Sporting a pair of movie star sunglasses, John “Hollywood” McGonagle stepped to the plate.
He took a pitch, then swung and missed. On the third pitch, the 25-year-old batter lifted a fly ball over the infield and into the left fielder’s glove. But he wasn’t out.
“Good hit!” “Nice catch!”
To the cheers and applause of parents and coaches, Hollywood took a home run trot around the bases at Kelly Field in Norwood, blowing imaginary smoke from the tip of his finger as if it were the barrel of gun.
At Norwood’s Little League Challenger program, where the players are special-needs children and young adults, everyone can run the bases no matter where their ball ends up.
The baseball season ends Sunday, but there will be more games to play. Flag football, cheerleading, basketball, and soccer are part of the program to keep the participants busy year-round.
The Norwood- and Foxborough-based program, which began in 1992, is part of the Challenger Division of the national Little League organization, and its 80 or so players come from two dozen communities stretching from Easton to Holliston to Hyde Park in Boston.
Challenger groups are sprinkled throughout Massachusetts, but Norwood’s is the largest in the state, said Margaret Chaisson, Norwood Challenger’s communications director.
“Most of them are 20 kids or less, and we’re about four times that size,” Chaisson said. “It’s partly because we’re regional and we reach out to the whole area, and partly that we’ve been around for a long time.”
The longevity of the group, which she attributed to committed parents and coaches, has allowed it to make connections with other groups and hold games and small tournaments regionally, she said.
Norwood’s program is also unique in that it offers sports throughout the year, while most Little League Challenger programs stick to baseball, said Bob Smith, one of the local group’s organizers.
The group began with baseball and “it took off just like wildfire; we had six teams in a matter of a few years,” said Smith. “There is a need for it, and there is always going to be a need for it.”
Smith’s special-needs son, Rob, was 10 when the program began. He had been in a traditional Little League program, but the play was beginning to get competitive.
“Once you get around 10 years old, kids are pitching now and they want to compete,” Smith said. “Although they were nice to my son, my son would be a sure out, and that’s not fair to them, and not fair to my son.”
Now 31, Rob doesn’t play anymore. Players in the Challenger Division range in age from 6 to around 30, but no one is forced to stop playing when they reach a certain age, Smith said.
At the game in Norwood this month, parents and coaches said that people hear about the program mostly through word of mouth, with a big assist from Chaisson.
Chaisson uses her extensive e-mail list to keep parents notified. Before Chaisson got involved, organizers had to make about 100 calls before every game, said Rick Reardon, one of the organizers.
Geri Sheehan of Mansfield, watching the game from the bleachers, said her son Tom is nearly 30. As he ran to first after hitting the ball, she cheered, “That’s my guy! Good job!”
Born with a coordination disorder called dyspraxia, Tom Sheehan lacks motor coordination and was 7 years old before he could speak, his mother said. His two sisters participated in sports, but she couldn’t find a way to get Tom involved until she heard about the Challenger Program from another Mansfield parent.
“What was wonderful about this program was he was able to get up there with the tee at the beginning and be encouraged,” Sheehan said. “He never felt badly about what he was doing, and 17 years later, he is still participating in all of the sports they do.”
Barbara Richardson of Norwood said her son Brian has likewise taken advantage of the program for many years. Now 19, he looks forward to it every year and never misses a game unless he is sick, she said.
“Everyone has a chance to hit the ball, no matter how long it takes, and feel that sense of accomplishment of running the bases and making it to home,” Richardson said.
Nanci Walsh of Walpole said her 7-year-old son, Coleman, has done well in his first year with the program.
Coleman has learned how to play the game because coaches broke it down into steps he could understand, Walsh said. In school, Coleman is in an integrated classroom, but Walsh said there are advantages in a recreation program consisting entirely of people with special needs.
“It’s great to see he can be satisfied and achieve success at a basic level,” Walsh said. “If it’s a program that’s not accommodating, he’ll get very discouraged by it.”
Norfolk resident Tom Klejna has been bringing his 18-year-old son, Thomas, to Challenger sports for five years.
“We started with basketball and went on with baseball and now he’s involved with soccer,” Klejna said of his son.
While his son is the one playing, Klejna said he gets a lot out of the program as well. In speaking to parents of special-needs children, he has learned about other programs and activities, and can compare notes about education and parenting.
The games also give parents a break from caring for their children, Richardson said. Her son has epilepsy and requires attention throughout the day, but during sports he is supervised by the coaches and Richardson can be a spectator.
“Coming here, it’s almost like taking a breath of fresh air,” Richardson said. “It’s a time we can let all of that go for an hour and be in a community of people who understand and accept. I can rejuvenate and become more energized before I go home and deal with what I need to deal with.”
The program has helped volunteers who aren’t related to the players.
Sarah Lussier, a freshman at Bridgewater State University, said her involvement with the Challenger teams has led to her decision to pursue a career as a special education teacher.
Lussier started while she was a student at Norwood High School and said coaching has been both enjoyable and meaningful.
“I love these kids — they bring more joy to me than I could bring to them,” Lussier said.
Smith said high school students often help out with coaching and that regular Little League teams sometimes watch the games and cheer on the players.
Community support is also provided by such donors as the Norwood Elks, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Ernie Boch Jr.
Boys and girls can participate in any of Norwood’s Challenger sports, but coaches Julie and David Price decided five years ago to split the girls into a softball team, which plays weekly after the baseball game.
Through that team, the girls have formed closer friendships, with campfire outings, pizza nights, and social dances, Julie Price said.
David Price added that even in the world of special-needs sports, girls can get marginalized. “This [softball] team allowed them to be themselves a bit more and relax a bit more,” he said.
Once per season, the girls play against the boys, which gets players on both sides pumped up for the competition. But like all Challenger Division games, no one keeps score.
“Every game is a tie,” Reardon said. “Everybody wins.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.