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Challenger-Champions game at Citi Field thrills kids

NEW YORK -- Local children from Little League's Challenger and PONY Baseball/Softball's Champions divisions received a thrill on Friday, having the chance to play on the same field Major League All-Stars will play on in Tuesday's All-Star Game at Citi Field.

The Queens Kiwanis Champions played the Glen Oaks (Queens, N.Y.) Little League Challengers in a one-inning game in right field. With a few mascots helping out and a couple of former Mets greats looking on, the teams, which give children with special needs a chance to play baseball, had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Little League Challenger Division was established 25 years ago and gives kids with physical and developmental challenges the opportunity to play baseball. PONY Baseball and Softball implemented its Champions Division in 2009.

Tom Brasuell, vice president of community affairs for Major League Baseball, said some of these children might not have been expected to ever play sports. But on Friday, they played on a Major League field.

"So to not only play sports, but get a chance to play baseball and play on a Major League diamond, one of the most beautiful diamonds in Major League Baseball, it's a thrill for the kids," Brasuell said. "It's a thrill for the parents."

Mets mascot Mr. Met, Slugger from the Royals and Rangers Captain from the Rangers were on hand to entertain the children. Former Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and former infielder and manager Bud Harrelson watched the game. Volunteers acted as "buddies" and assisted the players during the game.

The children posed for pictures before the game, stretched, and then each took a turn at bat.

Walter Chaluisant, vice president of the Queens Kiwanis Little League, said the players were told about two months ago that they were going to play a game at Citi Field. They've been looking forward to the big day ever since.

"This is a great experience for our children," Chaluisant said. "They've been working hard all year. We think our children deserve something like this. It's great that Major League Baseball can do this for other children."

The Little League Challengers began playing during All-Star Week back in 2008 at Yankee Stadium. PONY Champions started participating in 2009, and the two sides have played at every All-Star Game host stadium since.

Brasuell said MLB has a former Major League player come out every year to help out with the game. Tony Gwynn coached both teams in 2009 at Busch Stadium.

Steven Divers, whose 10-year-old son, Christian, played for the Little League Challengers, said the opportunity "meant the world" to his son. After some initial nerves, Christian enjoyed the opportunity, his father said.

"This was a new experience," Steven said. "He was a little agitated, but he came along really well."

Brasuell said MLB is already talking to the Minnesota Twins about next year's game at Target Field, with the goal of continuing to improve the experience.

For the children who had the chance to play on Friday, it was an experience they can remember for the rest of their lives.

"Bottom line is," Brasuell said, "you can't ask for more than playing on a Major League Baseball diamond."

Chris Iseman is an associate reporter for
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