The Ridge Meadows Royals didn’t have any hesitation in naming one of their own the minor baseball association’s most inspirational player.
Peewee right-fielder Vincent Savenkoff had just spent the past year volunteering with the new Challenger Baseball program, and his passion for the game was on full display whether he was working or playing.
That made him an easy choice for the Jesse Herman Most Inspirational Player award, which was presented to him by the Ridge Meadows Minor Baseball Association during a practice on Thursday.
The award is named after a skilled Royals player who was tragically killed in a car crash when he was 18. Jesse’s girlfriend, Kaalia Willett, 17, was also killed in the crash.
Jesse’s twin brother Randy, who also played with the Royals when he was younger, presented the award to Savenkoff, who was thrilled by the recognition.
“I’m really honoured,” said the 12-year-old, who just finished Grade 7 at Maple Ridge elementary. “I wasn’t expecting this at all. It’s a cool feeling.”
Vincent’s mother Kristy watched proudly from the side of the field as her son claimed his award.
“He’s earned it, that’s for sure,” she said.
Savenkoff has been playing baseball since he was four years old, and his genuine love for the game has made him humble in the face of such recognition.
“He was surprised to receive an award just for doing something that he loves to do,” Kristy Savenkoff wrote in an earlier email.
That passion is what led him to volunteering for the Challenger program — in fact, he was the first Royal to sign up.
Challenger Baseball, a national program sponsored by the Toronto Blue Jays’ Care Foundation, encourages kids ages four to 18 with cognitive or physical disabilities to get involved with the game.
Volunteers, or “buddies,” pair up with the participants and help them with playing the game to the best of their abilities.
As the Ridge Meadows Challenger program coordinator Heather Van Oene recalls, she was blessed to have Savenkoff ready and willing to jump into the program from the start.
“He showed up on the very first day ready to work,” Van Oene said. “There was no hesitation. No one ever had to tell him, ‘Do this, do that.’
“Lots of kids — adults, too — can get frustrated when working with kids with disabilities,” she added. “But Vincent was a natural. He took to it really easily.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about Savenkoff. Everyone, from fellow players to his coaches, all see his leadership potential and passion on display.
“I can say that he is a hard worker that loves the game of baseball,” Savenkoff’s new coach Patrick Whitford wrote in an email.
“Very rare do you see him without a smile on his face when he is at baseball. He wants to get better and works very hard on his skills. He takes ownership for his mistakes and doesn’t make excuses.”
Van Oene says Savenkoff personifies how important and special the Challenger program is, not just for the players and their parents, but for the buddies as well.
“We really want this program to grow and grow,” she said, “and to have people like Vincent be a part of this, who’s so inspiring to the kids playing and to others who may want to volunteer as well, that will help us grow and reach more kids.
“We’re honoured to have him,” she added.
As for Savenkoff, he’s not letting the award get to his head. He just wants to keep playing and volunteering, feeding his love of baseball.
“[The Challenger program] was really fun, and I hope to do it again next year,” he said as he headed back into practice after the award presentation.
“I just want to keep playing.”