The Challenger League in Syracuse is the oldest Little League program for special needs children 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. As the years went by District 8 Little League stepped in and helped create the first set of teams. That small group of the original two teams and 20 children quickly grew to 6 teams with 12 players and 72 children. These teams had no home field and traveled to Liverpool, Lyncourt, Mattydale and Eastwood to play their games. Whenever Little League had open spots at a field, they would allow Challenger to play on those fields.
As the years went by the league stayed small, but word got out to other special needs parents that the Challenger program was a great place to meet other parents and children in our community. The league had a waiting list and parents sometimes waited years to get on a team. Executive Director Bob Nelson managed the league along with his wife. This was before the internet and email lists and when a game was cancelled a phone tree got the word out to parents.
In 2004 Dom Cambareri became Executive Director. He knew the special needs community was growing and wanted a way to accept every player without putting any child on a waiting list. Dom Cambareri is the father of two of the players on the league. He owns the law practice Cambareri & Cambareri and is a long time sponsor of the Green team on the Junior Division.
In 2005 Dee Perkins became Deputy Program Director and self-appointed “League Photographer.” Through the years she has added technology to the league to make calling out to the players easier using a pre-recorded phone message, she built the first Challenger website and continues to update it and added facebook, twitter and youtube accounts as well. The league no longer uses phone trees, but now uses a text program to let parents and players know when a cancellation happens. The league is well represented on Facebook as well with over 1500 followers.
In 2007 two new senior teams, The Mets and Yankees, were created to allow older and more skilled players to play beside their fellow teammates. These teams have thrived and now grown to close to 20 players on each team.
In 2011 thanks to the guidance from Jon Law from CNY Agency we were able to bring on four new sponsors that allowed us to expand the Junior Division by four teams. The league had doubled and was on it’s way to tripling in size.
In 2015 Little League approved our request to create adult teams. The league immediately created two adult teams in 2015. In 2016 four new adult 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.
In 2015 Jennifer Savastino came on as a Deputy Program Director to help Dom with his dream to create Challenger Baseball’s own fields. The project started out as a “Field of Dreams,” but soon became a reality. Working closely with the Town of Dewitt, generous benefactors, and the community to make the Carrier Park Field of Dreams opened in the spring of 2016 and has two fields used by both Challenger and Little League tournaments. The goal is to have 7 fields to house the entire league. Currently, the league operates out of the Field of Dreams for adults and in Mattydale for the junior and senior division.
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.