Just like their Major League Baseball counterparts, officials for the Central Ohio Miracle League have a vigorous spring training schedule.

Just like their Major League Baseball counterparts, officials for the Central Ohio Miracle League have a vigorous spring training schedule.

But unlike their big league brethren, these local volunteers aren't worried about getting that extra mile per hour out of a rookie pitcher or upping the bat speed of their star designated hitter. Instead, they are working to ensure the best baseball experience possible for the hundreds of children with special needs who participate in the program each year.

And with the opening of the baseball league's fourth season set for May 3, there is a lot to do.

Last year, about 250 children ages 3 through 30 played on 16 teams on the specially designed and built Miracle Field at Dublin's Darree Fields Park.

This year, league director David Abood said, the league hopes to field 18 teams with a total of nearly 300 players.

When players return to the field, they will find alongside it a new universally accessible playground, completed late last fall. Abood said the all-volunteer organization raised about $350,000 to build the facility.

The field itself, including lights for night games, cost the organization about $350,000 with the balance of the approximately $800,000 bill covered by donated labor, materials and land. The city of Dublin also contributed handicapped-accessible restrooms and a storage facility to the complex.

This year, the organization is raising money to add a shelter at the park, at an anticipated cost of $40,000 to $50,000.

"We would love to get it done some time during the early summer for people to enjoy yet this season," Abood said. "We feel that it would allow the families to spend time there. It's out of the sun and it provides electricity. Instead of spending an hour playing baseball, now they can spend two or three hours having parties and picnics out there. We felt it was just the icing on the cake for them."

Abood said the league has grown so large that the two-inning games in which every player bats and fields run back-to-back from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. nearly every Saturday during the 10-week season. So many children want to play that games for those age 15 and up have been moved to Thursday nights.

"You hate to go into (another) day, but wow, it could happen down the road," Abood said. "It's a good problem to have."

To keep up with the program's growth, organizers of the all-volunteer league are considering hiring a full-time executive director. With virtually no advertising, Abood said, the Central Ohio Miracle League has grown to one of the largest of its kind in the country.

The league's popularity, Abood said, is a function of a pent-up demand for activities for children with disabilities, especially team sports.
"There are a lot of first times here for these kids," Abood said. "For many of these kids, it's the first time they've ever gotten to wear a uniform. It's their first time for trophies, the first time for uniforms, the first time for teammates and the first time for snacks after the game. You could just go on and on."

The unique baseball program also represents a first for many of the players' parents and gives them an experience parents of typically developing children often take for granted, Abood said.

"One of the best things abut the Miracle League is that parents can just sit back and watch," he said. "They don't have to get out there and help. It's all taken care of by our volunteers."

Each player in the league is teamed with a "buddy" or coach, with whom he or she plays throughout the season. Buddies are all volunteers and the only qualification is that they be at least 12 years old.

"People are just coming out of the ground to help us, but because we are growing, we never have enough volunteers," Abood said. "Every child has a buddy and those buddies just make it work. Without the buddies, there wouldn't be a Miracle League."

For more information about how to get involved with the Central Ohio Miracle League as a participant, volunteer or donor, go to www.ohiomiracleleague.org.

Miriam L. Segaloff lives in Gahanna with her husband and daughter. She has more than 17 years experience in writing, editing and communications.