Ten years ago, Watertown Youth Baseball added a program that allowed children with a physical or intellectual challenge to get on the field and play ball. And each year, participants in the Challenger Baseball program get to play in an special event sponsored by NESN where they play similar programs from other communities around Massachusetts.
The program got rolling in 2013, but had to take a few years off during the Pandemic, said Greg Salvucci, a past president of Watertown Youth Baseball and Softball.
Jenn and Andrew Civetti currently oversee Watertown Challenger Baseball.
“It’s an amazing program, I would invite anyone to come out and watch one of our games,” Jenn said. “It’s incredible to watch these players. We have many blind players, players with different levels of abilities, that all come together and cheer each other on. They get so excited to play.”
This year, 14 players are participating in Watertown Challenger Baseball. They play games at the new Buckingham Browne & Nichols field on Grove Street. The artificial turf makes it easier to push players who are in wheelchairs, Andrew said.
Players get a hand from volunteers who assist them during the game.
“Every player each week gets paired up with a buddy who is with them the entire game, helping with whatever they need: batting, running, fielding, pushing a wheelchair,” Andrew said. “Each week we have one-on-one buddy. We are fortunate to have such a good group of buddies.”
Some buddies play on the Watertown High School baseball team, others are high school students looking to get community service hours, Andrew said.
Games are played weekly, and there are two special games each year.
“Weston hosts a bunch of teams. It’s such a fund game, and they host a cookout,” Jenn said. “We also have NESN in Watertown. They put on a game every year between us and Newton and Acton. Acton has a Miracle Field. Its turf is finer, more than regular turf — specifically for Challenger. It is more rubbery so it is easier to push wheelchairs.”
This year, the Weston event takes place on June 11, and the NESN game will be held on June 17. Salvucci said the highlights from the NESN game are played at Fenway Park during a Red Sox game.
Little League International provided assistance with the program’s startup, Salvucci said, and the program also got some financial help.
“We started the program with a generous contribution from Jeanette Clough, then President & CEO of Mount Auburn Hospital,” he said. “Jeanette/Mt. Auburn Hospital continued to sponsor the program every year until her retirement.”
Salvucci worked with Arlen Shainker, the then-Watertown Special Education Director to help design the program.
“She selected the appropriate equipment and recruited school Special Education staff and assistants who work with the students, players’ family members as well as members of Watertown Baseball and Softball teams, to volunteer as ‘Buddies’, providing one on one player assistance,” Salvucci said. “Arlene also designed the player’s activities for the two hours: stretching, throwing, catching, playing a game, and snack time.”
After Shainker stepped away, Maria Wood, who also in the Watertown Schools took over, followed by Eric and Brenda Manning.
The Civettis took over as Vice Presidents of Challenger Baseball in 2022. They first started volunteering as buddies five or six years ago and worked with the Mannings.
“They did such an incredible job getting Challenger out there, getting the players involved,” Andrew said. “Their son Brian was a player, so they were incredibly invested in the program.”
Jenn had some previous experience with the program.
“I grew up in Connecticut and my parents coached a Challenger Baseball league for pretty much my entire life,” Jenn said. “And Andrew and I were looking to get involved in the community.”
When they started, the Vice Presidents for Challenger were Eric and Brenda Manning.
Challenger is open to boys and girls age 8 to 21, Andrew said.
Whatever ability level, people are able to play, We individualize to meet the needs of the player,” Andrew said. “We can make accommodations. We have a great group of players from Perkins (School for the Blind). They come out every week. They use a beep ball: a ball that makes a beeping sound so they can hear where the ball is, and where to hit.”
The Civettis hope to see the program grow.
“We have 14 players, which is great,” Andrew said. “If there is anybody we can recruit, for whom it would be beneficial to play with us, that would be great.”