Each year, the Mizuno Braves choose an organization to help out and become more involved in the local communities. The Braves chose the Kyle Reid Memorial Challenger League last summer, buddying up with players with special needs for an evening of baseball, fundraising and fun.
Originally, the Braves thought it would be a one-time thing, but the players, parents and coaching staff had so much fun that they decided to come back to the Challenger League every summer, with this summer’s meeting taking place on July 30.
“At the end of the night, Mike [Jaskier] came up to me and said ‘We had such a good time that we want to do this every year with you guys,’ so we set up a date to play and they’re going to come back every year with us,” said league coordinator Mike O’Donnell. “They had a blast and we had a blast. It’s a great thing that they’re doing.”
“It’s going to be an annual thing. We’re going to make it happen,” said Mike Jaskier, head coach of the Cheektowaga-based Mizuno Braves. “And we’re going to get the community leaders in Hamburg soon, hopefully, to get a synthetic field in the works for these kids so they don’t have to worry about playing on the dirt field.”
Games are usually played at the Hamburg High School softball diamond, but construction forced the games to be played on the turf of the football field, which the kids found out they preferred.
“We had this in mind right from the start, and actually, playing on the turf is great,” said O’Donnell.
In the past, when Mizuno picked an organization to lend a hand to, the baseball team would help out by offering to run a fundraiser. Jaskier and the Braves decided to do something different this time around.
“Last year we donated some money and gave baseballs to the kids, which was great. They signed some balls for us and we signed some balls for them,” said Jaskier. “But this year we decided to give them something to take home, which is a medal. It has our logo on it, the date, July 30, 2014, and it says, ‘A day on the field with friends,’ and that’s what we consider this.
“It’s not just an event, it’s a day we can hang out with our friends from Hamburg and we hope they enjoy the day as much as we do.”
Challenger League founder Mike Kaney, who tosses the pitches for the batters every game, began the league 15 years ago in the name of Kyle Reid, who passed away on Dec. 4, 1998. Reid’s father, Mary Lou and Greg, organized a 5K run and a golf tournament in the summer of 1999 before Kaney helped them with a Challenger League for the Southtowns, which mirrors a league in Tonawanda.
From May-August, three games are played every Wednesday evening. Children ages 6-11 play at 5:30 p.m., ages 11-18 play at 6:30 and the 18-and-older kids bat at 7:30.
The same format was used during Mizuno’s most recent visit, with the late game played as a real contest between the Braves and the Challenger League as Jaskier’s team did everything it could to make the Hamburg kids look good.
“The Braves are up to bat first and it’s a riot,” O’Donnell said. “They’re holding the bat backwards, trying to bat between their legs and switch hitting. They run to the bases and they always get out. And when the Challenger kids get up there, they hit the ball and the Braves are overthrowing, missing catches and errors everywhere. The Braves are dramatic about and it’s fun to watch.”
Plenty of events are held all year with the Challenger League kids, from Halloween and Christmas parties to bowling and an end-of-the-year dance. But organizers admit that there is nothing like when Mizuno comes to town.
“Kids sometimes lose focus of what the real world is about,” said Jaskier. “It’s not all about computers and phones, but there’s a lot of instances going on in real life and this is one of those things that brings them closer to it and they realize that we’re all equal, and going out on the ball diamond just proves it.”
From whatever gifts the Braves bring to the game jerseys they wear for the Hamburg kids, O’Donnell mentioned that you can tell that the children of the Challenger League enjoy the company of the Mizuno Braves.
“It works out good and they all have fun,” said O’Donnell. “They make friends here and they look forward to seeing each other. It’s an opportunity for them to socialize and do something that they wouldn’t be able to do. A lot of these kids can’t play in regular leagues so this is their World Series.”
And after just one evening of baseball spent together on July 24, 2013, a friendship between Cheektowaga and Hamburg helped to build friendships that will last forever.
“We’ll be back here every year,” Jaskier said. “No matter what age group I coach, the Mizuno Braves and my kids will be here to help out the kids.”