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Challenger Division special needs baseball league benched for 2020 season

A first base wheel-run shows a Challenger Division play from 2013. (Photo: Mike Klan, Sports)

GOLETA, Calif. - A popular little league program for special needs students is benched for the season. It's known as the Challenger Division and allowed kids, teens and young adults do what they love most: play ball.

Hundreds of people would turn out on game day and while Challenger players didn't always hit the ball out of the park, they sure scored high in the hearts of fans.

"The beautiful thing about it was how the whole Little League community came together," said Melissa Fitch, a Challenger parent.

For 16 years, students with physical and intellectual challenges -- and their families -- gathered at Girsh Park Saturday mornings at 10:00 a.m. to play ball.

"Older teams would come and they would warm up with our guys."

Fitch said at the height of enrollment, challengers had 80 registered players between the ages of 5 and 22, including her 17-year-old son.

"Our teams were always broken up by abilities," Fitch said. 

But Fitch says the division's parents were blindsided back in November.

"A parent went to register and our division was no longer there," Fitch said. "The kids didn't do anything wrong. And our division leadership wasn't ever notified. Could you imagine how everybody would know if they were shutting down tee ball? They shut down Challengers and nobody knows!"

Batter up! Image depicts a Challenger Division game at Girsh Park in 2013.

Fitch and other parents said things began to unravel when the program overseeing the division, Dos Pueblos Little League (DPLL), threw a handful of administrative curveballs. Fitch said combining players by age rather than ability, switching up fields, and changing game times to an earlier slot were a few of them.

"When you have a child with special needs, sometimes you cannot get out the door and be on baseball field at 8:00 a.m. in the morning."

Leaders from Dos Pueblos Little League declined to appear on camera, citing concerns over legal action threatened by special needs parents.

The league did send a statement saying what's happening is for this season only, to allow time to get all sides aware of rules and regulations that must be followed.

The DPLL official statement follows: 

"This year, the all-volunteer DPLL Board of Directors, in consultation with CA District 63, decided not to charter a Challenger Division for the 2020 season. The action was taken to address several Little League compliance issues that have emerged in the program.  Since many issues remain unresolved going into the 2020 season, DPLL has put the program on hiatus pending a comprehensive restructuring of the program and recruitment of new volunteers.

DPLL has committed to the following:

1. DPLL intends to bring back a restructured and fully compliant Little League Challenger program for the 2021 season.

2. For the 2020 season, District 63 invited all local Challenger players to participate in one of their other District Challenger   programs offered at Carpinteria Valley Little League or Montalvo Little League.

3. All funds that have been raised through DPLL and earmarked for the DPLL Challenger program remain intact and continue to be earmarked for the return of the new DPLL Challenger division. 

Dos Pueblos Little League, an all-volunteer, 501c3 non-profit organization still has the same goal of creating opportunities for all kids to play baseball and will continue to pursue that goal in a way that provides a safe and compliant baseball environment for all of their participants.  DPLL acknowledges and understands how much the program means to the community and is asking for some patience as we work towards that goal."

Dos Pueblos Little League statement

Special needs parents say they were never told about any compliance issues. A League representative disputed that claim. 

During our interview at Girsh Park, Fitch held paperwork from recent mediation which both sides confirmed, failed to resolve the dispute.

In the meantime, parents are trying to pull together a 2020 program, hopefully with the help of Girsh Park and others. 

In response to that effort, DPLL sent out the following statement:

"DPLL would like to support this new league through the donation of any needed equipment including bats, balls, gloves, helmets, batting tees, equipment bags and other gear."

Meanwhile, the Challengers and other children with disabilities are invited to attend a free post game Baseball Clinic at UCSB, March 1.

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Beth Farnsworth

Beth Farnsworth is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3.