The Syracuse Challenger Baseball program is the largest single district Little League International Challenger Baseball program for children and adults with special needs in the country. In 1982, Syracuse Challenger Baseball was created by a group of parents in Eastwood. Lead by Skip Soule, they wanted a safe and fun place for children with special needs to play baseball. Across the country similar Challenger programs began surfacing at such a rapid pace, that in 1989, Little League International created a special “Challenger Baseball Division” to recognize these special baseball players as members of Little League International. Syracuse Challenger Baseball was chartered as an official Little League Challenger pram that same year. As the Syracuse Challenger baseball grew, with no home field of their own and traveled around Onondaga County looking for a place to play their games and call home.
Between 1990 and 2000, the league grew in popularity. Because each of the 6 team rosters was limited to 10-12 players, there were many anxious parents hoping to get a coveted spot on one of the teams. Dom Cambareri was one of those parents, finally getting his son on a team in 2001. In 2004, when he became Executive Director of the Challenger program, his first goal was to open the program to any special needs child willing to play. He carefully kept track of all the parents who wanted a spot on a team and personally reached out the minute an opening came up. In 2005, Dee Perkins became Deputy Program Director and self-appointed “League Photographer.” Dee shared Dom’s goal of leaving no child, parent or family out of the league. The only solution to the problem was to grow the number of players on each team. What started as a 12 player team soon became a 20 person team because of the goal of not turning anyone away. By 2006, Challenger Baseball grew to over 120 players, and it began increasingly difficult for the program to find adequate host fields in Onondaga County that could accommodate the size of the program and well as special needs accessibility and play-ability of the baseball diamonds. In addition, a golden opportunity to grow the league arose in 2007. Two new “senior” teams were created for older, more skilled players who could play without jeopardizing the safety of the ”junior” division players. Those teams were called the Mets and Yankees, in honor of Dee and Dom’s favorite teams.
In 2011, the league finally was able to grow the junior division and reduce the 20 person roster on each of the junior teams. Four new Junior teams were created and all teams were able to go back to a smaller roster to accommodate players needs. In 2015, Little League International approved the creation of a new “Adult” Division – featuring teams with players from 15 years old and higher with no age limit. The league immediately created two “Adult Division” teams in 2015. In 2016, four new Adult Division” teams were added to create a place for special needs adults in our league. Our oldest player in 2015 was 65 years old and our youngest was 4 years old. With the growth of the teams the league is now managing over 250 players. And the new Adult Division showed no signs of slowing down in terms of growth. Players who had been turned away in the past now had a place to meet up with new and old friends.
In 2006, league growth continued to skyrocket exponentially and the need for a home for Syracuse Challenger Baseball became paramount. Dom had a dream of creating a multi field, all accessible park where the all Challenger teams could play. In 2009, Dom and Dewitt Town Supervisor Ed Michalenko, an old friend from growing up in East Syracuse, first discussed locating and building this “Challenger Field of Dreams” complex in the Town of Dewitt. In 2010, the Carrier Corporation donated 24 acres near Carrier Circle to the Town of Dewitt and the future site of the Challenger Field of Dreams was born. Dom and Ed formed a committee to help conceptualize and design a multi baseball and sports complex that would be utilized by all children – both special needs and able-bodied athletes.
In 2011, Challenger parent Jennifer Savastino was recruited to help with fundraising and marketing to help make Dom’s goal a reality. After two years of planning, the design for the Carrier Park ”Challenger” Field of Dreams was presented to government, business and community leaders on October 17, 2012. Led by incredible fundraising efforts by Jennifer, Dom and Dennis Cleary with the business and community supporters, grants from the Onondaga County and the State of New York, and a significant financial commitment by the Town of Dewitt, the $5.5 million “Phase 1” of the Carrier Park Field of Dreams was opened on May 21, 2016. Carrier Park currently has two state of the art baseball-softball diamonds fields with Ephesus Sports Lighting, concession stands, tournament offices and gateway buildings. In 2020, the Grand Opening of Carrier Park Field of Dreams – Phase 2” will feature three all accessible basketball courts, all-inclusive playground, and new synthetic surface infields for the existing diamonds. The future Carrier Park “Phase 3” will conclude the project with a massive “superfield” that will achieve Syracuse Challenger Baseball’s original goal of having 8 operating baseball fields.
Dom Cambareri continues in his position as Executive Director for the league. Both Jennifer Savastino and Dee Perkins are now Deputy Program Directors; the three administrators operate Syracuse Challenger Baseball as a 501(c)(3) not for profit entity formed to assist families with children and adults with special needs. As Executive Director, Dom oversees the finances of the league, and represents the league in meetings with NY District 8 Little League, major businesses and government officials, and as the Challenger spokesperson for the Carrier Park Field of Dreams. Dee’s focus is using technology to streamline all the yearly processes that keep the league operating like player signups, field and special event announcements and coordination with coaches. She built the Syracuse Challenger Baseball website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages for the league and then branched out into setting up a texting program that keeps parents up to date on cancellations and special events. Jennifer and Dom are both members of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Dewitt Parks and Recreation. This Board continues to pursue opportunities in the public, private and government sector to help finish the remaining fields at Carrier Park. Jennifer is the Adult Division manager and works with coaches and players to make sure the 8 teams and 2 time slots work for the families and players. She also was the driving force behind the fundraising efforts associated 50/50 raffles at NBT Stadium in 2018. Jennifer used all her skills as a small business owner to create the operating business structure and procedures associated with the selling 50/50 raffle tickets during the 2018 Syracuse Chiefs (now Mets) baseball season. As a result, Jennifer, assisted by Dom with the receipts and financials, successfully raised funds for Syracuse Challenger Baseball future use.
The league has grown to become the largest Challenger League in the US with close to 300 children and adults. Syracuse is proud that parents, volunteers and local businesses have continued to support this league and make it a model for cities around the country.