We All Play Ball
Miracle League of Grand Island in Grand Island, N.Y.
By Dawn Klingensmith
Designed to enable kids and adults with special needs to take part in America's favorite pastime, Miracle League baseball fields number 270—and counting—across the United States as well as in Mexico, Canada and Australia. Their histories tend to have key elements in common, including the cast of characters: at least one child who wants to play baseball but can't; someone who wants to do something about it; and a team of volunteers, donors and other visionaries who help make it happen. There are common challenges along the way, such as raising the necessary funds. And the time and effort devoted to each project lead to the same happy ending—when the child and others like her get the chance to play ball.
Jim Dobmeier, founder and president of Surface America, knows of many Miracle League stories because his company is one of the select few that provide surfacing for the specially designed fields. "All of the stories have elements in common," he said, "but each one is also unique."
Perhaps that's why he has difficulty choosing just one Miracle League story to tell. Stipulating that every Miracle League project deserves notice, he decides on one that is close to home—his company is based in Williamsville, N.Y., and the ballpark is in nearby Grand Island—and has an unusual twist. While it is common for Major League Baseball players and teams to support Miracle League projects, Grand Island has ongoing support from the National Hockey League's Buffalo Sabres.
The Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association each contributed $75,000 for the construction of the complex and were present for the groundbreaking and grand opening, even throwing out the first pitch. "To have professional athletes come in there and just very humbly lend a hand really added to the joy and excitement," Dobmeier said.
However, long before the Sabres' involvement, there was a child with a need and a woman with a vision. Inspired by her niece who has spina bifida, Teresa Hooper initially pictured an accessible playground, but put that dream on hold as plans for an accessible baseball field started to gain traction. By this time, Hooper had assembled a group of fellow dreamers and doers, and they'd found out about the national Miracle League organization. In January 2011, Hooper co-founded Miracle League of Grand Island and Western New York Inc.
The Grand Island town board was quick to support the group and offered land within a sports complex where Little Leaguers play. Because of the proximity, Miracle Leaguers enjoy support from families who walk over to cheer them on.
The national organization sent specifications regarding surfacing and grading requirements for the adapted fields, as well as the modified rules of the game. "Miracle League is a membership organization. Fields must be built to our standards by an approved vendor," said Executive Director Diane Alford, adding that the requirements minimize risk and help ensure that anyone can play regardless of physical ability.
There are three types of approved surfacing: poured-in-place rubber, short-nap turf, and a product that rolls out and glues onto an asphalt subsurface. Sponsors' logos can be embedded in the rubber surfacing.
"The turf system is a little less popular, but some people like to replicate the look of real grass," Dobmeier said. "Wheelchair users have no problem with it. It wouldn't be much different from wheeling across a very short-nap carpet."
Children without disabilities serve as "buddy" helpers, assisting players at bat and around the bases. At Grand Island's first game, in 2012, it was decided that parents would not serve as buddies. There were plenty of volunteers, and organizers felt that the parents would gain by watching their kids work with a buddy. One reluctant mother later thanked organizers for making her sit and watch her daughter blossom with a buddy.
For everyone involved, Miracle League baseball can be a transformative experience. "Some of these kids, once they realize they can play baseball, they know they can fulfill other dreams and heart's desires," Alford said.
And speaking of heart's desires, Hooper got hers when an accessible playground was added this summer to the Miracle League baseball complex.
"All Miracle League fields are so special to communities and families and children," Dobmeier said. "Baseball is the American pastime. The downtime between the action encourages people to interact and socialize. It's usually played in beautiful weather. Every child should have the opportunity to play baseball."