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'Miracle' on the ballfield

By Elizabeth LundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2004



MOODY, ALA.

Ken Ware kneels behind his son, Cal, steadying the little boy, who stands inches from a T and a bright yellow ball. Together they raise a metal bat, which slips back and bonks Dad in the head.

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"You can do it, Cal," says the game's emcee over the intercom system.

The two finally take a swing together, knocking the ball three, maybe four feet. Mr. Ware picks up the boy and runs with him past first base, second, and third. By the time they reach home plate again, everyone in the park is cheering, even the opposing team.

Sound like an unusual baseball game? It is. On this field, no one strikes out, runners are always safe, and each player gets to bat - and hit the ball - in each of the game's two innings. Everyone's a winner here, and not just because of the rule that the final score is always tied. The children, who are physically or mentally handicapped, are playing baseball for the first time in their lives.

Welcome to the Miracle League, where children who usually sit on the sidelines get to take center stage.

The Miracle League began in Conyers, Ga., after a coach invited a child in a wheelchair to join his baseball team. Soon the coach began to wonder: What about the other 79,000 disabled children in the greater Atlanta area? Would some of them like to play?

The Conyers field opened in 2000. A flat, rubberized surface replaces the dirt and grass, making it easier for children to run. Bases are painted on, not raised, so players in wheelchairs or walkers don't stumble.

Since then, 11 other custom diamonds have been built across the US, at a cost of roughly $450,000 each. Another 60 fields are under construction, with community organizations and individuals picking up most of the tab.

But those who helped build the year-old field in Moody (about 30 minutes east of Birmingham) say that any price tag would be worth the enjoyment and sense of freedom that the children get from playing ball.

For little Cal, who uses sign language, the game has become the high point of his week. "On Saturday morning, the first thing he does when he wakes up is sign 'play' and 'baseball,' " says his father. "He knows it's time to play."

Some children have learned to tell time or the days of the week, things they couldn't do before, by looking forward to Miracle League on Saturday.

Others, such as preschooler Jake Schempf, finally have the chance to do something that their nonhandicapped siblings can do.

"Jake thinks he's just like his older brother," says Fred Schempf, Jake's dad. "He thinks he's a Major League player. He doesn't have any idea that this is a special league."

What he does know, judging from his wide smile, is how much fun it is to wear the team T-shirt and cap, a uniform that looks similar to those worn by Moody's Little Leaguers, who play just yards away.

Jake, who cannot walk or talk, beams when he's in the dugout, when he's on the field, and when he's at bat. Sometimes he also shakes with delight.

Looking like their able- bodied peers means a lot to the Miracle kids, says Mr. Schempf.

Parents also enjoy seeing their children this way, according to Jake's mom, Libby. For a few hours a week, parents focus on their children's abilities, not their limitations. "You kind of forget what challenges you have," she says. "Everybody is on the same plane."

This idea of everyone being worthy and welcome is at the heart of the Miracle League philosophy.

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