They call Chris Padula “The Flash.”
The husky 18-year-old Guilderland man cruises around the baseball diamond with gusto and never misses a stride when chasing down grounders or a fly ball. He swings away at the plate and — depending on the field — can sometimes roof one over the outfield fence.
But the statistics Padula and his other teammates put up on the field generally stay there. The runs he scores and the fly balls he grabs are secondary to the opportunity he gets to be with friends outside in the fresh air each spring.
“Just to have fun meeting new people and making new friends,” he said, smiling broadly as he took the field Tuesday.
And that’s exactly the purpose of the Rotterdam Challenger Tri-County Baseball League. The Challenger league is devoted to bringing the sport of baseball and its feeling of team camaraderie to mentally and physically challenged people, regardless of their age or disability.
The league plays four nights a week at the Woestina Park in Rotterdam Junction, with four youth teams and six teams for adults. The games feature three innings, during which every player in the lineup bats once.
There are no score keepers during the games. Strikes and balls aren’t tallied, nor are outs.
“Everybody’s a winner here,” said Ellen Brown, who serves as the league’s commissioner.
Every batter swings away until the ball is put in play. The inning ends only when the last batter — known as the home run batter — gets a hit and then rounds the diamond along with the rest of the players on base.
Some use walkers, while others are helped in wheelchairs. But no matter what, every player crosses home plate at least once an inning.
“The feel like they’ve made a big accomplishment,” Brown said.
Founded 24 years ago as a division of the Rotterdam Little League, Challenger baseball now stands on its own as a separate league. The league operates almost solely on donations, and players range in age from small children to the elderly. They are charged no dues — as long as they can make it to the games, they’re free to play.
The league features 20 youth players and 96 adults who come from areas throughout the greater Capital Region to play a two-month season that extends from late April until early June. Brown said the adult teams have gotten so popular that she’s had to institute a waiting list.
“It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year,” she said of the league.
That’s partly because the children introduced to Challenger baseball continue with it through adulthood.
Lindsay Fournier of Rotterdam started playing when she was 8 and has continued now for more than decade. Though in a wheelchair, the 21-year-old can still crack the ball, which is about as heavy as a tennis ball. But on Tuesday, she was smacking grounders as her father Derek Fournier gently teased.
“Oh, stop,” she said, giving him a playful tap on the chest.
For Mike Marino of Guilderland, the first day of Challenger baseball each spring is the culmination of a long wait that begins at the end-of-the-season banquet in June. When Brown sends out the group email to see who’s playing each season, the 21-year-old Marino is always the first to respond.
“We hear about it months and months in advance,” said his mother, Michelle Marino, who started her son in the league when he was 7. “Then when it ends, we have a whole year to hear about it.”
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