PITTSTON TWP. — Brandon Harvey was playing third base — an unusual position for a left-hander.
Jimmy Bonchonsky was at the plate and hit a pop fly.
Harvey settled under the ball and caught it. Bonchonsky stood on first base celebrating his “hit.”
Before baseball “experts” attempt to clear this up — just know that this was a very unusual play in a very unusual baseball league where a group of exceptional athletes competes.
Harvey and Bonchonsky play in the Victory Sports League — a relatively new organization that provides baseball, basketball and dances for adults with mental and physical challenges. The league will embark on its third season in June and more than 70 players participate.
While Harvey’s catch was remarkable — league officials can’t recall anyone ever actually recording an out — every play of every game is special to the players, their parents, volunteers and fans. And the outcomes — measured unscientifically by the parents and caregivers — are astounding.
Charlie Hillard, now in his 30s, has Down syndrome and was born with a hole in his heart. His parents were told the heart had healed by age 8, so Charlie started playing Challenger Little League and kept playing until he turned 21. At that time Charlie had to “retire” from baseball because there were no programs for adults.
“Charlie always enjoyed playing baseball and being part of a team,” said his father, Harry. “When he became too old to play for Challenger, there was nothing left for Charlie to do.”
In stepped Fred DeSanto and his original board of directors that started the local Challenger Little League. The group got together and created Victory Sports. In 2011, Edward Orlosky, an original Challenger player back in 1991, asked a simple question during a reunion of the first-year players.
“Why can’t we play baseball just because we got older?” Orlosky asked.
Victory was formed that summer and started play — growing to a full league in 2012 with new uniforms and a season of games. Dances and basketball followed. The organization continues to grow.
“When Victory Baseball started, Charlie was thrilled,” his father said. “It gives him a lot of pleasure to play baseball and once again be part of a team. The encouragement Charlie receives from the team and spectators makes him feel like Babe Ruth up at bat. Without Victory Baseball Charlie would have nothing to do.”
DeSanto said he and the board are optimistic that Little League Baseball Inc., will expand its Challenger Division to create an adult program.
“We see the smiles every time the Victory players take the field, or court or dance floor,” DeSanto said. “And the parents tell us their children have become more social, they exercise more and they have fun.”
Al and Gloria Eschalk have been with Challenger and Victory since the beginning. Their son Matthew is 30 and he appreciates the game of baseball more than when he was younger.
“This program offers so many advantages to special needs children,” Gloria said. “Matthew follows the teams on television and now he is doing what his idols do. He is also more involved with his peers and what better place to share some time with them than a baseball field, especially when they are the stars.”
Marilyn Jones said her son, Bobby, 25, was disappointed when he became too old for Challenger. She said he looks forward to every game with Victory.
“We have always tried to keep Bobby involved in as much sports and activities as possible to keep him motivated and in a physical activity,” she said. “It”s wonderful to know he now can continue to play the game he loves.”
Shannon Bailey, 38, plays Victory in a wheelchair and her mother says she can’t get enough.
“When she was passed the age limit to play in the Challenger Little League, she missed the interaction with the other kids and the chance to be outside playing at a baseball game,” said Shannon’s mother, Bonnie Robbins. “Then came the Victory Baseball League. What a great organization to help our children, no matter how old they are. They get to participate in a game that usually would not be possible, if not for the Victory league.”