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Queens Chronicle

Challenger Division a hit for young sluggers

Glen Oaks Little League ready to play ball with special needs kids

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Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:49 am, Thu Feb 21, 2013.

For the third straight year, a collection of the borough’s special needs kids will start gathering for Little League baseball on April 13. Their chance to play comes from the big heart of a dad who lost his son in a tragic accident in 2010.

Last year, the Glen Oaks Little League’s Challenger Division grew to 65 kids in total, most with autism and some with other ailments, more than double the 28 participants when the division first started two years ago. This year, they’re hoping to have even more kids.

“We’re seeing a lot of familiar faces and a lot of new ones,” said the division’s co-director, Jodi Aronoff, adding the first year saw just enough kids for two teams.

The weekly games bring together kids and families in similar circumstances who would otherwise, at times, feel isolated.

“The parents start to support each other,” Aronoff said. “We hang out once in a while. We talk on the phone all the time. Friendships are formed.”

The division is the result of sad circumstances suffered by the Glen Oaks Little League’s vice president, Mike Petillo. He lost his son Steven in a car accident on Aug. 16, 2010 during a family vacation in Virginia.

The grieving father combined his son’s love of baseball and other kids to form the Steven Petillo Field of Dreams Foundation, which funds the Challenger Division, keeping it free for all participants.

Steven was a big Yankees fans and wore No. 55 like his favorite player, former outfielder Hideki Matsui. And the Bronx Bombers are supporters of the foundation, among others.

“His life was baseball, and we started a field of dreams foundation for kids who wanted to play ball to honor him,” Petillo said.

Petillo said the goal is to make the Challenger Division as big as possible.

“We want to help out these children,” he said. “I’d love to get to 100 [participants] this year.”

The Challenger Division redefines the term “parent participation.” It’s not uncommon for parents to walk to the plate with their children, help them swing and even run with them to the base, Aronoff said.

“Some of the kids do try it by themselves,” she said. “If they don’t want the coaches to do it, then mommy and daddy encourage them.”

The division itself is split between two different levels, Beginner and Farm, with kids placed based upon their ability. Every child has an at-bat and fields.

“Parents come up and say if it wasn’t for this Challenger Division once a week, two hours a week they get out, they’d basically be stuck at home,” Petillo said. “A lot of children get out there and they smile from ear to ear.”

The league’s schedule is already shaping up, with tryouts and placement slated for March 16 and 23, which will also mark the end of open registration. The first workout for the division will be on April 6 at PS 115, at 80-51 261 St.

The opening day parade, followed by the first game of the season, will be held April 13.

Games will take place at the Glen Oaks Oval, at 260th Street and 74th Avenue, usually on Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

For more information, contact Jodi Aronoff at baseballmom414@yahoo.com.

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