The bases were full and 8-year-old Thomas LeRoy squinted in Sunday's bright noontime sun at Santa Rosa's Maddux Fields as he stepped up to the plate.
The pitcher tossed the ball in a smooth underhanded arch. At the crack of ball hitting bat, Thomas tossed the bat and ran.
"Go Thomas!" said mothers, fathers, coaches and volunteer buddies on the field to help the children play as Thomas sent two teammates home and ran to second base with a double.
The play came at the first game of the 2010 season of Challenger Baseball, a league for players with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Challenger games are structured to allow everyone a chance to bat, catch, run, cheer, get wheeled around the bases or do whatever they can do.
"If you had asked me three years ago if he would have been doing this, I would have said no way," said Pam Wittenberg, 40, of Santa Rosa, who said the games help her autistic son, Nate learn how to focus and play with other children.
The league's 19th year kicked off Sunday when about 126 children lined up to give the traditional Little League Pledge and sang the Star Spangled Banner, led by league alumna Jennifer Lobsinger.
Lobsinger, 33, was on a team during the league's inaugural season in 1991, the year she conquered her fear of getting hit in the head with a ball.
"You couldn't get me onto the field," said Lobsinger, who now mentors young players. "Now, you get me on the field, you can't get me off the field."
Families spread blankets and munched on snacks and watched Caden Holt-Allen, 7, man first base with a buddy nearby to remind him to keep an eye on the batter.
Caden's mother, Megan Holt, 40, of Santa Rosa cheered from a seat along the third base line.
Caden is high-functioning on the autism spectrum and he played on a city T-ball team last year, his mother said. Caden struggled to hold his focus through the games, so when Holt heard about Challenger she thought it would be a better fit than mainstream Little League.
"Honestly, his coach was only interested in kids who could really play," Holt said. "He didn't understand."
Players are teamed up with a buddy, a volunteer who plays alongside them throughout the season.
Thomas' buddy, 17-year-old Brooke Parsons, an El Molino High School senior, is on her second season as a Challenger buddy.
"At the first game, they're just getting to know you and they don't talk to you much," Brooke said. "By the last game, it's really fun because they know you, they're comfortable with you and you've developed that bond."
At first base, 5-year-old Violetta Garcia was more interested in the rust-colored gravel than the player up to bat. Her buddy, 10-year-old Megan LeRoy, a fifth-grader from Windsor, played with her in the gravel between plays and helped her focus on the game once the action began.
"Since my little brother has autism, I'm used to their behaviors," Megan said after the game. "I encourage them to go forth and do what they're supposed to do."
Across the street at another of the day's six games, Jazlyn LeClair soaked in the cheers as her grandmother and guardian, Mimi Schott, 55, of Rohnert Park pushed her wheelchair around the bases.
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