Giving Back: More Than a Coach
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
Coaching youth sports takes patience; coaching special-needs youth athletes would seem to require even more. But Oradell's Larry Weisberg, who has coached a Challenger Division baseball team for years, seems baffled by the suggestion.
"It's a joy," he said. "I own a business. I work in the lower level of a basement. We're in Manhattan and put up with such ... Here, it's just an hour an a half of being outside, being outside in the sun."
The Challenger Division of Little League was established in 1989 for children ages 4 to 22 with physical and mental challenges. More than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide, according to the organization. They play 3-inning games with no outs or keeping score. Everyone bats each inning and gets on base no matter the play in the field. They run one base at a time until the last batter of the inning when they all come home. Coaches pitch and there are no umpires.
Weisberg has been involved for years and is well-known to those involved with the Bergen County Challenger Division, which includes teams from Saddle Brook, Dumont, Bergenfield and Oradell among other towns. The opposing team's coach and parents greet him warmly, and he says hello and makes conversation with every one of his players as they arrive at the field. Without pressuring them, he tries to get the kids excited for the game, playing catch and greeting each other.
"He makes us a team in every way, as friends, as family," said Don Drum, whose son has played for Weisberg for more than a decade. "He sees right through the challenges of each player and each volunteer to find the person."
Volunteers act as "buddies," who stand next to Challenger players to help them on the field, sometimes assisting in making the play, other times just keeping them focused. On some teams, buddies are local high schoolers or Girl or Boy Scouts but for Oradell and the Saddle Brook team they played one Sunday in mid-June, parents are the buddies.
"Some of the other teams they do use helpers and the parents sort of sit back a little more," said Weisberg. "I guess based on my technique, I found that the other parents were happy to contribute and promote not only their own child but really to encourage and treat each member of the team as if they were their own, which is great."
At a recent game, Weisberg stood in the field among his players and fellow parents, laughing with both, reminding them that the ball might be coming their way and being there to help if it did. The conversations were not what one would typically hear at a youth baseball game in North Jersey.
"Mr. Weisberg, Mr. Weisberg," his shortstop asks. "What is the batter's name?"
Weisberg instructs the player to ask the other's team's coach. Helping these players with their social skills is another important part of the program.
When the player finds out the batter's name, he begins to yell encouragement, "You can do it, Dakota."
When another Saddle Brook batter comes up, he hits the ball far enough to be a home run in almost any high school field in the state. Weisberg cheers the shot and his players high-five the opposing batter who passes his teammates on the base paths, ignoring the rule to go only one base at a time no matter where the ball goes.
"Home run, home run," he yells while coming around third.
No one makes him go back. No one argues. There is only applause.
Later in the game, Janice Young was pushing her son Ryan, who is in a wheelchair around the bases for the Saddle Brook team. When she is hit in the leg by a line drive and cannot continue, Weisberg takes over and pushes the opposing player the rest of the way. Nothing seems to rattle him and he works hard to make sure everyone is included without pushing them too hard.
"He'll step in and gently work with the kid and, at times, he'll be able to get the kid to do something that a parent or the volunteer can't," said Drum. "He'll get the person back up to the plate to hit the ball when that person isn't having a good day and they're standing off to the side. He makes those things happen. He'll take a kid who's upset - and you know [kids] get quite upset with these types of disabilities and nobody would understand -- he can walk over to that kid and very gently urge them back onto the field and continue with the game."
Son is a player-coach
Weisberg's son David, now 24, is a player-coach. He has developmental disabilities, as well as sight issues. In one at-bat, he swings and misses at pitch after pitch while his dad stands behind home plate, clapping, coaching and encouraging each time, never a hint of frustration. Eventually they bring out the tee and David makes contact. Cheers erupt from both teams and sets of parents and David runs so far past first base when his mom asks where he was going, he answers, "Paramus."
"Everybody understands that they have a challenge," said Weisberg. "Some are more limited than others, but anyone that succeeds on their level accomplishes something that is worthy of note."
In the last couple of years, Little League created a Senior Challenger Division for players who age out of the original program. Weisberg is considering starting a senior team soon, because so many of his long-time players, including his son, have and are aging out and there is a parent involved now who he feels could take over. This season, though, he was right back out there where he has been for 15 years. He took over the Oradell program a couple of seasons in.
"I just grew to really enjoy the people on our team," he said.
His wife Melanie marvels at her husband's dedication and love of it, still.
"He surprises me, because I never saw it coming," she said of him becoming so involved and sticking with it for all these years. Despite what he says, this is not easy and requires much more than coaching the sport.
"Sometimes the sun's too hot, the sun's too cold, there's a fly, there's a dog," she said. "I've never seen him lose his cool there, ever. He never comes home and says, 'Today was a tough day.' The first thing he'll say was 'Johnny had a hit and Billy caught a ball' or 'Johnny stopped the ball on third base.' It's never 'Nicky had a breakdown and Johnny got stung by a bee.' It's always very positive."
Main goal: to have fun
His commitment and approach are appreciated by the other parents.
"He really enjoys baseball and getting the kids involved and making sure it's a very welcoming environment," said Bill Nahmias, who began helping Weisberg coach last year. "It's just something he's taken very seriously."
Weisberg may take it seriously, but the goal is for everyone to have fun and giving these kids a place where they can be a part of a team like others their age. It gives them a sense of "normalcy," said Melanie. The league and Weisberg's handling of the team provides socialization and friendships that this population of kids would not easily find otherwise.
"For my son, the other players on the team are among the closest relationships that he has or has the ability to have," said Drum. "My son doesn't really communicate that easily, but all the other kids on the team know his name. They'll come up, shake his hand, welcome him to each game. So the team themselves, the players themselves are nice to each other. They're good to each other. Given the deficits these kids have, that's really a nice thing."
Weisberg deflects any praise, crediting the parents, the kids and the Challenger program itself.
"In the special needs sports, [it's] just really encouragement and hoping you see a little growth and also the socialization," said Weisberg. "You give the children an opportunity to be out there on the field. I think most special needs kids like a routine, and we don't try to break that. Our routine is we show up on Sundays in the spring and we play baseball."