Tulalip.

Irish said Mill Creek has had a team for 10 years.

“I guess I need an outfield today,” she said as another Mill Creek player ripped one into the outfield. “We don’t need to usually.”

The games usually only last two innings.

“Everybody hits, everybody gets on base. I wish it was all like this,” she said as she watched fans and players alike cheer each other on. Irish is so glad for the team. The Stilly League “knows that every kid should get a chance to play baseball,” she said. Irish said she can tell everyone is having fun because they are always smiling. That was clearly evident when Aurora Dressen hit the ball. She was so happy before running to first base she instead ran to the backstop to join the crowd in its cheering for her. “I smile so much it hurts” after the game, Irish said.

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