The players that you see on TV and on the field, grew up with the hopes of one day being able to live out their dream to be a professional baseball player. They played little league, AAU, high school and in a lot of cases, college ball. When they reached the big leagues for the first time, they know they have attained their ultimate goal and made their dream come true. We are taught with hard work, any dream can become a reality.
Some kids however, are dealt a tough deck of cards and while they dream of being in the big leagues, a disability can hinder that. In 1998 however, The Miracle League helped change these kids lives in a big way.
The Miracle League is an organization that allows kids with disabilities to play baseball in the spring and fall. The field is an all-rubber surface for the kids protection and like t-ball, there is no winner or loser, just kids participating and having fun.
In 2009, Mike Sherry moved up from Alabama and after seeing how the Miracle League changed lives down there, he wanted to make a difference in the Pittsburgh area.
“It all started while my wife, my son and I were living in Birmingham, Alabama,” Sherry said. “They had the grand opening down there and we walked away with a pretty good memory of the league. Years later, we moved to Pitt and we noticed that our young daughter was having development issues. She was diagnosed with Autism in 2007. With our daughter’s condition and seeing the effect the Miracle League had in Alabama, it propelled us to bring one of those to Pittsburgh.”
Sherry had a strict deadline to meet to raise the money, and sure enough in 2009, the field opened in Cranberry township. Unlike the other Miracle Leagues, Sherry’s follows the same basic rules, but his is broken down into three different divisions.
“Our Miracle Division is for children between five and 18 that have special needs, it’s the primary demographic league,” Sherry said. “We quickly found out when talking to groups that there was a need for adults and just because you turn 18 or 19, you don’t lose your disability, so we created the adult league.”
“Then there’s the competitive league. A lot of kids with special needs understand baseball. We created a competitive league for those kids so they have a more traditional league. That makes the miracle league that much special.”
With the success that the one in Cranberry has seen, they wanted to expand to more locations around the Pittsburgh area.
“One of our goals is continue to grow,” Sherry said. “Everyone was congratulatory in Cranberry for the Miracle League, but we want one in each community. That’s where I talked to Sean Casey and worked with him to build one there in Upper St. Clair. South Hills is a good geographical location. Murrysville and Wheeling are on the way also.”
Casey of course, is the former Major League first baseman and current analyst on the MLB Network. Casey has spent time in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Boston in his career, along with other stops, but is originally from the Pittsburgh area. When Sherry approached him with the idea, he was thrilled.
“I had known about a friend in Cincinnati who had built a field, and I had wanted to build one when I was done playing. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and we got the ball rolling,” Casey said. “I had to raise over a million dollars to start. One of the biggest reasons I wanted to do this is my sister-in-law has special needs.”
Casey and Maura Rodgers helped launch the new Miracle League field just a few months ago giving the organization over 250 in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. Casey said it’s all about the kids.
“These kids are awesome and even though they have a disability, they are normal kids,” Casey said. “The field is way to let them have a place to play and be one team; Everyone needs a buddy. It’s great for the community and great for kids to volunteer and parents to watch their kids.”
During the grand opening, Pirates players Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli were among those in attendance. Just before the All-Star break, Jared Hughes, Mike McKenry and Casey McGehee all stopped up to the field to surprised the kids.
“It was a beautiful field, the facility there is great,” Hughes said. “I think it was just a good morning to go out and have fun with the youth that was there. Disabilities or not, everybody was having fun. It’s a game, you’re meant to have fun when you play it.”
McKenry said while the players were there to see the kids, it felt as if the kids were actually there to see them.
“It’s an indescribable experience. Those kids have such a joy and love in their hearts for us,” McKenry said. “It’s almost like they came there for us instead of us going there for them. It’s real special and it brings the little kid side out in you.”
As for McGehee, he feels really strongly about the organization because it hits close to home.
“It’s something that I’m glad to be able to do and am definitely passionate about being that my son has a disability himself,” McGehee explained. “It’s just nice to be able to go out there and interact with people and put a smile on somebody’s face. We had just as much fun as they did being able to go out there and run around with them. It was a good event all the way around.”
McKenry said that he left the appearance feeling inspired, especially by one boy in particular.
“It was real inspiring to me. I had a little kid that had braces on, had two crutches on his arms that just wanted to run to second base over and over and over again,”McKenry said with a smile on his face. “It was awesome. It truly was a priceless moment.”
When seeing these kids go out there and play, the players see it as a humbling experience that they are able to do this as their job.
“Yeah it’s absolutely humbling,” Hughes said “It’ll help me to keep things in perspective a little bit better.”
“I think it’s humbling,” McGehee added. “It’s good to put that in perspective from time to time. Just to be able to see the joy that they have to be able to go out there and play just reminds me how much fun this game is. It’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience. It definitely kind of puts things in perspective.”
Sherry said having the players come out and affect the lives of others in a positive way is big for the community.
“It’s not winning for ourselves, it’s helping others win,” Sherry said. “The foundation of that is that these players that come out get a sense of gratification affecting lives in positive way. Plus I think they become humbled.”
As a former big leaguer, Casey said that athletes need to take advantage of being a role model and have people look up to them.
“When you play in the big leagues, you have a chance to impact the people. The kids know who these guys are,” Casey said. “It’s a great experience for them to meet them and it’s a very humbling experience for the athletes, because they’re human first. I think that’s the great thing you realize is you have such an opportunity to make impact on the community. It makes a difference for everyone, not just these kids.”
The league starts back up in September both in Cranberry and Upper St. Clair. McGehee said this is something he wants to continue to help with.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but obviously my situation, I try to stay as involved as I can,” McGehee said. “Hopefully this is something that we can continually be a part of and be involved in. Maybe even try to get more involved than we already are. It would be great if we could continue to work with them.”
Sherry said next to giving children and adults a chance to play baseball, it allows kids to have their right to quality of life.
“It gives the quality of life and inclusion that all children should experience,” Sherry said. “Inclusion is not a program or opportunity, it’s a right. Everyone should have an opportunity to have a right to get involved with the community.”
McKenry said he and his teammates could learn a lot from these kids.
“They’re finding joy in life. That’s what life is all about, no matter what life throws at you. You just have to enjoy it,” McKenry said. “You can’t control a lot of things that come into your life. You just got to go about life, be happy and be joyful. You have to enjoy life. That’s what those kids are doing. They’re a true inspiration to us and we can learn a lot from them.”
For more information, you can visit the official Miracle League site: http://www.miracleleague.com/
Photo Credits: Pittsburgh Pirates