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On 40th anniversary, Syracuse Challenger Baseball looks back to continue leadership in inclusive sports
Syracuse Challenger Baseball is among the largest and oldest Challenger divisions in the country.
The fighting spirit that competition extracts from players, coaches, and fans, and the way that intense competition can unite those with opposing goals has an unmatched beauty.
It is that fighting spirit that makes an athlete, an athlete, and it is that fighting spirit that defines Challenger Baseball. Disabled athletes have limited chances to feel the adrenaline rush of playing the sports they love, but doing so can be a source of exercise and fun, just like for their peers on local Little League teams.
Today more than 30,00 athletes participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide, but Syracuse Challenger Baseball has been a leader in this movement for its entire existence. Predating Little League International’s creation of the National Challenger Division by seven years, Syracuse Challenger Baseball is among the largest and oldest Challenger divisions in the country.
And on its 40th anniversary, I have reflected on the impact participating in Syracuse Challenger Baseball had on me and my childhood. Running on dirt. Going from base to base. Stepping into the batter’s box in my gait trainer as my dad guided my swing. Having games each Tuesday and Thursday. That was baseball. That is what made Challengers special to me as a young child in the late 2000s.
Around that time, the league was developing itself, in the middle of executive director Dom Cambareri’s intensified efforts toward expansion, efforts that began when he took over in 2003, three years after his son Domenico had been prevented from participating because of roster limits.
One of the first things he did as he took over was call coaches to explore the possibility of expanding the league. “I wanted to change that policy and open up the league to any participant in Central New York willing to play,” Cambareri said.
Coaches unanimously approved.
By the 2006 season, the league had more than doubled in size. And it grew from there. Five years later, in 2011, there were 14 teams, split into three divisions: junior, competitive adult, and noncompetitive adult.
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As it grew, Cambareri realized the league could not continue playing the season at host field sites. The explosive growth called for a new approach and in 2006, he and his Challengers Baseball colleagues determined that the growth called for the development of home fields. Accessible home fields all athletes could utilize. The only question was: how?
“We had no money but a big dream,” Cambareri told me.
Over the next three years, he would search for a piece of land to develop this complex. In 2009, the league partnered with the Town of Dewitt to make his vision a reality, and then it came together.
The next year, the Carrier Corporation donated 26 acres of land -- which, to Cambareri, is the “miracle gift.” Program director Dee Perkins agreed.
“It took many meetings and all the right people getting convinced that this was the right thing to do. When it all came together it felt like a miracle,” Perkins said. “But in the end the hard work and efforts of people trying to do the right thing made it happen.”
With the land there, the focus could go toward funding the project. That was a primary goal over the next five years. Beginning with the initial funding that allowed the program to break ground on the project that following spring, and continuing with public funding, grants, private donations, and fundraising events, Cambareri and his colleagues saw the facility coming into fruition.
And on May 21, 2016, the Phase 1 of the Carrier Field of Dreams, a $5.5 million project, was unveiled. And then in 2020, construction completed on Phase 2, which featured three accessible basketball courts, inclusive playgrounds, and new synthetic surface infields for existing diamonds. The third and final phase will include a superfield of eight operating baseball fields, which will allow the entire league to play together.
These facilities are physical representations of what Syracuse Challenger Baseball -- now composed of over 200 players, including over 100 adults -- has been about for four decades: creating a welcoming environment for every type of athlete that takes the field, Cambareri said.
Though blueprints and a physical location waited decades to sprout, the Carrier Field of Dreams began developing years, if not decades, before anything was inked. Plans unfolded as the program grew in size and significance and have been translated into a place, a visual testament to the community that Syracuse Challenger Baseball has become, a community I cherished as an elementary school student eager to play the game I loved, an opportunity I appreciate more and more as I grow older.
It is a place of a new era of Syracuse Challenger Baseball, a place anchoring a program with a rich history of expanding opportunity for inclusive sports.