Angels host 12th annual Challenger Classic

Kids from Little League Challenger Division participate in event

Angels host 12th annual Challenger Classic

ANAHEIM -- When Dr. Darrell Burnett helped coordinate the first Bank of America Challenger Classic in 2006, he customized an Angels jersey with the No. 06 to commemorate the occasion.

More than a decade later, Burnett was sporting that same jersey as the Angels Baseball Foundation hosted the 12th annual Bank of America Challenger Classic on Saturday morning.

More than 900 kids associated with the Little League Challenger Division, enabling boys and girls with mental and physical disabilities the chance to play baseball, flooded the Angel Stadium outfield to take part in a series of exhibitions throughout the day.

"The more things change, the more this stays the same," said Burnett, who established the Challenger Division at several Orange County Little Leagues more than 25 years ago. "We can pretty much lock the event in every year, and that's an amazing feeling."

Burnett, a retired Little League International board member, led waves of kids out of a tunnel in left field and into a parade setting that included a DJ and cheerleaders from Capistrano Valley High School, Orange High School and Villa Park High School.

"You can see the smiles, the sheer joy, and that's why we do it," Angels chairman Dennis Kuhl said. "They're so proud to be here, and we're so proud to have them."

Both Angel Stadium scoreboards were used to feature the players taking part in the five games in the outfield. And those players rarely missed a chance to strike a pose or dance when on the big screen.

"It warms your heart to see that," said Allen Staff, Bank of America market president for Orange County. "They get the chance to feel like Major Leaguers today."

Former Angels Chuck Finley, Mickey Hatcher and Clyde Wright, along with bench coach Dino Ebel and catching and information director Steve Soliz, spent time signing autographs and serving as pitchers and defenders for an array of games.

"It's just a lot of fun to see the light come out in their eyes with the time they're having," Finley said. "It's something we genuinely look forward to putting on every year."

Many of the former players and current coaches that were in attendance are mainstays at the annual event. More than 350 Bank of America volunteers were on hand as well.

"It's like one big reunion," Ebel said. "It gets more rewarding when you recognize the kids coming back, and they're excited to see you, too."

Kids from Challenger Divisions all around Southern California were present Saturday. Each set of games, with the first ones starting at 9 a.m., lasted an hour before players headed behind home plate for a medal ceremony and one final run through a tunnel of cheerleaders.

Orange County native Cindy Pratt's 20-year-old daughter, Zoey, was among the many to take part in the earliest cycle of games.

"She was talking about this for weeks; I think she was up before I was this morning," Cindy Pratt said. "The impact the team has by opening its doors, and the players by opening their schedules, really means the world to the kids."

Ryan Posner is a contributor to MLB.com based in Los Angeles. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.