A diamond of miracles

November 9, 2006

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.


Gotta hankerin’ for a fling? Howza bout a hobby!

August 27, 2006

I’ve been talking about getting a larger motorcycle lately. I tell my wife that I’d really like something just a little bigger, something that won’t settle down on the back tire when I have a passenger and hit a bump. Something that will get up and go out of the driveway without me worrying about the next gravel truck coming round the bend.

I tell her this and she just looks at me like I’m wasting money.

So one day I just happened to mention this to some friends at the coffeehouse one day and one of them tells me to drop hints that feeding my hobby keeps me from “wandering” in other ways.

What? I say. Threaten her with marital infidelity if I don’t get my way?

Don’t threaten, he says, just drop hints that wandering around the roads on a bigger bike keeps you from wandering around with some young thing.

So there it is. You got a hankerin’ for some side fling with a little chippy? Well don’t let those wanton feelings take control; go get yourself a hobby instead. Is this the true secret to marital bliss?

Besides my fondness for motorcycles I’m a bicycle fanatic as well (have you noticed that there’s this two-wheeled theme running in my life). At any given moment I might have upwards to five or six bikes in various stages of disassembly while I tinker with this wheel or that brake or those gears. Never has my wife ever told me to pick up the parts and get rid of the damn things. She’s always tolerated my fondness for bicycles. Probably because they’re cheap (I usually work on old bikes purchased from second’s stores) and they provide a level of exercise I might not otherwise get. The bicycles can also create some common ground between the sons and me.

But it’s worth saying again: never has my wife complained about my bicycles laying about the barn. Maybe she knows something I don’t know. Let him have a harmless hobby like bicycles and he will never wander.

Now I have a friend suggesting I use the same approach to getting a new motorcycle. Well, not a new one, a used one that’s just a little bigger. Hmmm, have I been a fool to my spouse all along? Have I been a pawn in her little game to keep me home and happy?

And of course all this discussion brings up another issue. I’ve had a few acquaintances that have dallied a bit on the side. Should I perhaps suggest a hobby for them? Maybe get them to take an interest in kite flying or model shipbuilding – anything that will divert their attention away from that cute little babe who’s been showing them attention.

Then again, maybe it’s the person and not the hobby. I suspect my wife knows that it’s my love and respect for her that really keeps me at home – that and the fact that we have a really great relationship (nyahhh to all of you who don’t). So now it appears that fooling around won’t be much of a useful threat to feeding and expanding my hobby. This raises a new issue: I really want a bigger motorcycle, what kind of trickery must I employ to get her to let me buy it?

You say tomato: I say tomahto. You say murdercycle: I say motorcycle.

May 30, 2006

I had this uncle. He was one of this countries most respected doctors. He had done med school at the University of Chicago. After med school, intern, residency, etc. he went to work at Johns Hopkins University for many years before returning to the University of Chicago. He was tops in his field of anesthesiology.

He also was a bit arrogant, as many doctors can be, and he hated motorcycles.

“I hear you purchased a murdercycle,” he once grumbled after my parents told him about my first bike.

“Oh no,” I replied, “It’s a little motorcycle. Nothing special, just something to get me around.”

“Yeah, well it’s still a death machine on two wheels. Do you know how many motorcycle accident victims I see coming through the emergency room every year?”

My uncle then proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes giving me a lecture on body trauma injuries, head trauma injuries, and just about any other trauma injuries he could bring up. He concluded with one of my favorite lines. “Do you know what we physicians call a motorcyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet? Organ donors. Because after they’re braindead we can still harvest the organs for someone else.”

Don’t get me wrong. He truly was a great guy. He loved the academia of what he did; he loved the challenge, he loved the problem solving and deep down inside I think he truly loved humanity — he wouldn’t have been a doctor if he didn’t. But I loved the motorcycles and I wasn’t about to give up riding because of his, or anyone else’s opinion on the state of road safety in America.

However I did promise to wear a helmet and I still do to this day.

But I find myself becoming more and more annoyed by all the prognosticators who feel the need to tell me about how dangerous it is on a motorcycle. When I had wiring problems with my first bike, the chopped Honda 350, I took it to a guy in my town who was willing to redo the wiring for me. I purchased a new wiring harness and showed up at his place with harness and bike.

Sometime between our discussion on the phone and my arrival he had experienced some kind of transformation that I can only describe as something on the level of a religious conversion. He began to lecture me on the dangers of riding. Seems he had been in an accident himself (at some point long before we discussed the rewiring, mind you) and he was now having second thoughts about restoring my bike to running condition. He concluded his 15-minute diatribe by informing me that he could no longer bring himself to fixing my bike. He didn’t want the responsibility.

Well gee, he could have called me back before I hauled the vehicle to his house. At the very least, we could have had this discussion before I unloaded the bike from the pickup truck.

For one brief moment I felt as if I was back in Cincinnati where I occasionally encountered the soapbox preachers who stand on the street corners and shout out how all us sinners will burn when the world ends tomorrw. I thanked the reluctant repairman for his time and got out of there fast.

Yep, I know. Riding the motorcycle can be a bit risky. So can driving a car. How many times have you almost been creamed by someone on a cell phone while driving around in their way too big SUV? But come on, seriously, eating red meat involves a certain amount of risk, and the same can be said about fish.

Our love affair with sweets also carries a risk if you constantly overindulge.

My point: I know riding is risky but I become more vigilant on my motorcycle than other vehicles I ride or drive (with the exception of my bicycle). I constantly tell my kids that you always assume that every driver on the road is an idiot — this is my way of prepping them for their diver’s license.

“Even if it’s you?” they ask.

“Even if it’s me,” I reply.

My oldest son once questioned if I wasn’t just overgeneralizing a bit. I explained that not all drivers are truly idiots but if you assume they are then you put yourself into the right frame of mind for defensive driving. Assume they are idiots, watch them like they are idiots and take evasive action when they act like idiots.

Yep, riding comes with risk but we do what we can to reduce the risk while still having some fun.