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Grand Junction's Challenger Baseball League readies themselves for the trip of a lifetime

When she founded Grand Junction's Challenger Baseball League for special needs children nearly twenty years ago, Carma Brown never imagined it would affect this many lives on Colorado's Western Slope.

Something special is happening on Colorado's Western Slope.
Something special is happening on Colorado's Western Slope.
Carma Brown

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you feel like you can accomplish anything after feeding off her boundless energy. You plan on talking to Carma Brown for fifteen minutes, but she keeps you on the phone for an hour with her wit, charm, and passion. By the end of the conversation, your cheeks hurt from smiling so much at her stories about baseball and life on the Western Slope. She only told you a handful, though; you’re certain she has hundreds more.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you’d better keep up. She talks fast, and if you don’t, too, you’ll never find a break in the conversation. It’s not that she’s rude; it’s that she’s passionate, with more energy and drive than she knows what to do with and a natural ability to make you feel like you’ve known her for years, even if you only just met.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour and you find that, besides her family, her passion lies in two areas: baseball and people. You better be ready if you ask her about those two things; she talks even faster when she’s discussing something she loves.

A mother of two and an insurance manager in Grand Junction for the last two decades, it’s Carma’s job to deal with people. When she can marry it with the national pastime, though, she’s a force. The kind of person you imagine must not sleep much. The kind of person that wins national awards and then downplays the honor because she doesn’t want attention on herself. The kind of person that starts a baseball league for special needs children because decades earlier her little brother didn’t have access to one.

Challenger Baseball League

"I grew up in Little League, me and my five siblings," Carma says. "We were all baseball and softball kids, and my dad coached, so I grew up in my own Little League here. And then the last of our six brothers and sisters is my little brother Darren, who has mild mental retardation. There was really nothing for him. He supports everybody, but he played tee ball, and then he didn’t have anywhere else he could play or anything else he could do after that."

That stuck with Carma her whole life.

★ ★ ★

You’re optimistic about the coming baseball season despite every rational thought, expert’s comment, and statistical projection indicating otherwise. You ignore all that; there’s plenty of time to be realistic later, and 162 games is a long, winding road. For now, baseball’s back, and you’ve waited all winter for this.

Your team won’t play spring training games for another ten days and they won’t suit up for a real affair until Opening Day a month beyond that, but even just watching footage of batting practice on the club’s Arizona complex backfields has you buzzing. You order new gear from the team’s online store just to feel a little more like you’re part of it. You know, for legitimacy.

You stay up late on Saturday night, hours past your bedtime, because there’s a college baseball game in Hawaii being streamed live on the Internet. You don’t have a dog in the fight, but you still get mad when the home team’s catcher lets a passed ball get by him at a key point in the eighth inning. Your heart beats faster with two runners on and two outs in the ninth inning of what is now a close game. You wonder if you’re crazy, or if other people are like you.

Challenger Baseball League

Your girlfriend texts you from the other room, the message in no uncertain terms that it’s probably time to come to bed. You can’t right now, though; the home team has to get one more out to win, and by this point, you’ve committed to the game. You picked a team. You’re emotionally invested, and besides, something might happen.

The home team allows two more passed balls in the ninth on back-to-back pitches. The game is now tied. You tense up.

Baseball fandom is irrational.

★ ★ ★

One day seventeen years ago, with two sons playing Little League Baseball in Grand Junction, an opportunity came up for the local league to add Challenger Baseball, then a relatively new division of Little League designed to cater to special needs children. As it seems like she’s done with most things in her life, Carma went full steam ahead.

"I was the minor boy’s rep at that time, and I hated my position," Carma says, laughing as she re-lives the memory, "so I would have done anything to get out of minor boys. I was like, ‘I’ll try to start this! I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, but I can figure it out.’"

Little League’s Challenger Division was established in 1989, with the stated mission of enabling boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to enjoy the game of baseball. Challenger teams are set up based on abilities rather than age (kids from 4-18 can play; even young adults as old as 22 are eligible in certain circumstances), and the rules of play vary from tee ball to coach pitch and even player pitch, depending on what the athletes are able to do.

If Challenger baseball is new to you right now, well, you’re just like Carma was back then—only you haven’t volunteered yourself to start and run a league.

"The first year was kind of a disaster," Carma admits, chuckling about how far the league has come since those early days. "But it was really an easy mission for me once I got the right people involved, like my very best friend Kelli. Her daughter is disabled so she was automatically going to be the coach, there was no question, and her daughter was going to play, and we had some brave little kids that showed interest that first difficult year."

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you quickly learn about her "very best friend Kelli." That’s Kelli Hamilton, a mother of two who has been in Grand Junction with her husband and kids for nearly two decades after moving from Parker. She met Carma very soon after reaching the Western Slope, and jumped on immediately as a coach, in part to get her own daughter, Lindsay, involved with a sport.

"We started the league with just two teams, and it became a great way for Lindsay to play ball, and become active, and do something that would not have been an opportunity for her otherwise," Kelli says. "As parents, it was special for Jerry and I to see her participate in the game like that. I continued being a coach until Lindsay was no longer able to play because she turned 21, and I just stayed with it, because the magic that happens never gets old."

Nowadays, Grand Junction’s Challenger League has eight teams—conveniently named after the eight teams of the Pioneer League—but things didn’t begin that way. With just two teams to start, trying to play once a week on a field often too muddy and inaccessible for wheelchairs and walkers, the first season was rough, to say the least.

"But above everything, I just knew the vision," Brown insists, "and we stumbled through the first year."

Stumble they did, with bad field conditions, a tough time finding interested kids, and little oversight. Somehow, though, Carma had fulfilled her responsibility: get a league for special needs kids off the ground in Grand Junction. For Hamilton and her daughter Lindsay, muddy fields and logistical problems were miles away from the stuff that actually mattered.

"It enabled Lindsay to have contact with her peers," Kelli says of Challenger’s role in her daughter’s life. "She got older, and she was able to have friendships with high school peers that she would not have had otherwise because of that connection that was made on the baseball field. They got to see Lindsay as someone like them. They were able to see that they had more in common than their differences."

Something special was happening, and momentum stayed in Carma’s favor through the first year. A construction company helped build fields compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Carma—and Kelli—pushed through managing games despite often having little help, and before she knew it, the calendar rolled around to year two.

"After the first year, those kids, I promised them that if you please come back next year, I promise every one of you will have buddies," Carma says, her voice quivering even now when recalling the old memory, "and the first time you don’t have a buddy at a game, you can leave and never come back."

Much of the program’s lasting success can be traced back to the buddies. Carma had a program that first season at every game, where a buddy—a local high school or college athlete—would be assigned to each Challenger player to help with baseball activities, and most importantly, help emotionally support the child as a new teammate.

"Whatever the need is, that child’s buddy would accommodate that," she explains of the way they do things to this day on the Western Slope. "So if they need a push in their wheelchair, that’s what they’re going to do. If they just need them to stand there and give moral support to throw the ball to first base, well, then that’s what their buddy is going to do."

★ ★ ★

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you quickly learn she doesn’t just spend her spare time with Challenger Baseball. That’d be too easy, you get the feeling; she needs to be overbooked to really come alive. During the summers that’s the case, when she serves as a host mom for the Pioneer League’s Grand Junction Rockies.

Tasked with hosting professional baseball players assigned by the big league club to the Western Slope, Carma has invited Eddie Butler, Kyle Freeland, Sam Howard, Ryan McMahon, Harrison Musgrave, and many more into her home the last several years. She tells you stories about them; you laugh, and you shake your head in amazement. Is there anything this woman doesn’t do? You don’t share the stories with anybody, though. At least not yet. It’ll make for something cooler in the future.

Mick Ritter, the assistant general manager of the Grand Junction Rockies, jumps at the chance to vouch for Carma.

"She’s tireless," Ritter says.

You make a note the amazement in his voice, because, well, you feel the same emotion.

"It seems like she’s always running. She’s at every single one of our games, her and her husband. They are a great host family for us. She’s just so good for the Rockies. Everybody knows Carma."

Ritter knows Carma better than most, though. In addition to working with her as she hosts the pro ballplayers that the young front office executive must oversee every Pioneer League summer, Ritter grew up playing Little League Baseball with—you guessed it—Carma’s sons.

"If you’re involved in Little League here, and this goes back to when I was playing, we were always with Carma," Ritter says. "We always knew Carma would be there. She was always there. She wouldn’t miss a game. Now, she doesn’t miss a Challenger game, she doesn’t miss a Rockies baseball game, she takes care of the players, and she just takes care of people. That’s a big plus on Carma. She’s just a good person."

Challenger Baseball League

Kelli Hamilton (L) and Carma Brown

Sam Howard, a Rockies pitching prospect who played in Grand Junction in 2014, can attest to Carma’s good nature, both as a host mom and as Challenger’s leader.

"The summer with Carma and the Browns was a lot of fun," Howard says. "They are people I will always call family from now on. I went through some struggles that year on the field, but it was awesome to be able to come home to a family that wanted to help any way they could."

"I definitely will have them in Denver whenever I make my big league debut," Howard adds, which tells you exactly how strongly he feels about Carma as family.

If there’s anything unfortunate about Challenger Baseball on the Western Slope, it’s that their season ends before the Grand Junction Rockies’ season can begin in mid-June every year, making it hard for the rookie Rockies to serve as traditional buddies during the Monday night games.

No matter; Carma routinely brings her Challenger kids out to Suplizio Field throughout the summer and finds other ways for them to connect with her Rockies kids. Ritter knows a thing or two about Challenger and that balance from being a buddy himself back from his days as a high school baseball player.

"You see quickly what the experience is, and you have so much fun," Ritter says of the buddy program. "And then when you get older like me, you see them out at the stadium and say, ‘man that was so much fun. That’s something I’ll never forget, how good of an experience I had while helping these kids play baseball.’"

Memories like that are indelible in Howard’s mind, too. The lefty pitching prospect first experienced Challenger Baseball as a college student at Georgia Southern University. When he found out Carma ran the Challenger program in Grand Junction, Howard bought in immediately—and took the life lessons one might expect from such a commitment.

"If you take time to actually talk and interact with them I bet you money they are happy and have a good attitude," Howard says of his experiences with Challenger kids, putting it all into perspective. "There are days we wake up and have problems going on, but they’re not near as tough as what some Challenger kids are going through. They’ve taught me that I can control the attitude I display to people no matter how tough life is."

★ ★ ★

A year into the new Challenger League, Carma realized she hadn’t been charming her way around Grand Junction her whole life for nothing. As she admits, she’s since called on many a favor locally to help the league grow, and all that can be traced back to the beginning of the second season.

"Fortunately I had the right connections and the right friends at the right places," Brown says. "All of a sudden it just started to kind of grow from there, because people would come out and help us."

People, she says. She unselfishly downplays her role in this as a connector, since the "people" who came out to be buddies for her Challenger kids those first years just so happened to include Colorado Mesa University’s baseball team (Carma was friends with the coach), Grand Junction Central High School’s football team (again, friends with the coach), and a variety of competitive league baseball teams from around town. From there, it all snowballed—and picking athletes for the Challenger buddies was quite the happy accident.

"I learned right away the buddies needed to be athletes, because our kids became popular at school the very next day," Carma remembers. "All these athletes at the high school level all of a sudden knew who our kids were, and they had a name and an identity to them around school."

It’s not an accident that Carma made such a push to get buddies involved from the start, and it’s not an accident now that she is so adamant they are local high school and college athletes, junior college baseball players coming annually to Grand Junction’s JUCO World Series, and members of the Grand Junction Rockies. Bringing in the stereotypically popular jocks to hang out with special needs students otherwise far too often invisible at school does something special for both groups every season.

Challenger Baseball League

"The baseball field is just the safe haven for walls and barriers to come down," Carma explains. "Everyone needs a place to be safe. These kids’ safe place is that hour on the baseball field. And in that hour, they are free to get relaxed and be accepted for who they are, and the buddies are free to get engaged. It’s fine if they show their fears, it’s fine if they show their nervousness, because in about five minutes, all of that’s gone away, and I just watch the magic happen."

"And if some of our kids have the slobber," Brown adds, acknowledging a reality in her league, "the buddies quickly realize it’s just slobber, and it’s really not that big of a deal. They just can’t swallow as good as I can."

Having seen the Challenger-buddy dynamic with her own daughter and as a league administrator, Hamilton loves to watch the bigger picture unfold on the Little League fields before her.

"The lessons became full circle because you could see the high school and college athletes realize, ‘wow, when I’m having a bad day, that’s nothing compared to what my new buddy has to experience if he has to get around in a wheelchair,’" Hamilton says. "It brought real life, and appreciation and gratitude, to the athletes. And I think it made them feel special that they could help our Challenger kids, and then in turn our Challenger kids felt like rock stars."

★ ★ ★

In the very best of cases, your favorite baseball team will win about 60% of its games. That means your favorite team, when it’s good, will lose two or three times in an average week. Heaven help you if your favorite team is bad.

And your favorite team is bad. They’ve hovered around 90 losses a year this entire decade, and they’re destined to fall to the bottom again this year. Maybe next year, too. You know that, deep down, but you choose to ignore it. What else are you gonna do, pick a new team? You can’t do that. Your emotions are invested in this one; you’ve suffered through so many bad years that you’d like to be around for the good ones that are coming. Or something.

Besides, it’s springtime. A time of hope, even for the bad teams. Every player enters spring training in the best shape of his life, every team optimistic that if things fall just so, they will be contending in September. That’s where you’re at. After all, if you can’t have blind optimism right now, when can you have it? The game is tough enough as it is; Hall of Famer hitters fail nearly 70% of the time. Don’t make it any tougher with negative thoughts.

You resolve to change this year. You resolve to keep the optimism you have in February all year. You'll stick with the positive emotions and lack of stress that usually disappears by May when your team goes on a long losing streak. Not this year, you tell yourself. You’re just happy baseball is back after a too-long winter, the refrain goes, that you’re going to appreciate every game for what it is, no matter what the outcome.

Baseball fandom is irrational.

★ ★ ★

With two seasons in the books, new challenges found Challenger. The problem with ADA-compliant fields had been solved, the city had given Challenger their own slot to play every Monday night, and the buddy system with local high schools and CMU was thriving — but that’s where the new set of problems began: because the buddies were athletes in such high demand in the close-knit community, they started to be a distraction at the games.

"All of a sudden I had to start keeping brothers and sisters off the field so that this one hour could just be for our Challenger kids to have all that attention," Carma remembers about the interest the league’s buddies unintentionally attracted.

"I remember the first time we had buddies here from the JUCO World Series and our kids were out there, we could not keep moms and dads and kids off the field, trying to take the free shirts the baseball players had brought for our kids," Brown remembers, now holding it as a funny memory though it sounds like it was more frustrating for her at the time. "I’m like, ‘you guys need to get the hell out of here and let them have their hour.’ People were trying to hone in on that, and I didn’t see that coming."

It’s a testament to Carma to hear her so passionate about defending the Challenger players’ time to shine along side their buddies every week amid outside distractions, something she calls her hardest challenge to date. But it’s equally a good point to dig deeper into the not-so-obvious aspects of her character, revealing a passion and fire underneath her energetic exterior, no doubt a driving point that’s gotten her—and the league—to where they are today.

"Who doesn’t want to hang out with the quarterback of the football team," she asks rhetorically, "so of course the little girl with Down Syndrome’s older sister or whatever might want to get in there and hang out too, but it’s like, ‘you know what honey? You need to go sit in the stands. This is your sister’s time. This might be her only time.’"

★ ★ ★

Ryan McMahon and Sam Howard are nearly as far towards the super-proficient end of the baseball spectrum as you can imagine. There is but one step left—reach the big leagues—on their respective journeys to become the best baseball players in the world. And yet, in a way that tells you everything you need to know about them, and about the type of person Carma Brown is, each one jumps at the chance to be a part of this story right as they are set for spring training and the countless in-season responsibilities that await.

McMahon isn’t far from the big leagues, but he’s clearly been affected by Challenger’s program in Grand Junction in a way that still holds in him even three years later.

"Challenger just reminds you how this game brings everyone together," he says. "Everyone who has a love for the game of baseball is connected in some way. And watching them play, how much fun they were having, just brings you back to your roots and love for this game. It was eye-opening and makes you realize just how fortunate we are to wake up and play the game we love every day."

Howard even takes it a step further, revealing to you his plans to directly impact Challenger during the 2016 season.

"I have talked to Carma and brought the idea up of donating money for every strikeout in 2016," Howard says, revealing a plan he says he'll finalize during spring training. "I want to donate somehow, someway, but with action and a meaning behind it. I plan on following through with strikeouts for a cause in my 2016 season and donating a certain amount for every strikeout."

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you learn how floored she became when she discovered Howard’s donation idea. Howard will never again play in Grand Junction, of course; he’ll likely find himself in Modesto this summer and with a strong year will be on the way up the minor league ladder, but Challenger’s affect on him—perhaps Carma’s affect on him—still holds. It’s for the better for all involved.

Challenger Baseball League

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, too, and you learn a dirty little secret about Challenger kids and the Grand Junction Rockies: they’re not really that different.

"They are both equally afraid, and they both just have to push through it, and they don’t show their fear," Carma says about the similarities between Challenger players and the rookie level Rockies.

"That is a fact. I can remember the first time all my Rockies started, they were nervous," she adds. "I even remember Kyle Freeland telling me, ‘now I know how those kids feel.’ Both sides are equally nervous, but they’re brave enough to rise above it and put their fears aside and go do it, and they’ve learned that from the Challenger kids."

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you realize she doesn’t care about what you can or can’t do, only that you rise to the occasion as you’re called.

"My Challenger kids have learned that people depend on them," Carma says, your heart warming a little more with her choice of pronoun.

"They are showcasing for all special needs kids what you can do with some courage and some help. And it’s the same for the baseball boys. They are learning that they need to appreciate their God-given talent, they need to rise above their fears and moments of weakness, and they are learning that a lot of people depend on them."

★ ★ ★

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you get the feeling she’s almost invincible—or at least so unrelenting that she can knock down a brick wall if you just give her the time and space to figure out a game plan. You wonder, then, if it’s always been easy for Carma to find buddies for her Challenger kids. You wonder if the entire city bought in from the start. How could they not?

"I had only one coach in 17 years tell me no, and I remember what I was doing when he called me, it was that poignant," Carma admits. "I’m not very good at rejection, I’ve learned. And I’ve learned I don’t like to hear the word no when it comes to Challenger, because I can apparently hold a grudge a long time."

She chuckles as she continues her story about a baseball coach who deemed his team too busy to be buddies one week, but it makes you take stock of her passion: isn’t this the down-and-dirty of what advocacy ought to be like? In a day and age where it’s so easy for you to simply tweet your support for a good cause and do little by way of hands-on assistance, isn’t this the example to follow for how to be on fire about helping those around you?

"I remember telling him," Carma says of her lone rejection, "and I’ve never had to say this to anybody else, ‘I can tell you right now, you’ll never get another call from me, because I’m never going to beg people to take an hour of their life for a child that just needs a little extra help and encouragement.’ And he felt horrible, but I don’t feel horrible, because we have so many people now who know this is so important."

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you start to realize you’ve barely scratched the surface on the passion behind why she’s spent the last 17 years volunteering her time with special needs children.

★ ★ ★

Challenger Baseball League

Who were you kidding when you told yourself you’d be optimistic, happy, even laid-back this year? You’re going to be a wreck. Your favorite team will inevitably collapse during a long road trip, and all of a sudden, the sky around you will start falling again, just like it does every year.

By mid-May, your team will hit that losing streak that’s been in the back of your head. You new it was coming. You’ll lose it, too; all sense of optimism and decorum, grace and context, that is. And yet you’ll still watch the games. Whether you’re a glutton for punishment, or just too loyal for your own good, you’ll still tune in every night because that’s who you are. Your identity is tied to baseball, hitched for better or worse to a game that is at once both exceedingly beautiful and jarringly emotionless.

The bullpen will give away three straight winnable games in June. The bats will go cold in July. Come August, your girlfriend will beg you to give it all up, just once, just one night a week, just to have dinner without a baseball game on in the background. You love her, and you’ll try it her way, but it won’t stick. Who are you kidding? You’ve got all offseason to eat dinner without the TV on. You tell yourself you’ll do it then, just not during baseball season.

Baseball fandom is irrational.

★ ★ ★

Surely, you wonder, others have taken notice of Carma and Grand Junction’s Challenger League before now, right? There must have been something somewhere across the last two decades praising Brown for her advocacy on behalf of those all too often invisible to the greater baseball world around them?

Yes, is the short answer. Patti Arnold wrote a beautiful piece about Brown two years ago for Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel. And then last year, Carma was given the Meritorious Service Award at the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Orlando, Florida, becoming the first woman to ever earn that honor.

The occasion meant a trip to Orlando to speak in front of hundreds of baseball coaches with—of course—Kelli as her guest.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, though, and she’ll gloss over the story of her award and tell you an even better one.

"It was quite funny going to Orlando, me and Kelli," Carma says with a laugh. "We were the only women there, and I think all these men were confused about what we were doing there, or if we knew this was a baseball coaches convention. At the luncheon, the three speakers were me, Ned Yost, Rob Manfred. How about that?"

"I was a nervous wreck," she continues. "I was so twitterpated with who I was sitting in between that I didn’t even eat my lunch. I was so afraid to eat in front of them, and I didn’t want to spill anything and I was nervous!"

After lunch—well, after picking at the plate and not eating much of anything—Carma spoke in front of a banquet hall full of baseball coaches, telling the world about Grand Junction’s Challenger program. Somewhere between a soon-to-be-World Series champion manager and the commissioner of baseball, it was Carma who stole the show.

Let Carma Brown talk at your conference for an hour, it turns out, and she’ll outshine the big leaguers.

"I come to find out that Rob Manfred invited the president of Little League International to the luncheon, since they just happened to be friends," Carma recalls. "So at the end of the luncheon, the president came over to me and said, ‘your program has to showcase Challenger at a national level, and you’re coming to the Little League World Series in Williamsport in 2016.’"

"Oh," Carma thinks to add, as if it’s an afterthought for somebody who’s already figured out solutions to so many of her league’s challenges.

"And we have to raise $55,000 to get there."

An official announcement from Little League back in Grand Junction soon followed, and the national organization put up money to help cover costs of transportation and hotels for Challenger’s players, parents, and a buddy for each team member.

The rest of the funding ahead of the trip, which will happen in August, has thus far come from local donors in Grand Junction—that same network of people Carma has been tapping again and again to help with Challenger across the years. Complicating it are the difficult travel requirements for her special needs players, many of whom have never been out of the area or even spent a night in a hotel room before due to their limitations.  Now, Brown’s team is less than $10,000 away from Williamsport after—she fears—tapping out her connections on the Western Slope.

"We’ve been very busy and working very hard, and to get that money raised, you use every bit of charm you have," Carma admits, her voice revealing almost a touch of guilt for having to ask for money, even for a good cause.

"I keep reminding everybody, 'this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for these kids, I promise I won’t have to do this again, I won’t beg you again,’" she adds. "But it’s been so well received, everyone here has been so amazing. Sweet people come in my office every day and just drop off $25 or $50. I’m just touched by how our community has given to this program, and that’s why it’s successful, because everyone has bought in to it."

Hamilton, too, was floored when the announcement came about Williamsport.

"Despite any physical disabilities, everyone can play baseball," Hamilton says. "And it’s just a testament to our program. I think our buddy system is what’s made our program so special, and the fact that we’ll be able to take some CMU athletes with us to showcase that at the Little League World Series as well. So we’ll be representing Colorado Mesa University, too, which is very exciting."

"It’s been amazing to see the support we’ve gotten from those who can donate little, and then those who have opened their hearts and have been able to donate large amounts," Hamilton adds. "It’s been such a blessing. We’ve also had a lot of parents step up, and they’re doing an amazing job asking contacts and friends. It’s a team effort."

★ ★ ★

You get the feeling Mick Ritter could talk about Challenger Baseball all night, having seen it from so many angles on the inside as a buddy, and now, as a front office exec greeting Carma’s kids at the ballpark every summer night. Not surprisingly, it’s changed his view of the game itself.

"These kids, they don’t have the ability that you or I may have, but they’re just having so much fun," he says. "They enjoy being out there, and being able to put a jersey on, and put baseball pants on, and maybe enjoy the game a little more than we enjoy the game. We look at it as a sport to maybe get to college, to hopefully play professional baseball, where they look at it as just a blast. It’s just a game."

You stop for a moment at the perspective of putting baseball pants on. You’ve put baseball pants on thousands of times. You don’t even think about it. It’s just… there. And yet it dawns on you; for more kids than you have previously ever cared to realize, it’s not just there. It’s not accessible, save for programs like this one.

Perspective is something sports too often lacks, you think to yourself, and yet it’s ham-handed to discuss "perspective," and "priorities" in this situation; shouldn’t it be obvious by now what is to be gained from Challenger? Evidently not. Maybe you’ve been looking at it the wrong way the whole time. Maybe it’s not about you—it’s never about you—but rather it’s about the development and growth of those you sought to help.

"From a parent’s perspective of a child with special needs, I still love seeing the proud faces of the parents," Hamilton says. "That resonates with me because for them to just sit back in the bleachers and see their kids out there on the ball field playing a game they would not normally get to play, I love seeing the proud faces. Seeing the parents and the kids is what continues to push my love and involvement with the program."

That’s a new perspective, you realize. You listen to Sam Howard and Ryan McMahon talk about it as pro ballplayers, you hear Carma Brown discuss what it’s done for the Challenger kids, and you get it. But what about the parents of children with special needs?

What about the victory they have every Monday night watching their child hit a home run and move around the bases with college athletes by their side? What about the moment that those parents can sit back and relax in the bleachers, knowing for the next hour their child is in good hands, and for once they can escape into a world where they’re at a Little League game, just like any other parent around the country on any given night between April and September?

★ ★ ★

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Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you’ll learn the league—and the Little League World Series—is far from the only successful part of this story. Four Challenger kids have been named prom kings and queens at their high schools; others still have become student managers for their high school teams, and some have gone to work for the Grand Junction Rockies.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you’ll hear the success stories of child after child, emboldened by their time with Challenger baseball to lead successful, fulfilling lives.

"We see these stories all the time," Carma says proudly, "Sometimes I’ll have one moment of weakness and say, ‘well, I don’t know if I’m gonna do this next year, I don’t know if I’m gonna do this again,’ but those success stories are the reasons you keep doing this. God just blesses these buddies with that little window of love for these kids, and everybody is better off for it."

Ritter, who still remembers the first Challenger buddy he ever had ("man could he hit the baseball, he would crush the ball!"), pointed to two former Challenger players as success stories working at Suplizio Field during the summer seasons.

"I couldn't be happier to see two guys that started in the Challenger Baseball program want to work in baseball at the professional level," Ritter says. "We had Taylor Harper who is a concourse game day employee. Taylor also works for the Junior College World Series every year and he’s been doing it for a long time. And then Michael Chamberlain was selected out of a handful of applicants to do the Video Stat Cast this past season and I hope to see him again this year. Everybody knows these two work for us and there are fans that come to the games and just want to talk to them."

Even though her daughter is long past playing age, there’s a reason Hamilton hasn’t moved on from helping with the league, either.

"Baseball is what brings these kids together, and makes them realize that they have so much more in common in life," Kelli says. "It’s an amazing thing to experience, especially with the older high school and college kids, and the Grand Junction Rockies players. They’re apprehensive, and our Challenger players are nervous because it’s a new friend, it’s someone they’ve never met before, and probably nervous about how they are going to be accepted."

"But," Hamilton adds, her voice audibly getting more excited, "the magic happens within the first five minutes of meeting each other, and they all of a sudden have a common goal in baseball and having fun together for an hour. It’s magic. It’s so simple! But it’s just amazing, and it never gets old watching the magic happen."

★ ★ ★

Your parents used to come to all your baseball games when you were a kid. You and your brother spent hours playing the game in your backyard, making up rules accounting for the trees, and your mom’s potted plants, and the telephone wires. You’ve spent more of your life than you care to admit in baseball pants, or throwing a baseball, or figuring out which grip made it move more, which mechanical adjustment made you throw harder.

When your friends were skiing all winter, you were at home. It wasn’t that skiing didn’t interest you—though it didn’t—it was about baseball. If you broke your ankle skiing in January, you’d miss most of the spring season, and even just the thought of that was unacceptable to you.

As you grew up, you never grew out of baseball. How could you? Think of all the people you met through the game. Other players, coaches, family members, friends, and later, fans. Hundreds, no, thousands of people, all organizing together to pursue and promote the sport you love, because they love it, too.

If you're irrational, if being a baseball fan means your mad passion for the game is irrational, then they are just as irrational as you are. Some of them are probably up late on Saturday night, too, watching the college baseball game in Hawaii on their laptops. They don’t care about those two teams any more than you do, but like you, they love the back-and-forth of the game, the dynamics between pitcher and hitter, and the flow of a close contest in the late innings when it’s time for each team to bear down.

You notice that the Hawaii game is now in the 11th inning. The home team gets a leadoff double, and the runner advances to third base on a groundout, now just 90 feet from a walk-off win. You sigh. It’s one o’clock in the morning, but you don’t want the game to end yet.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you realize you're not irrational. Baseball fandom isn’t irrational. How can it be? It’s been the driving force of her entire life, just like it’s been for you, just like it’s been for countless other people. It’s baseball that has gotten thousands of Challenger kids through far more than you can ever imagine, building confidence and giving them an identity, a place, and a purpose at school and in life. Just look at the good that's come from the pursuit of the game. Your approach can't be irrational, you tell yourself. It's a shared experience.

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Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you learn it’s not just a game out on the Western Slope; it's something that’s transcended her expectations of reality at times.

"We kind of laugh about it, how it could be a rainstorm, or it’s been practically snowing, and the clouds just open and let us have our hour so we don’t have to make it up," Carma says, pausing to reflect on the symbolism. "It’s like He just opens the window and clears the weather, and allows this to happen over and over again. I’ll sit there at the end of a game and go ‘wow, here I thought we were gonna have a rainout.’"

It’s not just spiritual, though, at least not from the outside looking in. The league, you start to realize, has good karma—or Carma—working in its favor. Talk to Kelli Hamilton for an hour, and you start to get the picture.

"Oh my goodness, I don’t know how she does it all," Hamilton says about Brown, laughing. "She’s an amazing friend, she’s creative, she’s an energizer bunny, and she can walk into a room full of strangers, and you feel like you’ve known her for a lifetime."

"She makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room, and every Monday night when we go out to Challenger, all the kids just adore her," Kelli adds. "She gets down on their level and makes them feel special."

Howard, who multiple times calls Carma family and "another mom," agrees.

"She has a huge heart for helping people," he says. "I don’t remember one day living with them that she did not have a smile on her face, and I don’t know if the Challenger kids are rubbing off on her or if she is rubbing off on the Challenger kids, but she’s always happy."

★ ★ ★

The late-night college game in Hawaii ends on a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning. After four hours of a baseball game you didn’t even know existed earlier in the night that you suddenly had to watch until the final ball was put in play, it’s over. You’re sad. You close your laptop and make your way to bed.

Tomorrow, you’ll find another game. Maybe if you’re lucky, it’ll go extra innings.

"Baseball’s been really good to our family," Carma says. "Baseball has been the staple in our life. It’s been my childhood, my adulthood, what we’ve centered our life around with our kids…"

She trails off for the first time.

Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you finally find a break in the conversation.

★ ★ ★

To donate to Challenger Baseball's trip to the Little League World Series, please click here. For more information on the program, please click here. All images used in this story are property of Challenger Baseball, all rights reserved, and reprinted with permission.

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