For parents, the first season their child plays Miracle League baseball at the University City YMCA can bring a lot of tears.
They love that people are cheering for their child. They love that they can sit and take a break while volunteers help their child play the game, even though for many it’s hard to separate from a child they spend so much time caring for.
“(In Miracle League), you can let them go and they’re safe and they’re happy,” said Emily Brown, who coordinates the program at the YMCA.
Miracle League, a nationwide program, was designed to give children and adults with cognitive or physical special needs a chance to play baseball, make friends and be treated like other athletes. The first Miracle League baseball field opened in Conyers, Ga., in 2000, and it was covered with rubberized turf to accommodate wheelchairs and other devices Miracle League players can use to move.
During games, each player is paired with a buddy, an able-bodied volunteer who stays with the player throughout the game. Games last two innings, and all players bat in each inning. There are not strikes or outs, and every game ends in a tie.
The Miracle League of Charlotte opened five years ago when Bill and Sharon Allen donated more than $1 million, enough to build the field and start the program. It’s one of few Miracle Leagues in North Carolina and the only one in the Charlotte area.
The Allens’ donation helped the program clear a significant hurdle, as fundraising for a Miracle League field and start-up costs can take a long time. Allen has said other groups have tried to establish a Miracle League in the area.
The Miracle League of Charlotte opened as a partnership with the YMCA, and the field was built on YMCA property.
“(Bill Allen) saw the land we had and thought it would be perfect,” Brown said.
Along with the rubberized field, the Miracle League complex has bleachers, a concessions stand and extra-wide dugouts that can accommodate wheelchairs. The whole complex is handicap accessible.
Teresa Whitley first learned about Miracle League from a television advertisement. Her son, Christopher, asked if he could play in the then-new Charlotte program.
“So I signed him up,” Whitley said. “He has loved it ever since.”
Christopher, who is now 31, played the first season of the Miracle League of Charlotte and used a walker when he batted and traveled the bases. As the years went by, he dropped the walker and used a cane instead. Now, he uses only AFOs, or foot-drop braces.
Teresa Whitley said Christopher initially worried about being the oldest player on the field, but he’s made friends through the league and “plays ball just like normal kids.”
“This Miracle League has taught my Chris that he can do anything he puts his mind to,” Whitley said. “(It) has showed us nothing but love and care nonstop.”
As for Christopher, he’ll be signing up to play in the Miracle League of Charlotte’s ninth season and will continue until he is too old to play, Whitley said.
The fall season of the Miracle League of Charlotte begins Sept. 10, and registration is open. The league has about 90 players, and Brown hopes that eventually it will grow to around 300.
Individuals and groups also are welcome to serve as buddies, umpires, DJs and pitchers, who Brown said must be able to “make the ball hit the bat.” Church groups and sports teams from regional universities have regularly been buddies.
Over the league’s five years, many players have improved tremendously, Brown said. While a tee is always available, many players can now hit a pitched ball.
Special needs range from players on the autism spectrum to players with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
“It’s just a big range, and we make it work with what they need,” Brown said. “We’ll have a kid who has cerebral palsy and never walked a day in his life, and he’s out there playing baseball.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To sign up for Miracle League Baseball at the University City YMCA, email Brown at email@example.com or visit any YMCA branch. Information is available at www.ymcacharlotte.org/branches/north/university-city/facilities/amenities/miracle-league-baseball-complex.aspx.