Loud cheering is typical for a Tuesday evening at the Ruth and Dennis Heindl Memorial field in DuBois. The field hosts the Challenger League on Tuesday and Thursday nights – a league meant specifically for mentally and physically disabled athletes – but according to League Commissioner Bill Cuba the league started ten years ago on a dirt softball field with only two teams.
“We were very lucky here in the last couple years, or last year I guess, to have to have this beautiful field built for us, and since then our league has really grown,” Cuba said.
The league is now up to seven teams and more than 70 participants. It is split into two groups, one for children ages 5 to 18, and a senior division available for anyone older than 15. What makes Heindl Field so special compared to other ballparks is that it was designed with disabled players – and the Challenger League – in mind.
“That was the initial thought is that we want to build this field for kids with disabilities. But as more thought went into it they kinda expanded it and said, 'Look, we could build this really nice field and let everyone play on it, but our number one priority is to make this field for kids with disabilities,'” Cuba said.
The field is not just the home for the Challenger League, but also Penn State DuBois Softball and DuBois Little League. It has even hosted the Small College Softball World Series the past two years. However, Cuba said the town has made it clear that the Challenger League has first priority to the field.
“The city of DuBois has been great saying, 'Look, this is your field. You have precedent over it. You have first dibs over anyone that’s gonna play on this field,'” he said.
Keri Cuba, Bills wife and the league’s co-commissioner, added that the Challenger League has given important opportunities to countless disabled athletes.
“Kids and adults have a love for the game of baseball and everybody wants the chance to play, and they aren’t able to be given the chance to play without a league such as ours,” she said.
Cathy McMillen, the grandmother of a player on the Champs team in the Challenger League said the field is important to her family.
“It means everything to us. It gives Draven... it gives him something to do with other kids,” McMillen said.
Bill Cuba agrees the league has had a great impact on families in the community, adding the energy at a Challenger League game is much different than you would find at a typical little league game.
“To come to a game, to one of these games, it’s a good feeling. You’ll see a lot of people are cheering. Kids on the opposing team are cheering for the other team," Cuba said. "You know what I mean, everyone is just out to have a good time. There is no coaches yelling, screaming at their kid or anything like that. It’s all just about having a good time.”
Keri Cuba said DuBois locals who don’t even have a connection to the teams will make their way to the ballpark.
“We do have a lot of community members who will ask me, 'What's your schedule? When can I come see a game? Because it’s heartwarming, it really is,” Cuba said.
Herm Suplizio, the DuBois town manager, said the field wouldn’t have been possible without generous donations from the field’s namesake Dennis Heindl, as well as Pirates Charities other DuBois businesses. Suplizio says donations like this show the impact of sports on the community.
“That's what we’re about here: bringing people together, bringing the community together. And sports is one way to do it. It shows we’re doing what’s best to bring the community together,” Suplizio said.
Bill Cuba pointed out some interesting features of the ballpark.
“It’s like a major league dugout. They’ve got a phone in there, a bathroom, in the dugout," Cuba said. "The scoreboard you’ll see tonight. Whenever they come up their picture comes up.”
In addition to these amenities, the field includes a concessions stand, accessible bleachers, a waterfall at the entrance and even a press box. Denise and Bob Good, work as volunteer public address announcers there.
“They add a special spark to the game. It’s not your normal ‘Now batting, Will Cuba,’” Cuba said.
Bob Good added, “We try to make every player feel like they are the most important person in the world. They're all all-stars in my book.”
Andy Gilbert is the president of DuBois Little League. He said the town’s support of youth sports goes beyond just the Challenger League.
“Their investment is not just in this field, but our other fields. With all the money they put into new turfing and stuff, it just shows this is a baseball-softball town. It’s been that way as long as you can remember, and it will be that way moving forward,” Gilbert said.
Bill Cuba said the field has given opportunities to people with disabilities in the DuBois area.
“These kids would not be playing baseball if it wasn’t for this field, this league, and all the people that make it happen,” he said.