Slammin’ Sammy Kanji — 15 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighing 130 pounds — stands in the batter’s box, hands gripping an aluminum bat, eyes hidden under wrap-around Oakleys, the number 20 clearly visible on the back of his blue jersey.
Hold the bat high. Wave it like Red Sox outfielder Mike Carp. Hit the ball and run. This is what Sam knows in his bones. But in case he needs a hand, Julia Collins, 14, is standing by his side, prepared to fly to first base or beyond with him; ready, in fact, to circle the bases for a home run, because when Slammin’ Sammy hits, he runs — and keeps running.
It’s June 21. The first day of summer and the last day of District 5 Challenger Baseball’s first season.
The Saturday morning is also another milestone for the players, who arrive with bats and balls and helmets and cognitive and physical disabilities with names like autism, Down syndrome, Asperger’s, and, in the case of Ryan Summers, a baseball-loving 6-year-old from Westborough who breathes through a tracheal tube and uses a wheelchair to get around, a genetic condition called junctional epidermolysis bullosa.
It’s a bittersweet day for the coaches and a glorious one for the players who revel in the choreography of cracking bats, flying feet, and the lusty smack of ball kissing glove.
For the players, this last game of the season is as wonderful as the first.
The local division, part of the international Little League program, is made up of three teams and 36 players: 15 kids from Northborough wearing blue jerseys; six from Millbury in maroon-colored shirts; 15 from Shrewsbury sporting blue.
This day’s game, played on the diamond behind the Robert E. Melican Middle School, pits Shrewsbury against the Northborough-Millbury team. But that’s in theory only. When the voice of announcer Joe Braverman, 16, resonates across the field with “Play ball!” everyone is on the same team.
Challenger Baseball is modified to meet the needs of its players. A typical game consists of two innings and is usually over in an hour. Nobody keeps score. Nobody is called out. And everyone gets a chance to play.
“You can divide a team by age or ability,” Shrewsbury coach Chip Collins said during a phone conversation the night before the final game. “But we have a great time together, so nobody is separate.”
Collins is a Hopkinton High School special education teacher who has coached tee ball, baseball, and junior varsity softball teams. He is passionate about baseball, and so are his wife and three kids, all athletes, who attend the Challenger games and assist players.
“On opening day, we had a parade in Northborough and my son and I were there,” Collins said. “My son had to go to his baseball game but he didn’t want to go. When I asked him why, he said, ‘It’s important to me to stay with the player. This is more important to me than my game.’”
The program has been a team effort from the get-go. Debra Roberts, the mother of two boys with Asperger syndrome, approached Northborough’s recreation director, Allison Lane, to ask whether the town would start a Challenger League. Roberts had been driving Andrew, now 10, and Ryan, now 8, to a program in Weston, a commute that was wearing thin.
In Shrewsbury, Collins was coaching Camden Chenevert, now 9, the only player with autism on his Little League team.
“If this works for this player, there have to be other players out there,” Collins said he realized. “I pushed Shrewsbury to put a team together.”
Then came the sponsors: Gilbane Building Co., the Worcester Field Hockey Association, and Dean Park Pizza and Grill, all in Shrewsbury, and the Mark Fidrych Foundation in Northborough.
“Every one of these kids progressed. Every one is better,” said Pasquale Clemente, a Millbury parent assisting his 5-year-old son, Valentino, on the field. “Every one of these kids caught on.”
Samuel D. Ranck, director of the Challenger Division and league development manager for Little League International, said the game that started 25 years ago is now played around the world. As of Dec. 31, Ranck said, there were 34 Challenger Baseball leagues in Massachusetts, with 75 teams and 1,100 players. Worldwide, there are 950 Challenger teams and more than 30,000 players in the United States and 10 other countries.
What the numbers don’t show is the ripple effect that extends into the community.
Dante Camacho, a 16-year-old Shrewsbury High School junior, was the “buddy’’ for Malcolm McGinnis, an experience that confirmed his decision to be a special education teacher someday. Growing up, he’d mentored a friend’s brother who had special needs. “I felt bad to see kids like that left out,” Camacho said.
Collins and Northborough coach Jim Furlong understand.
“We love the game,” Collins said. “We believe everybody deserves to play.”
So do the other coaches who run Challenger Baseball leagues in area communities.
John Morrissey, a coach in Sudbury since 2006, said during a telephone interview that between 12 and 15 youngsters played regularly during the season that ended June 22. That league was started in 2005.
“We get on the field and play some baseball, give the parents a little bit of a break,” said Morrissey, a baseball coach at the Middlesex School in Concord.
Morrissey, who played baseball for Bates College, has used the program to help challenged players — and his privileged students at the elite boarding school where he works — to gain confidence and self-respect.
“I think the game can teach kids a lot — about handling adversity, responding in a positive way. It’s helpful for kids,” he said.
In Weston, coach Matt Schulman, who left a career on Wall Street to teach and coach, called his involvement with the program a gift. Weston recently finished its fourth season of Challenger Baseball.
Furlong, the Northborough coach, chokes up when he talks about the program and what it means to him.
“It took me 47 years to realize what I want to do to help,” he said he tells volunteer buddies, some as young as 9 or 10. “You already get it.”
At the field in Northborough after this last game is over, the players and their buddies are called up, one by one, to receive their awards: shiny trophies and medals for the players; Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for the buddies. Nearby, volunteers are grilling hot dogs and setting out bags of chips and soft drinks, or passing around Popsicles and Klondike bars.
And then it’s over. Goodbyes are said. Equipment is packed. Mothers and fathers gather their sweet-faced athletes and lead them to vehicles parked in the lot in front of the school.
“When I just asked Sam if he was sad the baseball season ended, he matter-of-factly said ‘No,’ ” Ilyse Kanji wrote in an e-mail a few days later. “The thing with autism is he’s such a concrete thinker and is so good with the calendar. So he just knows, accepts that the last day of baseball was on 6/21. I asked him what he’s looking forward to next season and he said, ‘Hitting more home runs.’ Also to seeing his coaches and teammates. But he really is very excited for the spring, for the next season.”