University City

In the Miracle League, everyone gets a chance at bat

Aaron Rhodes, 7, of Mint Hill rounds third base while his volunteer buddy, Pete Checki, of Charlotte, cheers him on.
Aaron Rhodes, 7, of Mint Hill rounds third base while his volunteer buddy, Pete Checki, of Charlotte, cheers him on. LISA THORNTON

Drive by any baseball diamond on a Saturday morning this time of year, and you’ll catch an eyeful of young players swinging bats, running bases, and chasing balls.

The same holds true at the YMCA Miracle League field in University City. Now in its sixth season, the league created for children and young adults with physical and cognitive disabilities has grown by leaps and bounds, nearly doubling its number of athletes for this spring.

“We started with 40 kids and we’re up to 75 now,” said Emily Brown, the league’s coordinator. “The word just keeps getting out. We’ve got 18 new players this season.”

Its success has hinged on the principle that everyone gets to play. The $1 million field made of rubber allows wheelchairs, walkers and canes to glide smoothly from base to base. The rules are the same as any other baseball game, with a few variations – no strikes, balls or outs. Games are kept at two innings, and they always end in a tie.

The advertised age to join ranges from 5-18, but the league has accepted players from 4 to 30.

For parents, the league satisfies a need they’ve yearned to be filled for a long time – the chance for their children with disabilities to join an athletic program just like anyone else.

“We’ve always wanted him to have his own thing,” said Amy Rhodes, whose son Aaron, 7, joined the league its inaugural year. “His brother swims and does gymnastics, and his sister swims and does gymnastics, but baseball is all Aaron’s, and that’s special for him. That’s something he can call his own.”

Miracle League fields began springing up in 2000, with the first one constructed in Atlanta. Today, 275 leagues span the world, serving 200,000 children and young adults.

University City YMCA’s Miracle League launched in 2012 after Charlotte Knight’s co-owner Bill Allen donated the money to have the special diamond built.

Ongoing corporate and individual donations help pay for field maintenance, team uniforms and scholarships for those who cannot pay the $35 fee.

Each Saturday during the eight-week season, six teams take turns on the field. The announcer plays batters’ theme songs as they assume their places behind home plate. They range from Elmo’s theme to “Uptown Funk.” The fans in the stands, made up of families and volunteers, reward good hits with eruptions of cheers.

The athletes come from all over to play. The Rhodes travel from Mint Hill. Others, such as the Whitleys, make their way from McAdenville.

“This is his Saturday after a hard workweek,” said Teresa Whitley, whose son Chris, 30, plays in the league. “He wouldn’t miss it.”

The bonds that have formed between players have been inspirational.

Aaron and Chris joined the team during the same season. Both were born with cerebral palsy and used walkers to get around the field their first two seasons. They both worked hard to drop their walkers during the third season, drawing motivation and encouragement from each other.

“Now he’s out here literally running from base to base,” said Aaron’s dad, Dennis. “For a kid who you never knew for sure if he would walk, it’s just amazing to see the progress he’s made on the field.”

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at lisathornton@carolina.rr.com.

Learn more

For information on the University City YMCA Miracle League, go to www.ymcacharlotte.org//branches/universitycity/socialresp/ymcamiracleleague/ymcamiracleleague.aspx

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