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Batting for every kid’s chance to play ball

Eric and Brenda Manning, with their 16-year-old son Brian.

After Little League Baseball revised its rules to include girls in the 1970s, lifelong Watertown resident Brenda Manning finally got her wish to join a team at 12 years old. She went on to compete in softball throughout junior high and high school, and played on a co-ed softball team until age 40.

Manning and her husband, Eric, a Little League veteran who later played baseball at Wellesley-based MassBay Community College, wanted the same camaraderie, enhanced self-confidence, and social and health benefits for their son Brian, a Red Sox fanatic who has cerebral palsy.

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When the Watertown Challenger League was introduced five years ago, the couple signed him up and became volunteer coaches in short order. Today, Eric is Watertown Youth Baseball’s vice president of Challenger Baseball, while Brenda is a board member at large and manager of the Challenger League.

The Watertown Challenger League, a division of Little League Baseball, accepts players of all abilities from approximately 7 to 19 years old, pairing those who require a buddy with student and adult volunteers. There is no cost for participation, shirts and hats, senior jackets, trophies, an annual banquet, and other special events thanks to sponsors including Mount Auburn Hospital, Watertown Savings Bank, WTPhelan Insurance, and the Ed Walsh Foundation.

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“Whatever their ability, we figure out a way to make it work,” said Eric Manning, noting that this year’s 35-member team includes players who are blind, on the autism spectrum, use wheelchairs, and have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and developmental disabilities. “We don’t have umpires, strikeouts, scoring, or rules other than everybody gets up to bat and around the bases. The only thing the kids have to worry about is having fun.”

Although the regular season runs from May through June, Watertown will play bonus games against Challenger teams from Brookline and Newton next Sunday, Oct. 1, beginning at 4 p.m. at Albemarle Field in Newtonville.

Ultimately, Brenda Manning hopes that opportunities similar to Challenger teams and the Miracle League of Massachusetts, for which her son also plays at NARA Park in Acton, become available in every town.

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“The smile on Brian’s face every time he’s on the field melts me,” she said. “All the kids want to be included, and they should be.”

For more information, e-mail Eric Manning at bem913@comcast.net or visit wybb.org.

Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.
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