Just before twilight on a recent fall day, a group of adults as motley as the kids they were coaching dotted a youth baseball field in Clearwater. The players had striking differences. Some of them were young and some of them were adults who looked young. Some of them had that beaming smile on their faces only children with Down syndrome can have. Others had crooked legs that didn't allow them to run very well. Others had thick glasses. In fact, the only thing they had in common was that they were all having fun. The adults, seemingly in an almost 1-to-1 ratio with the children, were volunteers, there to give these kids who are not like other kids a chance to play baseball like the other kids do. And, while they certainly set out to help others (funny how this happens), in the end, they discovered they got a whole lot more than they could ever give. At least, that's the way it seems.
Toni Yeomans, 54, of Tarpon Springs is a tall and striking woman who looks much younger than her years.
She volunteers to help out at Challenger Little League baseball games, something she has done for seven years, since her daughter, Jordan, now a University of Florida student, convinced her as a middle school student that it was something the two of them should do.
Yeomans recently stood in the dugout wearing a bright yellow shirt, watching Joey Chabalik, 22, take swing-and-a-miss after swing-and-a-miss with a bat nearly as big as he was.
Pleas to use a smaller bat, coming from every direction of the field (including the adult volunteer who was pitching), only seemed to make Joey more determined to battle on with the one he had.
Finally, Yeomans trotted out to the plate, smaller bat in hand, and attempted to make a trade.
Good try, but Joey, stern-faced in his safety goggles and batting stance, still refused to give up the monstrous stick.
Just as Yeomans turned to walk back to the dugout, it happened.
Joey hit the ball.
The ball that had been placed on a tee by another volunteer while Joey, who is developmentally delayed, legally blind and has cerebral palsy, was distracted during the big-bat-small-bat brouhaha.
Everyone cheered and Joey ran around the bases.
It was one very large small victory.
Yeomans is one of about 60 volunteers, half of which are 50 and older, who work in the spring and fall with as many as 120 players, ages 5 to 25, who have disabilities ranging from ADHD to Down syndrome to amputated limbs, according to director Jim Scheuerman, who has been running the league for 15 years. It's open to every child who can't play in the traditional league.
"The kids are so affectionate, you can't lose," Yeomans said.
"If you weren't happy when you got here, you're happy when you leave."
Buck King, 68, of Dunedin was helping coach Little League 15 years ago when he — tired of all the politics and rivalry in the traditional league — started volunteering for the Challenger Little League.
"I worked with these kids because of seeing how much they enjoy being able to play. Their fellowship with each other is one of the most amazing things to watch," he said.
One child in particular stole his heart: Austin Abel, now 21. He has Down syndrome.
"This league is more family-oriented. The families get close together," he said.
He should know.
King became friends with Austin's mom, Nancy, about seven years ago. Two years later, they started dating. Three years after that, they got married. That was a year and a half ago — and the boy who stole his heart is now his son.
Steve Goedereis, 62, of Clearwater was finally clean and sober a year ago after emerging from the downward spiral of alcohol abuse he went into after his older son was murdered in 1998.
He was so grateful for the help he got from Alcoholics Anonymous that he wanted to give back by helping others.
Goedereis also needed something to occupy his time after health issues ended his globe-trotting career building golf courses in Egypt and elsewhere around the world.
A couple of months ago, a friend in AA told him about the Challenger Little League so he decided to check it out.
"He just strolled on the field one day," Scheuerman said.
And now he's just another member of the Challenger family.
"At the end of a game, we are all winners — kids, parents and coaches," King said.
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.