By Jim Henry

Zachary Alejandro was busy Tuesday night at Joe Becker Stadium.

After taking his turn at bat, he was standing in the infield near the pitcher when he turned and asked, “One of you guys want my autograph or something?”

Alejandro was one of approximately 20 players, ages 4 through 19, who participated in the Challenger Sports baseball game with the Slashers.

“Batting is more fun,” Alejandro said. “I love hitting ... hitting, batting, all of it.”

Alejandro, who turns 13 next month, also hustled around the bases with the aid of his forearm supports, prompting one of the Slashers to say Alejandro was faster than he was.

“I know,” Alejandro responded.

The Slashers pitchers didn’t get a single batter out, and they could not have been happier about it.

“It’s awesome to see these guys out here,” said Joe Walton. “It’s a blast. You take for granted being able just to walk out here and pick up a ball and be able to play every day. It’s phenomenal to see these kids out here just as happy as can be. I love it. It’s great.”

“Baseball is the most fun,” said Andy Shepherd, smiling from his wheelchair.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said the Slashers’ Tyler Bess, from Brooksville, Ky. “We’re only here for a couple of months out of the year, so anytime we can be a part of the community and help it grow and help the Slashers grow, it’s a good community effort.

“It makes a lot of the guys realize how fortunate they are, too. ... It only takes 30 minutes out of the day to make the kids smile, so that’s pretty good.”

“This is great for the kids to get to do,” said Linda Shepherd, Andy’s grandmother. “Andy did this two years ago. Last year we didn’t get to because he’s a CMN (Children’s Miracle Network) poster child, and we were at a CMN function when they were doing this.

“This means a lot to these kids, and I’ll tell you what, the Challenger sports means a lot to these kids. It really does.”

Challenger Sports, Inc., is in its 14th year, said executive director and founder Jon Tupper. They will continue their baseball season each Tuesday night through the end of July.

“We used to do this with the USA Baseball players all the time,” Tupper said. “When I got affiliated with the Slashers, we started doing it with them.

“It’s kind of two-fold. The kids get a real kick out of coming out here. These guys (Slashers) are pro players to them. The thing we try to get across to the players is never take for granted the ability and the talents you have. A lot of these kids weren’t necessarily born this way. It happened because of an accident or all kinds of different reasons. We try to express to them to never take for granted that you’re too good and better than everyone else. Enjoy the game for what it’s worth ... truly enjoy the game for the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Sixteen-year-old Alec Eubanks wore a Boston Red Sox T-shirt with the No. 24 and Ramirez on the back. In his final trip to the plate, he launched a shot over everyone’s head toward left-center, and he briefly stayed at home plate to admire the drive, a la Manny Ramirez.

But Eubanks quickly set the record straight.

“Of course, I’m a Cardinals fan,” he said. “They’re doing well. I like the Red Sox, but I’m a Cardinals fan first.”

“His grandmother brought him the Red Sox shirt from Boston,” said Darin Eubanks, Alec’s father. “But he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Cardinals fan. He knows all their names, numbers, everything.”

As far as sharing the field with the Slashers, “This is cool,” Alec Eubanks said. “I do watch them during the year.”

“This is a chance for some less fortunate kids to come out and play a great game,” said Brad Workman, from Webb City. “They don’t have the every day opportunity that we do. I’m just glad to be able to help out.

“I have a cousin who actually played in the Challenger League. We went to a couple of his games and helped him out.”

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