Giving every child a chance to play baseball

Just about every Saturday in May, June and July, at the Miracle League field in Dublin's Darree Field Park, the sounds of baseball are in the air - crowds cheering on a home run, players calling out each other's nicknames, and the bat cracking the ball.

But the site is more than just a baseball field and unique beyond just its specially designed turf. The players themselves are the miracles on this ball field.

Instead of diving into home plate, one player rolls over it in his wheelchair. Instead of stealing second base, a blind child is guided by her "buddy" on where to plant her feet. And 6-year-old Gavin Runkle reaches past the autism that often silences him and shouts in exuberance after hitting the ball.

Gavin - or "The Gavinator" as he is known on his team - is one of 300 athletes, ages 3 to 21, who take to a field designed specifically for the Miracle League of Central Ohio. It's part of an international non-profit organization devoted to letting every child experience the joy of playing ball.

"This is huge," said Erin Runkle, Gavin's mother. "He is able to come here and play in a safe environment and he is cheered on no matter what happens."

When Gavin walks off the field, he is tired but there's still a smile on his face. It is a telltale sign that what happens to Gavin on the field helps him long after he leaves.

"This is something he can do on his own," Runkle said. "It is his baseball team. He is going to score. It is a great thing for him."

The Miracle League is celebrating its sixth season this year. Children throughout Central Ohio who have mental and physical disabilities are eligible to play, beginning at age 3.

The custom-made field is designed with a cushioned synthetic surface suitable for wheelchairs and walking-assistance devices. The equipment, adapted to meet specific needs, includes audibly beeping balls and bats of various sizes to suit all players.

These athletes live with all kinds of conditions, but here they get to suit up and have their chance at bat while the crowds cheer them on through their two-inning games.

"It's the best thing I have ever done," said Joe Fox, Miracle League director. "To watch them have the opportunity to play baseball - all the smiles! It is a special place to be on a Saturday. There's a lot of cheering."

All of the athletes make their way around the bases with a buddy who provides physical assistance and emotional encouragement. The Miracle League depends on volunteers like Ray Gans, a junior at Dublin Coffman High School, to work with the young athletes.

This is Ray's fifth year volunteering as a buddy. Ray said he has seen players build confidence and experience true joy out there on the field.

"I assist my buddy in playing the game," said Ray. "I might have to help with base running or batting."

For the Bells, the Miracle League is a family affair. Brian and Denise Bell both volunteer for the league along with their daughter Ainsley. Their daughter Grayson, who has cerebral palsy, has played in the league for four years.

"It is something she can look forward to, and it is a safe environment," said Mr. Bell.

Bell said his daughter was hooked from the first time she hit the ball. Her grand-slam balls are lined up in her bedroom as a reminder of her achievements. League rules mandate a base-clearing home run at the end of each inning, ensuring that every player will at some point get to experience them.

"Her first year it was hard to get her jersey off," Bell said. "She wanted to sleep in it. It was hard to get it in the wash."

That enthusiasm is evident with every player, coach and spectator, and, standing on the perimeter of the field, it's easy to feel the impact that the Miracle League has on the lives of these children and their families.

When the Gavinator hits a home run, his mother said she knows he is doing more than just hitting the ball - he is growing. Runkle said she saw that miracle happen in his first game.

"Seeing him out there is the biggest reward I could get," Runkle said, adding, "I cried."

About the Miracle League
•The Miracle League is a non-profit organization, founded in 1998 near Atlanta, and all of its member leagues rely heavily on donations and volunteers.
•The Miracle League of Central Ohio is the second largest of its kind. There are currently 240 such leagues in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia.
•The 2011 Central Ohio season runs through July 30 on Saturdays. A Tuesday evening "Night League" also exists for athletes who may be more able bodied and have some experience playing baseball.
•The Miracle League Field is located at Darree Field Park, 6259 Cosgray Rd. in Dublin. Spectators are always welcome.

For more information, go to ohiomiracleleague.org or call 614-791-1305.