, Photography By John Kealey
On the field for a glimpse of the excitement and magic of the Challenger Baseball All-Star Series Jamboree
John Kealey

T here’s an opening in the left-field fence at Rogers Centre where a group of volunteers stand ready to make passersby feel special. Each person who walks past the collection of balloons and onto the outfield turf gets an ovation from the mini crowd. It’s almost like a Toronto Blue Jays reliever is emerging from the bullpen and stepping into game action.

Most attendees don’t really know how to react to the applause. Some smile, while others act sheepish. But one young girl, dressed in purple pants and a Blue Jays jersey, is in her element.

As soon as her feet touch the green, she bursts into a sprint, hands in the air, and lets out a yell. A collection of parents sits in the stands along the left-field foul line and notice this girl’s unbridled joy. They add to the existing cheers and, emboldened, she runs a little faster. She extends her arms to both sides like the wings of an airplane and sways, creating a scene resembling Brett Phillips’s walk-off celebration in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series. The pose only brings about a louder reaction from the crowd.

Meanwhile, about 150 feet away, a father shows his son the exact spot where Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier made the catch that endeared him to Toronto fans during this year’s home opener. The dad is clutching his phone and encourages his boy to give it a try — “Come on, you can do it,” he says. His son is hesitant, but eventually takes a vertical leap. He doesn’t quite reach the top of the wall, but he’s not dispirited. He backs away, pauses for a second, then takes a running start toward the fence. It works and now he’s hanging from the wall with both hands.

Welcome to the Challenger Baseball All-Star Series Jamboree, an event hosted by the Jays Care Foundation that never fails to create an abundance of smiles.

“I call it, ‘A big heart hug,’” says Meghan Saundercook, senior manager of inclusive programs and outreach at Jays Care. “We get big heart hugs at our foundation because those smiles are really what lights our fire to do more of what we do.”

The Jamboree is an annual event that brings together families from across Canada. They come to celebrate the athletes who play in one of the 115 Challenger Baseball leagues across the nation.

Challenger Baseball, governed by Jays Care, Little League Canada and Baseball Canada, is an adaptive program that seeks to empower children, youth and adults living with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities and/or mental-health challenges.

This year’s event featured roughly 330 athletes, ranging in age from 10 to 32.

“A lot of our athletes are always thought of last, never first,” says Saundercook. “These events really show the importance of thinking of them first and doing things to really celebrate them and highlight them.”

For this year’s event, held in mid-August, almost the entire 100-level concourse is filled with activities from face painting and baseball card creation to photo ops with cutouts of Blue Jays players. Perhaps the most heartwarming, though, is the station where athletes write a letter of gratitude to their coach.

One athlete penned a note and decided to hand it not to their coach, but the volunteer running the station. It read, “It’s so nice meeting you. I loved having a good time today.” Alexandra Tauhid, programs and outreach project manager at Jays Care, says the volunteer was overjoyed. She adds that two other volunteers approached her earlier in the day to share that they’d been so moved by positive emotion during the event that they’d run to the washroom to let out a “cry of joy,” before returning.

“They’re positively surprised about how close these kids can get with them,” says Tauhid. “They’re meeting them for the first time and then getting so close, so quickly. They really see how genuine the kids are in their interest, their excitement and even in just their passion.… It got [some volunteers] really emotional and they were like, ‘I want to come back next year and help again.’”

In the on-field portion of the Jamboree, there are 12 activities set up across the outfield. The athletes are free to roam, enjoying stations such as “Baseball Golf,” “Outfield Hero” and “Surprise Slugger.”

The last is where you’ll find Ammaar, a 14-year-old from Brampton, Ont. Wearing a Blue Jays hoodie and backward cap, he’s hitting balls off a tee into the netting along the third-base line.

Actually, he’s crushing the plastic balls further than any athlete before him.

Ammaar has his mechanics down — the leg kick, the weight transfer, the launch angle. He takes eight swings and sprays the ball to his left and right. When he’s done, he hands the bat to his friend and gets a celebratory hug.

Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza is on the opposite side of the field, bucket in hand, giving balls to athletes at the “Strike Em Out” station. They’re throwing to a net that has nine holes representing different areas of the strike zone, and there’s a volunteer standing behind it with a radar gun, reading out the velocity of each toss.

Ammaar catches wind of this and, soon enough, he’s in line. He shakes Mayza’s hand and gets to work.

His first toss is 39 m.p.h., but Ammaar is just warming up. He follows that with offerings of 42, 41, 38, 44 and, finally, 45. Even the volunteer with the radar gun is surprised, and while it’s a new career high for Ammaar, he keeps a straight face like a consummate professional. He expected the heat, he explains later, as a result of his recent workouts.

“Feels amazing,” he concedes, with a small smile.

Ammaar plays in Challenger leagues in both Brampton and Caledon, Ont. He mans every position on the diamond, but prefers first base because that also belongs to his favourite player, Blue Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

It’s not lost on Ammaar that, at this moment, he’s standing just a few feet from the spot Guerrero Jr. patrols on the Rogers Centre diamond. The kid has big dreams and, if he has it his way, he might one day join the slugger.

“I want to be with the Jays someday,” says Ammaar. “Having fun with all the staff and having a great time.”

When he’s done with the interview, Ammaar heads back into the action. He asks a volunteer if he can hold the radar gun and spends the next little while relaying velocity readings to his fellow athletes.

It’s hard to not get a big heart hug after seeing that.

Photo Credits
All photos by John Kealey/Jays Care Foundation