The community came together to watch the 2013 Challenger Baseball League start another season at J.R. Giebler Field on Floyd Avenue in Bloomfield.
This is a lot more than young kids playing ball. It’s about the dream of a Belleville woman, Marge Franco, back in 1996 to find a league for her daughter to play baseball.
Today, it’s the home where dreams are made every day, a place where adults’ eyes get moist, children laugh and Marge wears those dark sunglasses for more reasons than just the sun shining.
The Challenger League is for youngsters with ‘disabilities’, if you will, getting the chance to play baseball on Sunday mornings from April through the end of June. Some children are in wheelchairs, some wear leg braces or need the aid of crutches.
No one makes an out and no one commits an error. Every player has a uniform. Everyone scores a run, everyone’s batting average is 1.000 and the look on a player’s face when he, or she, makes contact with a ball provides the fans a thrill that exceeds any trip to a Major League game.
Giebler Field is named after William David ‘JR’ Giebler, who was killed on Dec. 21, 1988 on board Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in an act of terrorism. He was just 29 years old.
The field was first opened when Franco organized the league in 1996 and refurbished to the gorgeous ball park it is today back in 2008.
It was also in 2008 that Franco had the opportunity to take her kids to the original Yankee Stadium, not to see a game, but to participate in one.
Marge’s team played a team from the Bronx in a game on July 10, 2008. The Yankees were hosting All-Star Week and this game would be the first event of the week-long celebration. Leading up to that day, the weather had been very hot and humid, but on game day, it was a perfect 78 degrees and sunny.
The Yankees went out of their way to make this a special event, building a make shift diamond in the outfield of the legendary park and posting each player’s name on the scoreboard. Every player got a swing and rounded the bases.
When the game ended, the Yankees played Frank Sinatra’s traditional ‘New York, New York’ theme song. The teams shook hands and embraced one another. If you saw that, and didn’t have tears rolling down your face, something was wrong.
After the game, the kids had a chance to eat lunch at Monument Park.
As she begins her 18th season of running the league, Marge stays in the background. Her generosity is amazing. She arranges for all the fans and kids to have free hot dogs on opening day, as well as coffee and donuts for the adults prior to the start of the ceremonies.
Bloomfield Mayor Raymond McCarthy never misses an opening day event.
“I’ve been Mayor of Bloomfield for 12 years now,” McCarthy said. “And this ball park is the jewel of my administration. Marge brings joy and doesn’t hesitate to do anything for the kids. It’s all about them. This field is a jewel of Bloomfield and is here because of volunteerism from so many people. What a great day.”
Many of Franco’s coaches have been a part of the team since the team’s inception.
“Lynda Panza, Anthony Panza, Janet Carfagno, Vinnie Carfagno and Nicholas Carfagno have been here for 17 years,” Franco said. “Kim Catalfamo has been here 14 years, Barbara Costa, 13 years and Patty Hogan has been such a big help in every phase of what we’ve done here.”
This season, players from the Belleville Little League, led by league officer Craig Jackowski, came by to support the festivities, as did the Caldwell College baseball team.
“This really brings it home,” Jackowski said. “Watching these kids work so hard to get a hit and run those bases is incredible.”
Franco admits the opening day festivities can be overwhelming.
“I wear those dark glasses for a good reason,” she said as her kids settled into its first game of the season. “There are so many good people that help make this day possible. A big shout out to Craig and the Belleville Little League for being here. I think my kids enjoyed the other kids helping out. That means a lot.”
Play ball !