Rhode Island Spotlight: Little League Hits the Big League

It is seven hours before the first pitch at Fenway Park, but the batting cage for pre-game warm-ups is already in place and ready to go.

Pitching coach Chili Davis and his assistant Victor Rodriguez will work with Red Sox hitters later this afternoon, but right now their full attention is on players from the Warwick American Challenger Little League team.

Last month, the players, coaches and families made the pilgrimage to Fenway for the All Kids Can Batting Camp, launched more than a decade ago by CVS Health in partnership with the Red Sox. The Challenger division of Little League Baseball gives boys and girls with physical and mental challenges the opportunity to play, as millions of others do every year across the country.

The All Kids Can program, which just ended its 11th summer, provides the players a chance to experience this iconic park as the players do, sitting in the dugout and stepping onto the field to hit.

The group gathers outside Fenway late on a Thursday morning in August before heading inside and making the trek down the cavernous walkway toward the first base side of the park. They emerge with a field-level view of a largely empty Fenway and a welcome on the scoreboard from the team.

After taking it all in for a few minutes, the team heads down the tunnel to the indoor batting cage just feet from the Red Sox dugout.

Davis and Rodriguez get the players warmed up off a tee in the same batting cage that David Ortiz, Mookie Bets and Pablo Sandoval use. Watching is the team’s longtime coach, Sue Conti, who coached Warwick American for 24 years. It began when Conti’s husband showed her a video of a Challenger team back in the late 1980s.

“I was going to school for special (education) and he said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘This looks awesome. Let’s try it.’,” Conti said.

She has been coaching some of these players for more than 20 years, and they recently formed a senior league because the kids now are young adults. They found out early in the summer they were chosen for the clinic at Fenway — the only Rhode Island team and one of nine from throughout New England that CVS invited to participate in the 2015 program.

“They were ecstatic,” Conti said. “I mean, to come to Fenway Park. I’m excited, but for them, it was like, ‘I’m going to be on Fenway Park, I’m going to eat in the dugout, see a game?'”

After getting warmed up, the players head out to the field for the main event. They each get a chance to bat, with encouragement from Rodriguez and Davis, a former major leaguer who signed on this year to be the Red Sox hitting coach. “You can tell they’re a little nervous when they come in the batting cage, but once they get a few swings in you see that smile on their face. Then they think it’s done, but they come out on the field and get to hit on the field. They love it.” Davis said.

Molly Smith has played in the league since it began 24 years ago – Conti’s first year as coach. “We’ve been together since it started. She’s an amazing coach, she always gives up her Wednesday nights to bring us out on the field and have fun. I really wish somebody could give back to her the way she gives to us.”

The players also get a chance to see the historic left field wall known as the Green Monster close up and take a group picture in front of it. Many say it looks a lot higher in person than it does on television when the Red Sox are playing. And it isn’t just the players who are impressed.

Brian Cahill is the president of the Warwick American Little League and wants to see firsthand the Challengers getting the full Fenway experience, which also includes a tour of the park and going to the game against the Kansas City Royals that night. “I’m thinking back to being 12 myself. My son and his friend help out all the time, so they came to enjoy the experience with the team as well. They’re just having a blast. It brings a tear to my eye; it makes me smile.”

At the end of the day, Chili Davis shook his head with a laugh, saying, “We think we’re good as athletes, then take a look at the focus they throw in there. I wish some of my hitters would focus like that!”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

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