Citizen Staff Writer
Zack Hartje dreams of hitting a home run, even though he knows it may never happen.
The Tucson 15-year-old also fantasizes about playing in South Williamsport, Pa., the site of the Little League World Series.
In this case, dreams do come true.
Hartje, and 12 other Tucson Challenger Little League teammates with physical and mental disabilities will face Houston in an 8 a.m. game Saturday before 3,000 to 4,000 fans in Williamsport.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, I’m going to the World Series,’ ” Hartje said. “It’s a dream come true. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s a game that’s been nearly 10 months in the making for Tucson’s Challenger Division, a league composed of disabled players. Tucson has taken a 13-person roster of youths from 8 to 18 to Williamsport. A total of 26 people are in the official party.
According to Little League, the Challenger Division became a component of the league in 1989. More than 28,000 children with physical or mental disabilities play in the league worldwide.
Bill Fields, District 5′s assistant director, persuaded Little League officials to invite a local team. Tucson and Houston traveled the farthest for the game.
“I just asked how can we get there, and they said, ‘Pay your way,’ ” Fields said.
And voilà, he and others raised $43,000 with the help of the Tucson Conquistadores and the community – and Tucson players will be there, wearing new uniforms and new jackets.
“They’re going to look good when they get there,” Fields said.
And they’ll feel even better when they step on the field.
“Gosh, the kids are so excited,” Tucson coach Richard Ferber said. “My son (Justin) has already put on his clothes once. This is a big-time dream.”
Said Hartje: “I’m excited; very excited. I can’t wait.”
Fields has been told by many of the parents that the players the past week have watched the Little League World Series on television and have asked, “We’re going there?”
“They’ve been real excited,” Fields said.
After their game, which won’t be televised, they will stick around to watch the Little League World Series semifinals featuring Japan vs. Mexico and Hawaii vs. Lake Charles, La.. They also will watch the championship game Sunday.
Tucson joined Houston for a pregame practice and barbecue with families Friday. On Thursday, Tucson players watched Mexico beat Venezuela 5-2.
“It was fabulous,” Fields said. “The field was even more spectacular than we ever imagined.”
The Tucson players worked hard in practice last week at Field of Dreams, near South Kino Boulevard and 36th Street.
Assistant coach Matt Fields, 26, and a former player in the league, told Philip Glembin in warm-ups to throw the ball straight.
“Coach,” said Glembin, a 16-year-old, “that’s just something I just can’t do.”
The affable Glembin, wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey, smiled every time the ball landed safely in his glove.
All the players were giddy, including 17-year-old Seth “Maverick” Frank, who was hitting sharp line drives and hard ground balls in preparation.
When asked about Williamsport, Frank wondered about the field and the “bright lights.”
But his biggest question wasn’t about baseball but about . . .
Bill Fields and Ferber weren’t surprised. Tucson’s Challenger Little League has played in tournaments in Florida, California and West Virginia.
But this was the first chance for most of these kids to travel far and play in a high-profile game, even though it is an exhibition.
“They grow; they learn,” Fields said about his players. “It’s a great experience for them. I get out of it the same things every Little Leaguer gets out of it – it’s just fun.”
And they want to win.
“I think we’re a pretty good team,” said Hartje, a huge sports fan. “We have Maverick, Nick (Meyerowitz) and Philip (Glembin). All are good players.
“Whenever your team wins that’s even bigger. And if you have the game-winning run? Man, I know I can score. I run fast. When I get my feet pumping, I’m fast.”
He and his teammates hope to show that Saturday.
“When you watch, you can’t help but appreciate what these children have to struggle with and overcome and do it to play,” said Scott Rosenberg of Little League Baseball. “It kind of lifts your spirit and puts into perspective your situation. Makes you appreciate your circumstances.”
Steve Rivera’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org