DARIEN, Conn. — Thirteen years ago, Lynn and Mike Gagliardi were approached by Little League President Charlie Santos-Bush about an opportunity to fill a need in Darien's youth sports community. Now, the town hosts one of the largest baseball programs for athletes with special needs in the state, if not the nation.
"We started with nine players, and 12 buddies in 1998. Today, there are more than 35 players, and 45 buddies,” Lynn said as she smiled and took a bite of her arugula salad inside the Goose American Bistro and Bar. She and Mike are part owners in the business, having embraced an opportunity to rescue the original Black Goose restaurant from oblivion.
The Challenger Division is a subset of the national Little League program, targeting physically and mentally challenged athletes. As in the Special Olympics, the participants' ages range from single digits to their 20s. Athletes are also paired with area high school students as buddies on the field.
In 1998, Mike was a Little League coach and received a tape about the program. He showed it to Lynn, and along with Santos-Buch, decided to try it out. Lynn took the lead on establishing the buddy program while Mike and Charlie dove into organizing the games. Mike says Santos-Buch was the architect behind it all.
Inside the Goose, Lynn and Mike share their stories about the league and the athletes they have met. The two smile and nod, remembering tales of a player who couldn't vocalize his desires but would wake parents every Saturday morning with a mitt raised in the air. They recall another sitting at the field, waiting for his usual buddy to show up. He wouldn't play with anyone else.
“There were a lot of smiles and tears over the years,” said Lynn. The Gagliardis have since stepped back from the program because running the restaurant has cut into their time. Still, they are proud to see how much the Darien division has grown.
“It's totally one of the most rewarding things we've done,” said Mike. “You're really giving something back, and on top of that, it's just fun.”