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Challenger Little League a hit at White House

James Rada
Thurmont Dispatch

(8/8) Five-year-old Jimmy Brittain had practiced all week for the Thurmont Challenger Little League game on the South Lawn of the White House.

He wasn't working on his batting or fielding. His parents were giving him etiquette lessons. "Hello, Mr. President." "Thank you, Mr. President." "Goodbye, Mr. President."

Only in existence for a year, the Thurmont Challenger Little League team was chosen to play "Tee Ball on the South Lawn" at the White House.

"This is a pretty cool opportunity for our team," said 12-year-old Troy Baisey, who also played with the Challenger team last year when they played an exhibition game at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Little League's Challenger Division is open to mentally and physically disabled children from ages 5-18. It is Little League's fastest-growing division, with more than 28,000 players in the U. S. and other countries.

"Challenger is a great opportunity for kids to do things like other kids do without too much pressure," said Nina Vitrolff, who had three grandchildren - Brian, David and Richard Matthews - playing on the Thurmont team.

The Thurmont Challengers, sponsored by the Frederick Civitan, played the Challenger team from Shady Spring, W. Va. in the 15th one-inning game. The games have been held at the White House since 2001.

The teams were selected by Little League International based on their proximity to Washington and the strength of their charter organizations.

The team left Thurmont on Saturday morning in two tour buses that had a police escort through town. At the White House, the team had a pre-game tour of the President's house.

"Jimmy kept asking, 'Is that the President? Is that the President?' He even asked some of the security people and others who were around, 'Are you the President?' It happened a number of times," said Angela Brittain, Jimmy's mother.

Following the tour, the teams gathered on a specially built field on the White House south lawn. No scores were kept and no runs or outs were counted. Every player on both teams batted once and played on defense for the one-inning game.

Jimmy was the very first batter. The crowd applauded as he stepped up to the ball that President Bush had placed on the tee to start the game.

He swung and missed.

Undeterred, he took another swing and hit the ball into the infield. He ran along with Brad Little to first base.

Brad was Jimmy's buddy. Each Challenger player has a buddy available to help with running and fielding if needed.

As the players came to the plate, each was loudly cheered.

Robert Shaffer was the clean-up batter. In Challenger Little League that's the last batter. Standing uneasily without his walker, Robert hit the ball off the tee. He grabbed his walker and moved with relative speed from base to base as his hit was considered an in-field home run.

Robert, who had joked about trying not to break the White House windows when he hit, said after the game, "It was awesome. Just getting to play the game was great."

Once the Thurmont team had batted, they took to the field to deal with the Shady Spring batters.

Following the game, President Bush and Honorary Commissioner Willie Mays, a baseball legend, presented each player, buddy and coach with autographed baseballs and posed for pictures.

Jimmy was the first player to get his ball and picture taken and Brittain told this story about her son.

After all Jimmy's preparation for the meeting, when he got back to the dugout, his mother asked him, "Jimmy, did you tell the President thank you?"

"That wasn't the real president," Jimmy said.

"Yes, it was, honey," Brittain said.

Upset, to have missed his opportunity, Jimmy tried to run back to President Bush and thank him. His father stopped him.

Following the game, the teams enjoyed a picnic on the south lawn. President Bush didn't attend because he had to leave for another appointment on Marine One.

Some of the players went to watch him board the helicopter that had landed on the south lawn. As he climbed on board, Jimmy called out, "Thank you for the ball, Mr. President."

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