Seven-year-old Hailie Gregory leaned against her pink cane while the pitcher rummaged through the five-gallon bucket beside her at home plate.
Inside, baseballs of every kind – spongy soft balls, rubber tee balls, even a ball that beeps – were available to help every hitter make a connection with the bat.
The announcer flicked the switch and Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” began to play over the loudspeakers. Hailie wound up her bat with the help of her buddy and swung until the sound of a metal ping, the sight of a ball whizzing past the infielders and the roar of the crowd in the bleachers sent her hustling to first base.
It’s the kind of scenario that has played out every Saturday this spring at the YMCA Miracle League field in University City. The state-of-the-art baseball diamond – with a smooth rubber surface for wheelchairs and walkers to glide easily along baselines – was built last summer for special-needs kids playing on the city’s newly formed Miracle League teams.
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Now in its second season, the league is quickly growing. This spring’s season consisted of 68 kids and six teams. That’s more than double last fall’s numbers.
For special-needs kids and their parents, the league is about much more than baseball. It’s an opportunity to belong.
“A lot of times, children with special needs are on the outside looking in,” said Matt Fitzwater, director of operations at the University City YMCA. “They never have a chance to be in a uniform on a team.”
Each week, Hailie, who was born with cerebral palsy, puts on her bright orange Orioles jersey, her gray baseball pants and her black cap for an hour in the spotlight.
For many, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had in their lives to play an organized sport, rather than just watch from the stands as a sibling plays.
“This is the only thing that has been hers, that she can call her own,” said Madison Gregory, Hailie’s stepmother. “She gets excited.”
There are no outs during games. Every child is safe, and the last one at bat always hits a homerun. Every game ends in a tie.
Each player has their own theme song when it’s their turn to bat. For Hailie, it’s Swift’s “Trouble.” Other song choices include every kind of music, from new age to heavy metal to country to hiphop.
“I asked him what he wanted to hear, and he said ‘The Chicken Dance,’ ” said Timeka Watson, whose son Giovanni, 8, plays for the Nationals.
Watson, who lives in Concord, said the Miracle League has done wonders for her autistic son.
“Giovanni has never been one to smile or engage a lot,” said Watson. “But for the first time he smiled on the field. It’s truly awesome.”
The community response to the league has been fantastic, said Fitzwater. Groups and individuals have consistently signed up to volunteer, from announcing to running the snack bar to serving as a buddy to help the players make their way around the bases.
Fitzwater hopes the success of the league will increase on par with Raleigh’s Miracle League, which has more than 350 players and holds games on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays.
He invites the public to come watch a game on Saturday.
“This is the hometown team. Come cheer us on,” he said. “I guarantee it will be the best time you’ve had.”