Baseball. America's sport. Every summer, millions of teens with a passion for the game play ball. They compete against each other with hope of winning and being the best.
But there is another baseball league – one built on friendship and the desire to just hit a few balls around. In this league, you can be as competitive or as laid back as you want.
Hamburg's Challenger Baseball League is for players with special needs. They may not be able to play on a school team or be super competitive, so this program helps people of all abilities play ball.
The league began in 2000, and has grown from about 40 players to almost 90. Every Wednesday in June and July, three games are played. The teams are divided depending on the players' ages. The league is designed for kids ages 6 to 18, but often the veterans will continue playing into their 20s because they love playing so much.
In every game, each team gets the opportunity to bat and to play in the outfield. Each player gets to hit four balls in his or her two times at bat, and they never strike out. They always get as many chances as it takes to hit the four balls, and a tee may be used.
The player always moves around the bases. Some kids are in wheelchairs, including one athlete whose assistance dog escorts him around the bases.
All of the players are filled with pride when they hit the ball or get a home run.
Sometimes there might be four players at a base, chatting with each other, the intent of getting around the bases forgotten as they talk with their friends.
Whenever someone is having trouble hitting, everyone starts cheering and shouting out encouragement, and Liz Brown, 25, is always one of the loudest.
Brown has been participating in the program since its inception.
"I've made a whole lot of friends around here," she said. "I like watching people run around the bases. Having fun is what counts."
Kelsey Clark, 20, only began playing a couple of years ago, but she has come to love the league.
"It's fun. I've made lots of new friends, and I like playing with everyone," Clark said.
Ken Makelke, 23, started playing when he was about 10 with his friend, Bobby Sauer, 21. They liked attending Buffalo Bisons games together and had played the game with each other, so this was a great opportunity for them.
Joe Faulring, 24, tries to hit balls farther than anyone else, and espcially tries to beat his sister, Morgan, 17.
Faulring, who has been playing for eight years, had played on his high school team and got into the habit of performing front flips over home plate.
Morgan also started at a young age.
"[The league] is good for special-ed kids who can't play regular sports," she said.
Andrew Waite, 21, also has been playing for many years. He is known on his team for being the "clean-up batter" and hitting balls far to earn himself the last home run of the game.
After each game, the players celebrate with pizza and pop.
The fun for the players doesn't end with the medal ceremony at the final game. There are several parties scheduled throughout the year, along with some winter clinics.
The league has many volunteers, many of whom stay with the program for years because they enjoy it as much as the players.
For more information about the program or for opportunities to help the younger athletes, visit http://hjbsl.com/#/challenger/4541707789.