Adam Mendolla remembers when he got the call from Ginger Swartz. It was the spring of 2015 and he was serving as the Vice President of Hollister Little League’s (HLL) Challenger Division, which accommodates softball players with physical and intellectual challenges.
Swartz, who was the HLL’s Challenger coach and manager in the early 1990s—a division of HLL that had been inactive for 14 years before starting up again in 2013—said her former players still wanted to play.
But there was a problem, the Challenger Division is for ages 4-18, or up to age 22, if still enrolled in school, when they are phased out of the game.
So one Sunday afternoon, Mendolla agreed to open up HLL’s ballpark, so the group of 30- to 40-year-old players could play.
Mendolla remembers commiserating with Swartz. “I told her it really bummed me out that they’re all aged out and that there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The challenges for this community are not new to Mendolla.
His own daughter, Téa is 18 years old and has non-verbal autism. While coaching his son, Michael, in the HLL, he noticed that Téa was intrigued by the sport.
“She had been watching Michael play and was always fond of his uniform,” he says.
Her interest in the sport is what led him to becoming the HLL Challenger VP.
“As Téa got older, I started thinking, a lot of these players don’t do anything,” Mendolla says.”
So after his Sunday in the park with Swartz’s former players, Mendolla went to the HLL board to see about starting a Senior Challenger Division, which would accommodate players ages 15 and above.
“I got these players involved for one season,” Mendolla says of the 2015 HLL fall season.
But they came across a small obstacle.
“That little league field was too small,” Mendolla says.
They were able to use Hollister’s Babe Ruth field, even though we were still Little League. But after the first season, Mendolla was blindsided by another obstacle.
HLL said unless more players enrolled for the Challenger Division, there would be no Challenger Senior Division for the Spring 2016 season.
With more adults than kids, Mendolla felt it made more sense to reach out to Babe Ruth League’s Bambino Division.
“I told Greg Lopez, president of Babe Ruth at the time, the concerns that I had that there was nothing in Hollister for those players that were adults,” Mendolla recalls.
Lopez urged Mendolla to bring the matter to the Babe Ruth International League board—they made an exception for the San Benito group and rewrote the age requirement so the age of oldest player would be the charter.
Mendolla says they had already used their field and response among board members was a resounding, “Yes.”
“Their only request was that I come on as a divisional representative,” he says.
So Mendolla stepped up and became the division representative for the Babe Ruth League’s Bambino team.
He spoke to the commissioner of Babe Ruth International about his needs and they covered the Bambino’s charter for its first season. In two years, the roster grew from 18 to 25 players on four teams.
Mendolla says approximately one-third of the adult special needs community in San Benito County are in the Babe Ruth Bambinos Division.
“Some of them are nervous, so they don’t come out to play,” Mendolla says.
“But we invite them to come watch, and many of them have started playing after watching.”
And those who want to play can become impatient for the upcoming seasons.
“Guy Smith was literally my first sign-up,” Mendolla says of the first season. “Guy is an all-American athlete.”
Mendolla says Smith and his father used to do special olympics baseball.
“My hitting is getting much better,” says Smith. “I just love to play. Coach Adam is a great coach, I’ve learned so much from him. I just can’t wait to start playing again.”
Some players have honed their baseball skills, too, such as Cooper Aiello.
“Cooper started batting with the t-ball; now he won’t come out to bat unless someone will pitch him the ball,” Mendolla says.
“And he’s one of the fastest runners we have out there.”
And he does not lead the division on his own. Mendolla is appreciative of everyone who assists the players and the games—from his coaches to the DJ in the sound booth, Casey Stephens.
Mendolla and fellow team managers Juan Cruz, Frank Felice and Randy Villa partake in guiding the Bambino division, though he says that much of their jobs are just to facilitate the games—ensuring their safety and timekeeping.
According to Mendolla, the Bambinos will “play forever” if not given a time limit.
“For them, it’s just that idea that they get to be bigger than life for that few minutes,” he says.
“I feel that the Bambino players have a true love for the game,” Cruz says. “No one feels they are better than another. We’re all one big happy family.”
Mendolla is grateful the players are employed in the community and supported by such groups as HOPE Services and Social Vocational Services. He’s also thankful for those who’ve helped the Bambino team get through its first year.
“The San Benito Community Foundation granted us $3,500 after listening to what we needed for those players,” Mendolla says.
“The Hollister’s Veterans of Foreign War Post 9242 covered each player’s registration for the first season. I told [Richard McAbee] I needed helmets for these players. He bought them 20 helmets.”
When the Babe Ruth field was damaged by an arsonist in September and its league had to sit out the fall season, Mendolla felt he needed to seek out another field for his Bambinos.
He didn’t want to use the school fields due to safety concerns for the players.
“There’s a chance they could get hurt in the street, I have to worry about that,” he says. So he went to Andrew Barragan, asking for use of his Black Jacks field, to which Barragan willingly agreed.
Mendolla is still amazed at how Barragan helped him out, moving around schedules so the Bambinos could play.
“He offered me anything I needed, anything he probably wouldn’t have done for anybody else,” he recalls.
With many players wanting to do other sports, the Bambino players started the Special Olympics Flag Football. While not many players show up for the football games, it’s another exercise for the ones that do come out Mendolla says.
The Bambinos have against played for fun against teams organized by community agencies and groups, including the San Benito Sheriff’s Department and the Hollister Police Department.
“Toward the end of the season they get to play against the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the Hollister Fire Department,” Cruz adds.
“The players get really excited and the competitive edge comes out in all of them.”
Mendolla says community involvement is essential to getting the players known around town and invites anybody to get involved. With their spring season beginning in March for 10 weeks, and the fall season in September for eight weeks—tis keeps them active for some time.
“I like for people, when they see the players walking around town, to say ‘Oh I know this guy,'” Mendolla says.
The Bambino Division’s 2018 Season begins in January. For more information, visit sanbenitobaberuth.org.