WEST DUNDEE – Ryan Santiago hit a baseball without the assistance of a tee for the first time in his life last week.
Now, the 10-year-old Lake in the Hills resident is ready for his time to shine at the Little League World Series on ESPN.
Santiago and 14 of his teammates from local Challenger Little League teams are headed to South Williamsport, Penn., this week to play a special showcase game at the Little League World Series the day before the championship game.
Challenger is a division of Little League geared toward children with mental or physical disabilities. Illinois’ District 13 – comprised of Challenger leagues in Woodstock, Bartlett and Tri-Cities – was one of only two of the 900 Challenger leagues worldwide selected to play in the game.
“This is such a great opportunity not only for the kids but to keep getting the word out about the league,” said Kathleen Trautmann, Santiago’s mother, during a send-off picnic Sunday at Randall Oaks Recreation Center. “It’s so great to see kids with varying abilities play together with the same enthusiasm and joy for the game.”
Mark Johnson, head of District 13 Challenger leagues, said the group was selected in January along with District 57 out of Livermore, Calif., to participate in the event. He said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the players who will also have a day of activities including a tour of the Little League Museum.
“They say it’s every kid’s dream to play in Williamsport in August and it’s no different for the coach,” Johnson said. “Especially when I get to go with a wonderful group of kids like this one.”
The journey to the Little League World Series has been a long one for some of the players. Thirteen-year-old Geoffrey Boston and 11-year-old Will Hayes have been involved in the Challenger league for 7 years and are “ecstatic” for the opportunity.
While they both said they are looking forward to playing on ESPN and going to the same field many Major League Baseball players competed on as youngsters, it still boiled down to one passion.
“I just want to hit,” Boston said.
Boston and his teammates will have plenty of help in hitting and fielding as each player will be accompanied to Pennsylvania by a “buddy.” Buddies help the players run the bases, know where to throw the ball and with other elements of the game.
Aidan Johnson, a 16-year-old baseball player at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, has served as a buddy for 5 years and will make the trip with the team. He said it is great to share one of his dreams at playing at the Little League World Series with so many deserving players.
“It’s always great to see the kids having fun and smiling,” Johnson said. “You can tell everyone is really excited to go.”
Most of the players will leave with their families on Tuesday or Wednesday, Mark Johnson said, with team activities starting Friday. The game will be played 9:30 a.m. and televised online at ESPN3 and WTTW Prime.
For those who tune in, Trautmann said viewers would see the magic moments that make Challenger league one of the best sports leagues in the world.
“There is always a time in the game where you see that acceptance or generosity or character that makes this so great,” she said. “There is always a magic moment.”
About the game
What: Challenger Little League World Series Exhibition
When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday
How to watch: www.espn3.com or WTTW Prime