Excitement builds as Pony League Champions Division begins

The journey to first base for 30 young baseball players with special needs in the Champions Division of the Pony League begins today.

For some of the players, the run on the base paths will be slow; for others it will come with more ease.

But when the 5-10-year-old division Cubs play the Cardinals at 5 p.m. today at Akimel Park at Akimel Middle School at 2720 E. Liberty Lane in Ahwatukee and the 11-17-year-old division Diamondbacks play the Royals there in the nightcap beginning at 7 p.m., the real excitement will reign when the players connect their bat with the ball as many of them are donning a uniform and playing in a ball game for the first time.

Chris Kelly, who works as a sales executive for the U.S. Trust wealth management firm’s western U.S. region, and serves on the Pony League’s local 10-member board of directors, first began organizing the Champions Division in July 2011 to expand the league with the thought of maybe fielding two teams.

But the response from parents seeking to place their kids on a team was overwhelming, causing the league to blossom into four teams, Kelly said,

Now, over the next seven Friday evenings beginning at 5 p.m., there will be six games at Akimel Park at Akimel Junior High for the four teams featuring many players from the East Valley. Kelly had discovered the Champions Division of the Pony League when he was looking online for possible teams with special needs and discovered that the Champions Division had 180 kids in Cypress, Calif.

The excitement for the teams in the Valley began to mount on Thursday when the players received their uniforms at Akimel Park.

Kelly’s son, Sam, 16, will be playing for the Diamondbacks, and his younger son, Jack, 9, also plays in the league.

“It’s beautiful to hear the excitement in the voices of the kids,” Kelly said. “When their parents told them that they were going to be playing baseball, some of them said, ‘For real?’”

“The real excitement will come when the kids make contact with the ball. The sound that comes out of their mouths when they make that first contact of hitting the ball with a bat is pure joy. Some of the kids will be pitched to overhanded or underhanded, some will hit the ball off a batting tee and some will be helped to swing the bat. The coaches will be behind them all the way. We want to provide a positive experience for the families and the kids.”

Part of that journey to first base includes an invitation to the community to come out to the games and cheer on the teams.

Each week, mentor groups from the community will be assisting coaches Pat Hickey (Cubs), Don Cooke (Cardinals), John Fendenheim (Royals) and Kelly (Diamondbacks).

On Friday, during the opening night of the league, members of the Desert Vista High School baseball team will be helping out.

Because of the challenges the players face, the teams do not practice for the games, but suit up for the game itself.

And like the beauty of the national pastime itself with the players in the Champions League, it mostly began with fathers playing catch with their sons.

Chris and Sam Kelly play catch in the front yard early in the morning for a half hour before the school bus comes to pick Sam up.

But on Friday, the Champions Division of the Pony League will begin showcasing all of its players.

“We hope to continue to grow the league, but not for the sake of being big,” Kelly added. “We’ll see where this takes us. We feel blessed to have all the support and compassion from the community.

“After you see these kids overcoming their challenges, you’ll look at your own challenges a lot different.”

For more information on the league, visit http://www.ponybaseballaz.com/.


Photo: Sam Kelly, 16, plays catch with his dad in the front yard of their Ahwatukee Foothills home in preparation of Opening Night for the Champions Division of the Pony League, Friday at Akimel Middle School Park. [Chris Kelly]