A diamond of miracles

Between work and graduate, school keeping up with this blog has been a chore so I’ve decided to cheat a little bit. For the next couple of weeks I’ll be using some of the feature stories I’ve written over the past year. — dlb

This article first appeared May 3, 2005

A diamond of miracles

Ohio’s new baseball league for the mentally and physically challenged

“If we were to tell you about an organized youth baseball league, you might call it ordinary,” – Miracle League of Central Ohio Web site.

Some have taken to calling it a field of dreams. Others say it is a league of their own. No matter what anyone wants to call it, a baseball league developed for physically and mentally challenged children, whatever the level of their ability, truly deserves to be called a miracle.

That’s what Terry Lyden, a Dublin, Ohio businessman, thought back in 2001. He was watching Real Sports, an HBO sports magazine program hosted by Bryant Gumbel, when he was drawn into a segment about a new youth baseball league called the Miracle League.

The Miracle League is a little league baseball program designed for kids with a range of mental and physical special needs. The league got its start in Conyers, Georgia in 1998, with 35 players on four teams.

The impetus for the idea came a year before when Eddie Bagwell, a Rockdale County Youth Baseball Association coach, noticed a child sitting in a wheelchair on the sidelines at every practice and game. The youngster was there to cheer on his older brother, who played for Bagwell’s team.

Bagwell invited the 7-year-old to play on his little league team. That one small gesture, on a Georgia ballfield, started a revolution in baseball that has spread from suburban Atlanta to 63 fields, built or under construction, in 33 states and Canada.

Back in Dublin, Lyden reacted to the Real Sports story by thinking, “What a great idea, I should do this.” But life and work got in the way. Before long, Lyden found himself bogged down in work and soon forgot all about the Miracle League.

Then three years later in 2004, Lyden was watching Real Sports again and saw another segment about the Miracle League. Lyden decided he wasn’t going to let the idea slip away again. So he went to the Miracle League Web site and found the information he needed to become a member. He paid the membership fee, requested a starter kit, and put in motion the process of creating the Miracle League of Central Ohio.

What happened next would be a whirlwind of activity that was only to be slowed by the onset of winter.

Lyden wanted to establish the league in Dublin. As Fred Hahn, Dublin’s Director of Parks and Open Spaces remembers, “Terry thought it should be in Dublin because he’s a Dublin resident, and Dublin is known for their emphasis on parks.” In a stroke of good fortune, Dublin was just beginning to consider expanding Darree Fields, a park with existing sports fields and playgrounds. There were no plans for the park, yet – just ideas for a new direction. Enough land already existed at Darree Fields to accommodate one more diamond, so the idea of a Miracle League ballfield fit nicely into Darree Fields.

In October 2004, the Dublin city council agreed to donate the land to build Ohio’s first Miracle League baseball diamond. The city would also commit money for a shelter facility and a universally accessible playground adjacent to the Miracle League field. But the ballfield would not be limited to just the children of Dublin. With an estimated 20,000 challenged children in the area, it was decided to open the league up to any eligible ballplayer, ages 3 – 19, in the Central Ohio area.

Now with the land for the ballfield, and commitments from the city of Dublin, the next step was to begin raising money, and to create partnerships to build the field and adjoining facilities.

Diane Alford, executive director and the only employee in the Miracle League’s national office, estimates that it takes about $500,000 to build a ballfield. That’s why the national office provides starter kits. Alford said that membership in the Miracle League costs $500, but the up-front investment is returned many times over because of marketing materials, media releases, and promotional DVD’s provided by the national office to their members. The national office also provides other services, like architectural drawings, and a negotiated price break for the playing field surface.

The national office suggests a field size of 15,200 square feet, measuring 115 feet from home plate to the center field fence. Dublin decided it wanted a larger field, so the Miracle League of Central Ohio settled on a field of 20,000 square feet, measuring 135 feet from home plate to the center field fence. However, Dublin decided it wanted to build more than just the ballfield, so the planners also included lights, a grandstand, dugouts, a picnic and pavilion area, and private changing rooms. The estimated cost rose to $650,000.

Accomplishing all of this might have been a daunting task without a coalition of determined and dedicated people. From the beginning, Lyden had the support of Dublin City officials, including Mayor Marilee Chinnici-Zuercher, who actively sought supporters. What may have been her best find is when she put Don Hunter, Senior Vice President with Duke Realty Corporation, in touch with Lyden.

Hunter says, “Our organization was brainstorming where we can help a group, and utilize our expertise.” When the idea of the Miracle League was presented to Hunter, he found an opportunity for his organization to make a contribution. In the end, Hunter and Duke Construction Company, a subsidiary of Duke Realty Corporation, agreed to donate its services and run the construction process. Duke would take it on as a construction project. They would coordinate the design, technical services, and all the contractors.

Now with a large partner, and well-known sponsor, in place, those spearheading the project knew getting donations of money and in-kind services would start to get easier.

In other cities across the country, Rotary Clubs were joining in the support of the special ballfields. So Chinnici-Zuercher, a member of Dublin’s AM Rotary Club, decided to enlist the aid of her club. Chinnici-Zuercher went forward and convinced her chapter to adopt the Central Ohio ballfield as their centennial project. The Rotary Club also committed volunteers in leadership and organization, as well as additional money.

With fund-raising, logistics, and volunteers all under way and falling in line, the time was fast approaching to start building the facilities. In less than eight months, from the first discussion between Lyden and city officials, Dublin was ready to break ground in May. An amazing turn-around time for any bureaucratic institution although, as Lyden is quick to point out, if it hadn’t been for winter, they would have started sooner.

Building a ballfield may not be as hard as it sounds – plant some grass, put down some dirt for the base paths, and install home plate and the bases. But that isn’t the case with a Miracle League ballfield. The field itself may be the largest and most expensive piece of the project. It is different from any other little league ballfield; these ballfields have to be completely and universally accessible, and they have to be safe.

The Miracle Field is made up of a rubberized material; similar to the material used for Olympic tracks. Because some players may be in wheelchairs, blind, or suffer from a multitude of challenges that affect their mobility, the fields have to be completely flat. There is no pitcher’s mound. The playing field is painted onto the surface including the diamond, home plate, and the bases. And the seams of the rubberized surface are kept to a minimum so there is nothing to impede the movement of the players. The surface of the field has to be a balance between a surface soft enough to provide some cushion for players who might fall, and yet still be hard enough to support a player in a wheelchair.

One other major difference between a little league game and a Miracle League game, are the rules. When the first Miracle League started back in 1998, there were no established rules for the highly specific game. The model that would be accepted is very similar to T-Ball League rules. The rules, simply stated on the National Miracle League’s Web site, are:
• Every player bats once each inning
• All base runners are safe
• Every player scores a run before the inning is over (last one up gets a homerun)
• Community children and volunteers serve as “buddies” to assist the players
• Each team and player wins every game

“If we were to tell you the athletes are physically and mentally challenged, you might call it touching,” – Miracle League of Central Ohio Web site.

Deborah Sanders son, Deonte Brey of Columbus, was the first registered player with the Miracle League of Central Ohio. 7-year-old Deonte has mental and physical challenges. For Sanders, the Miracle League is creating an opportunity for her son, and other special needs kids, to break through the perceived boundaries of their disabilities. This will be her son’s first opportunity to play baseball. Says Sanders, “We can not wait until opening season.”

To hear the stories, to see the work of volunteers, and to read the parent’s comments on the Web site should be enough to declare it a Miracle League. But it is the idea of the “buddy” that truly elevates the league to a higher level.

Madison Reed has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neuromuscular disease which affects her head and neck control, as well as swallowing, breathing, sitting and walking. The 8-year-old is dependent on someone for everything. Madison’s mother Annette Reed says, “The Miracle League is the only program that will provide an opportunity for my daughter to actively participate in a sport and be a part of a team.” She thinks Madison will gain experience in sportsmanship, teamwork, and fellowship. Madison thinks it will be great fun to have help hitting the ball and “running” the bases, and she’s thrilled to participate with friends who are just like her.

In a Miracle League game, each ballplayer is assigned a “buddy,” a non-challenged child who assumes certain responsibilities for his or her ballplayer. The buddy has three things to remember. First and foremost, the buddy is to assure the safety of the ballplayer. Next, the buddy assists the ballplayer with the game but, it is stressed; the buddy is not to play the game for the player. The third, and most important responsibility; the buddy is to befriend the ballplayer and get to know them – every Miracle League team has stories of ballplayers and buddies experiencing a positive change because of the relationship.

Even though the Miracle Field trend is a small one for the moment, at the national level Alford has expressed a short-term goal of building 500 fields serving 1.3 million children. Their long-term goal: a ballfield in every community. While the goals may be a bit lofty for now, Alford has gathered some major support from many major league baseball teams including the Chicago White Sox, the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Angels, the Texas Rangers, the Minnesota Twins, and the Cincinnati Reds – just to name a few.
“This it truly a field of dreams, there is no doubt that if we build it, thousands will come,” says Hunter. “There is something tangible – we can touch and feel the field.”

The biggest difference in all of this has been the rippled effect throughout the City of Dublin. Everybody involved speaks praises of the community for its support of the project. As Lyden says, “everybody is on the same page and doing it for the right purpose.” Even Hahn, the director of parks and open spaces, a man with a lot experience working on city projects, pointed out, “I have not run into one ego yet.”

If there is any wonder about what drives a community to put together such an ambitious project, Lyden is the one to ask: “This field changes lives,” he says. “Kids who have never worn a uniform, never played a sport, get to do this. Parents get to watch something their kids might never do. And buddies get an experience they never got before – many kids are changed.”

“If you were to see them play, you would call it a miracle,” – Miracle League of Central Ohio Web site.


One Response to A diamond of miracles

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