MOLINE — It is a muggy, buggy, sun-kissed Sunday.
I have purchased the world's tastiest bag of popcorn, secured a large diet soda and perched my hefty backside next to the fence along the first base line at Moline's Riverside Park.
Nothing beats a Riverside Sunday.
Before me is the best baseball on the planet. No egos, no salaries, no whining. There is an effort, there is joy, and there are smiles.
If only the world...
I get emotional at all the joy playing out before me. The players I'm watching — members of the Challenger Baseball League — 87 athletes in Moline (another 80 play in Davenport) are having the times of their lives. They are playing a game they love for the love of the game. There are more giggles than a group of pre-teens playing a game of ding-dong-ditch.
The athletes before me range in age from 5 to 55 and deal with developmental and or physical disabilities. The games they play are two innings — everyone bats twice — and plenty is at stake to those playing.
Plenty, I tell ya.
"The Davenport League has more game-like structure than this league,'' Moline Challenger director Pam Swim, who like co-leader, Jan Garlock, is 24-karat gold, with a Texas-sized heart. "That's taking nothing away from our players, it's just a little more competitive in Davenport with three levels of play.''
Swim says Challenger Baseball made its way to the Quad-Cities in 1992, brought to life by local founder Mary Boehm. Numbers have always been strong, sponsors aplenty and there is always a healthy dose of volunteers on hand. There are players who make the trek to from as far as Kewanee, Atkinson, Aledo, and Geneseo to play Challenger Baseball.
Moline Challenger Baseball plays every Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. at Riverside Park. Davenport Challenger starts to play every Saturday at 8 a.m. at Miracle Park. Seasons go from April through June. Both leagues unite September 28, at Modern Woodmen Park, for the annual Great River Challenge. There is also a swim night at Rock Island's Whitewater Junction. For the record, Moline announcer Garrett Jacobs, a smooth-voiced dynamo, has a future in play-by-play.
"I have a son with autism,'' Swim said referring to what first drew her to be involved with Challenger Baseball. "Once you a spend a day watching, you want to be involved. One day is all it took to get hooked.''
Swim's right, it is easy to get hooked on Challenger Baseball. I watched my first game 10 years ago at Moline's Stephen's Park. My favorite player ever, Rock Island's Drew DeMarlie, who spent five years playing Moline Challenger and moved up this year to the Major Level in Davenport.
There are stories at every turn, how Challenger Baseball bettered the lives of not only the player but the player's family. Recently, I watched a visually impaired fella hit a rocket to left field using a beeping ball.
It was amazing.
That, though, is the beauty of Challenger Baseball.