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Better Arizona

Youth baseball league offers special needs division

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AHWATUKEE, AZ (CBS5) -

A Valley baseball league is making this a Better Arizona.

Its teams are leveling the playing field for special needs kids.

"You gotta keep your eye on the ball and you gotta swing the bat straight," said 17-year-old Joseph Rafacz. "My favorite part of baseball is hitting a lot of home runs and catching the ball."

Rafacz, a junior at Desert Vista High School, is one of 38 players in the special needs division of the PONY League in Ahwatukee.

"My oldest son used to come out and watch his younger brother play baseball and one day he asked me, ‘when is it my turn to play?' and we didn't have an answer for him," said Chris Kelly who founded the Champions division two years ago, and is one of its four coaches.

The Champions division consists of four teams and is sponsored by Origami Owl - whose financial support provides the players' uniforms.

Children 9 and older play for either the Cubs or Cardinals.

Those who are younger than 9 play for the Reds or Pirates.

Kelly's son Sam now plays for the Cubs.

"If we weren't out here, unfortunately, they (special needs kids) would be at home doing nothing, sitting on a couch," Kelly said. "And, we as a community can be better than that."

Every Friday night, for six weeks in the spring and fall, these children hit the field with mentors from non-special needs teams.

"It's a lot of fun," said 12-year-old Timmy Thetford. "And, it's just like I'm playing with my friends - because they are my friends."

Thetford plays for the Diamondbacks White in the Ahwatukee Little League.

On this warm April night he and his teammates are on deck for a Champions game between the Cubs and Cardinals.  They coach and encourage the players.

"Anybody can enjoy playing ball," Thetford explained. "It doesn't matter how old you are, how big you are, or if you're smart or not."

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