By Anna Pitingolo
Champ Pederson’s life has always been about memorable firsts. He picked up a baseball bat for the first time when he was 7, and fell in love with the sport.
His first motivational speech was in 2013, when he spoke to his brother Tyger’s slumping team, rousing them on to a win.
And now, he is the first Little League® Challenger Division graduate to be inducted into Little League’s Hall of Excellence.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Champ. “I want to thank my mom for being my first coach and my dad for always being there to support me.”
Growing up with two brothers and a sister, Champ, who was born with Down Syndrome, a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome, was surrounded by sports. From the Palo Alto (Calif.) Little League Challenger Division to competing in the Special Olympics, he has always been actively involved in sports and takes pride in his competitive personality.
“There was always competition [growing up]. We were always wanting to compete, always talking about sports, always baseball,” Champ said. All of the Pederson children are athletes: Tyger played baseball in college and the minor leagues, brother Joc plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and sister Jacey currently plays soccer at UCLA.
Champ has lived his life “Like a Champ,” never letting Down Syndrome define who he is. The mantra “Live Like a Champ” has become a way to share his story and empower others to live a positive life, no matter their situation. Champ and his family have also used it as a platform to raise funds in support of various causes that benefit individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities.
“My mom always told me never take anything for granted and that it’s important to always take it all in,” said Champ. “This is a great experience, so more than anything, I’m happy.”
Saturday morning, Little Leaguers got to witness first-hand to never take things for granted when they switched roles and played the part of fans as they took in the annual Challenger Exhibition Game, held in Little League Volunteer Stadium.
Nine teams filled the stands, along with hundreds of fans, to watch the teams from Rhode Island’s Riverside Little League and Freehold Township (NJ) Little League play in what has become a marquee event during the Little League Baseball World Series.
Bud Maddux, Manager of the Southwest Region Champions, brought his team to Volunteer Stadium on their way to the batting cages just hours before they were set to face the Southeast Region champions in the U.S. Championship game. Mr. Maddux didn’t care that his team was about to play in the biggest game of their lives up to that point; he and his team wanted to go and show their support to the Challenger athletes.
“I think that this is something that’s really important for young men [to see] and I think it’s important for us to come support this,” said Mr. Maddux, who also brought the team down on the field to interact with athletes as they warmed up prior to the game. “It was real good [to meet the athletes]. It’s something that needed to be done, go down and hang out with those young athletes and appreciate it.”
The Little Leaguers representing the Japan Region also made a quick stop at the game before facing Mexico in the International Championship Game. Latin America, Caribbean, Northwest, Asia-Pacific, Australia, Europe and Africa and Mid-Atlantic all were in the stands, as well, to cheer and chant for the Challenger teams. Mid-Atlantic was especially excited to cheer on Freehold, which is located less than 30 minutes from Jackson, N.J.
“It feels tremendous [to support a hometown team in Williamsport],” said Mid-Atlantic coach Robert Grano. “This game puts everything in perspective. We think that for two weeks, we’re the center of the universe. For the day, these athletes are the center of the universe, and I think it’s great to be up here cheering them. This [game] is everything that’s right about Little League.”
After the game, all the teams went onto the field to high-five both teams. Amongst the swarm of Little Leaguers was Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who was the honorary third base coach during the game. Mr. Jackson ran with each athlete as they made the dash from third to home to score.
Freehold Little League President Mike LaCava had attended the Challenger game for the previous two years, and after last year knew that it was something he wanted Freehold to participate in. And with the Freehold Challenger Division celebrating its 25th year this year, it made the stop in Williamsport that much more exciting.
“It’s hard to describe or to put today into words, but to see both teams be out here, and every day we take things for granted and we look at people that have different kinds of challenges and they rise to the occasion, it’s just incredible,” said Mr. LaCava. “I had to wear my sunglasses because it was hard not to cry. This surpassed anything I could have ever imagined.”
Challenger Exhibition Game - August 26, 2017 (31 photos)