University City

League works miracles for special needs

Bill Allen has traveled around the country and seen a lot of major league baseball. But it may be that the players who have had the deepest effect on him never have worn a professional uniform.

In recent years, The Miracle League, a nationwide organization that provides opportunities for youth with special needs to play baseball, has worked its way into Major League Baseball cities and into Allen's life.

This year, Allen will help the Miracle League come into the lives of children and their families in the Charlotte metro area.

In December, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte's University City branch announced a partnership with The Miracle League of Charlotte, of which Allen is a co-founder. The league will construct a field at the local facility starting in April and plans to play its first full season in the fall.

Allen, 62, a Charlotte businessman, is a minority investor with the Charlotte Knights, the Triple A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox in the International League, and two Major League teams: the Pittsburgh Pirates and the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers.

In May 2009, Allen and his wife, Sharon, attended the grand opening of a Miracle League field outside Pittsburgh that was financially supported by then-Pirates star Freddy Sanchez. Allen said the father of special-needs child quit his job as a bank executive to direct the local program.

"It blew me away," said Allen. "Freddy Sanchez said it was absolutely the best $50,000 he ever spent in his life.

"I called the Miracle League headquarters in Atlanta. ... I said this is something we have to do."

Allen said Miracle League leaders told him a couple of attempts already had been made to start a program in Charlotte. One started play at the Marion Diehl Center in Charlotte in 2005, then moved to Concord a couple of years later.

The Miracle League of Concord once had 30 to 40 players each Sunday for its six-week season, but participation has dwindled to about 10 players a week in recent years. League leaders are trying to rekindle interest.

The Concord league plays on a dirt-and-grass field, better suited for regular baseball play, at the former Odell Elementary School at Odell School Road and N.C. 73. It once had plans to raise money for a Miracle League-endorsed all-weather field, but those efforts ceased several years ago.

It is in field construction that Allen is being most active. Allen said he spoke with a couple of Charlotte-area organizations about partnering to construct a field, but an agreement on a location could never be reached.

Through his participation with the Rangers' charitable arm, Allen learned of a Miracle League field being built in Arlington, Texas - the Rangers' home - through a partnership with the YMCA.

Allen could have kicked himself for not thinking sooner of the Y, he said.

In July, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte suggested Allen consider sites at one of four of its facilities. The first one he looked at was the University City YMCA.

It was also the last one he looked at.

Listing the features of an existing diamond used for tee ball, coach-pitch baseball and summer camp programs, Allen said, "It has ample on-grade parking. It is an already-developed athletic field. It has an existing accessible playground. And it has a picnic shelter."

Those are all features important to athletes who want to have fun but who may be assisted by wheelchairs, prosthetics, orthotics or other such aids.

The Miracle League modifies play so all its players can maximize the opportunity to participate in a baseball game. Volunteers, or "buddies," assist each participant. Every player gets to bat in every inning and gets to score a run.

University City YMCA executive director Paul Petr said The Miracle League will complement the organization's youth sports programs, although the Miracle League is also open to adult play.

"I'm the executive director, so I want to do what's right for this Y and this community," Petr said. "... But it's kind of hard not to be giddy and excited for it on a personal level as well."