BROOKHAVEN, Ga. – There’s no crying in baseball, but players and parents associated with the Murphey Candler Challenger League recommend you bring a tissue to games all the same.
“It’s just a heck of an experience,” said Challenger League Director Wayne Hillis, whose 21-year-old son, Will, plays for Murphey Candler’s Scrappers. “Watching the joy on these kids’ faces will bring tears to your eyes.”
The program, open to boys and girls with physical and special needs, has been in existence since the early 1980s. It has grown exponentially in the last decade under Hillis’s guidance, and has expanded to include able-bodied “buddies” who assist the players in batting and fielding. The Murphey Candler teams play against other special needs teams out of Chastain, Buckhead and Sandy Springs parks.
“The program has essentially quadrupled since he took over,” said Pam Langley. “It’s grown so much that we now have two teams playing out of Murphey Candler. Wayne’s dedication is directly responsible for that.”
Langley is in charge of finding one or two buddies to accompany each Challenger player at their games, a task that may seem daunting, but in fact, is not.
“I have had so many coaches tell me that the experience changes these players after they become a buddy,” she said. “They become more attentive and more coachable, I think, because they realize that they are so gifted and so blessed. There is a tremendous connection that occurs between these players and their buddies that goes way beyond the field.”
Langley’s son, Johnathan, is one example. He signed up to be a buddy when he joined Murphey Candler’s T-ball league at the age of 6, but was allowed to officially don a buddy uniform when he was about 9.
“He was a buddy as soon as they let him do it, and it changed his life,” Langley said.
In an essay Johnathan penned in 2013 for an English class at Dunwoody High School, he wrote that “the memories made in Challenger Baseball will last forever.”
Johnathan told of one relationship between a player named Kamyron and two buddies, Kyle and Andrew, that touched him in particular.
“Kamyron would want to play in the dirt and run around the field during the entire game instead of playing baseball, yet Kyle and Andrew were always there to support him,” he wrote. “At the game’s end, a single picture described their relationship as Kyle gave Kamyron a piggy-back ride back to the dugout. Kyle and Andrew both concluded that they will remember that moment for the rest of their lives.”
Johnathan, now 24 and a bullpen catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, said his work as a buddy over the years changed his perspective about the game.
“Baseball is so much about failure a lot of the time,” he said. “Working as a buddy made me realize that baseball is fun, and it was great to share the simple joy of the game with the Scrappers.”
Another former buddy, Charlie Albert, wrote about his relationship with a player named A.J. that grew beyond the confines of the baseball field.
“I was assigned to A.J., whose disabled legs confined him to a wheelchair,” Albert wrote. “After A.J. hit the ball off the tee, I pushed him to first base. When hits by other Challenger players finally advanced us to home, all my own home runs were meaningless compared to the feeling of helping him touch home plate with his hand. I connected with A.J. and his dad and enjoyed being A.J.’s buddy for the rest of the season.”
After the season, A.J. had several surgeries to help strengthen his legs, and Albert called the family several times to check on his recovery.
“In Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Whatever you do to the least of us, you do to me,’ and I could never have understood this better than through being a Challenger Buddy,” he wrote. “The Challenger players are certainly the least skilled baseball players in the park, but they taught me more about baseball and myself than I could have learned anywhere else.”
Challenger Baseball was canceled this spring because of the pandemic, but Hillis said he is optimistic that games will resume in 2021.
For more information about the Challenger League, visit www.murpheycandler.org.