More than two decades ago, Buck Smith had an urge to give back. Through Challenger Baseball, he’s received far more than he’s given. “Baseball is a common thread, whether you’re a fan or a pro or a high school or college player or developmentally disabled,” Smith says. “But this isn’t really about baseball. It’s about making friends.”

Smith hatched the idea after reading a story about a program in Connecticut that was an offshoot of Little League, tailored to players with developmental disabilities. “I said, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’” Using the program he read about as a guide, Smith threw out the rulebook, opening the league to anyone with a developmental disability from age 5 to 90. Every player gets to bat every inning. Some hit off a tee; others face an adult pitcher. Everybody runs the bases, some with the help of a volunteer buddy. Nobody is called out, so what is there to argue about? Everybody gets to cross the plate, so why keep score?
In short, everybody’s a winner.

He put an ad in the newspaper, reserved a field at Tilles Park and crossed his fingers. Maybe 15 players showed up. Despite the rules, that first game in 1994 had a chaotic feel until coach Gene LaVigne and his softball team showed up to serve as the program’s first buddies. “That first day, we had no clue. We were just running around,” he says. “He gave us credibility with other coaches and teams.”

As word spread, families in nearby counties wanted to participate, and today, 66 teams and 800 players participate in Challenger Baseball in the bi-state area. “It’s grown because of the impact the players make on our lives. If you make a friend with a disability, you understand the positive influence they have on you,” Smith says. “So, the next time you see or meet a person with a disability, you’ll act differently. You’ll say hello or start a conversation, rather than walk away.”

A graphic designer at Fleishman-Hillard, Smith says Challenger Baseball long ago transcended a hobby or community service project. He doesn’t bother counting the hours he puts in because it is — and always has been — a labor of love. “I just do stuff that needs to be done. And it’s all fun,” he says. He also is quick to deflect praise from himself to his long-term sponsors, Woltman Trophies and Awards and Fischer’s Pro-Line Sports, as well as teams and families who have volunteered. But the real keys to the league’s longevity are the players. “When we started, we thought that the players needed us. But they don’t need us; we need them,” Smith says. “We thought we’d be giving back, but they give to us. And I had no clue this would last.”