Meet Challenger baseball's Nolan Ryan

By Leo Roth, Democrat and Chronicle, June 11, 2016

Dave Lanning enjoyed a lot of success during his many decades as a football and baseball coach at Fairport High School.

So much success that his work as an educator and mentor earned him a spot in the Section V football and baseball halls of fame, as well as the Frontier Field Walk of Fame.

“Well, part is longevity, part is you like to think you made a difference other than wins and losses,’’ said Lanning of his life’s work. “In my case, I like to think it’s about sticking with it. Young coaches today are in it for a couple years and gone and I understand the reasons why. But with me, you soldiered on and hopefully got the job done.’’

With a combined record of 531-176, with seven sectional titles and one state championship, with his coaching tree — players who went on to teach or coach — sporting more branches than the library system, Dave Lanning didn’t just get the job done.

He helped write the job description.

But his story hardly ends there. If there were a hall of fame for kindhearted people with endless patience, Lanning would be a first-ballot inductee.

Since the inception some 27 years ago of Fairport Little League’s Challenger Baseball program for children with mental and physical disabilities ages 6-18, Lanning has pitched every game and every practice. Yes, every game and every practice.

Lanning’s dedication extends to the Challenger World Series, which was canceled Saturday at Frontier Field because of the weather. It will not be rescheduled.

But Lanning, the same starting pitcher who was there for the inaugural event in 1993, was prepared to be there for the 24th annual in 2016.

It is one thing to volunteer — and hundreds do, with each player assigned a “buddy’’ that helps them with hitting, base running, fielding and throwing. But to never miss a start?

That makes Dave Lanning the Nolan Ryan of Challenger ball, only without the 5,714 strikeouts.

In fact, in all of his years on the mound, with Irondequoit Judge Joe Genier as his battery mate most of that time, he’s never recorded an out, his ERA “is astronomical’’ and every game has mysteriously ended in a tie, meaning his record in World Series play is something like 0-0-74.

“I thought maybe I should move on, but no, I’m having too much fun,’’ Lanning, who turns 70 this year, said. “Unless they don’t want to renew my contract."

Fat chance of that happening.

Lanning has coached at the high school, college and professional levels but said “nothing compares to Challenger Baseball.’’ And the reason is as simple as being asked to spell “joy’’ in a spelling bee.

“Well, it’s absolutely pure, first of all," he said. “We hardly ever record an out and if we do, it doesn’t matter. The kids keep running, smiling and laughing. You hear the cliché, ‘Play ball?’ Well, that’s what we’re doing. Kids play. There is virtually no pressure on the players and I’ll pitch all day until they hit it or I hit the bat. It’s just fun.’’

Invariably, those who give of their time get more back in return. Invariably, some ideas just keep on giving.

In 1989, when the Challenger division of Little League Baseball was formed, longtime district supervisor Ken Kampff got wind of the program and showed a VHS tape to Fairport Little League coach Brendan O’Riordan, whose son Brendan had limited use of his lower extremities due to cerebral palsy.

A year later, two Challenger teams were formed, the Yankees and Mets, with the younger O’Riordan playing first base for the Yankees and wearing No. 7. Instantly, he was just like his big brother, just like any other kid feeling the crack of the bat against a ball and fielding grounders.

Brendan was a bat boy, scorekeeper and first base coach for the Fairport varsity. But this was his chance to play. Before long, Lanning was bringing his Fairport players over to help the Challenger teams.

“I loved my high school teammates but to actually be able to play meant a lot to me and I owe a lot to my dad for bringing it here and to Dave for getting our Fairport varsity team involved," said O’Riordan, 39, a former WHAM-AM (1180) reporter who currently works as the communications officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. “Twenty years later I still go to these games and see kids from Fairport there, so that means a lot. It’s something that has stayed the course.’’

And grown. From those two teams in Fairport to teams in Greece, Penfield, Pittsford, Brockport, Webster and Canandaigua/Geneva.

The Challenger Baseball World Series, the brainchild of Tony Wells, whose autistic son Christopher was an original participant, has grown from 62 players to more than 400 who on Saturday were prepared to play a quadruple header at Frontier Field,  with the Red Wings once again acting as gracious hosts.

Those who participate in Challenger Baseball include those without limbs, those with Down syndrome, those with autism, cystic fibrosis and CP, those in wheelchairs and those using walkers or crutches.

But the only strikeout recorded is against ignorance. Able-bodied volunteers and spectators see firsthand what can be achieved when the focus is on a person’s capabilities. What they can do, not what they can’t do.

Lanning said nothing compares to Challenger Baseball.

Lanning said nothing compares to Challenger Baseball. "The kids keep running, smiling and laughing,'' he said. "You hear the cliché, ‘Play ball?’ Well, that’s what we’re doing. Kids play.'' (Photo: KATHY JULIEN)

“It’s such a great opportunity for kids who don’t have many opportunities and here’s a chance to play," O’Riordan said. “It means a lot to the parents, too, and the people who are close with kids with disabilities. That whole term, ‘disability,’ has changed. It’s all about people with ‘abilities’ who have a chance to swing a bat, whether they need help or it’s on their own."

Kathy Julien, Fairport’s volunteer coordinator, recalled the joy she felt the first time watching her son, Tyler, play ball 11 years ago. Tyler, was born with a heart defect, cerebral palsy and learning challenges. He’s now 19 and a senior division player.

“We could not even believe there was this program but a group of volunteers who would take those kids onto the field and as parents you could sit and watch your child and you were not responsible for that one hour a week," Julien said. “It was such a fantastic feeling to see them running and laughing, just amazing. And over the years as they’ve grown, this is their circle of friends."

Who have had a lifelong friend in Dave Lanning.

“I don’t talk about limitations because we all got ‘em," he said.

Lanning grew up in East Rochester playing football for the legendary Don Quinn. He and JoAnn, his wife of 46 years, had their first date after a Little Brown Jug game.

They were blessed with three healthy sons, Ben, Dan and Joe, who all played ball for their dad and have coached in some capacity. The Lannings now chase around four healthy grandchildren.

Dave retired from Fairport in 2002 but coaches never really retire. Over the years, he has helped coach baseball at RIT and St. John Fisher and football at Pal-Mac.

“And if someone calls, I’ll entertain job offers," he said only half-jokingly.

JoAnn Lanning is a two-time cancer survivor so if Dave ever needs to look determination and inspiration in the eye, he merely looks across the breakfast table.

Or at a player in the batter's box, with braces on his legs, his bat cocked high.

All of the Challenger kids have touched him in some way. From the kid who spits, digs in his cleats and points his bat to the wall. To the boy with no right hand clutching a bat and swinging his body into the ball. To the girl “running’’ to first base, her wheelchair kicking up dust.

“They all have touched me in their own way because they are all different," Lanning said. “Brendan, obviously, starting out. He was one of my guys and it was great seeing him involved. But really, too many names to recall. We’ve had kids with all manner of disabilities that just keep going. Guys and gals I’ve watched grow up into young men and women and that’s pretty cool, too."

Julien said those involved in Challenger Baseball feel inspired by Lanning’s dedication, too. Each Saturday, he’ll pitch two games, one for the younger kids, one for the older kids, and do a skills session in between.

“He’s there for every game," Julien said. “The kids absolutely love him and it just wouldn’t be the same program without him."

“That’s the nature of his character,’’ Riordan said. “He was always very committed to his teams, his players and the game. With Challenger Baseball, it just speaks volumes for the kind of guy he is to still be involved almost 30 years later."

“They keep trotting me out there,’’ Lanning said. “They must see something.’’

What they see is the Nolan Ryan of Challenger Baseball. A guy with a heart worthy of Cooperstown.