'Miracle' on the ballfield

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.

"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.

Diane Alford, the national executive director, spends 60 hours a week telling people about the league and how they can get involved. She doesn't accept a dime for the work she does to encourage communities, corporations, and the media to spread the word that disabled children can benefit from having the chance to show what they can do. Her reward, she says, is seeing the children gain confidence in themselves.

Ms. Alford also enjoys seeing how the league encouragespeople to feel more comfortable around the handicapped. "For so long we did not know how to respond to children and adults with disabilities, so in return, we just didn't respond," she says. "The appropriate response is the same you give to your families - that is, love, compassion, a hug a day and a kiss a day."

Butch Hallmark has learned how powerful a hug can be. He volunteers as a "buddy" in Moody. Buddies assist players on the field, watching out for their safety. More important, they provide companionship and friendship, something many disabled kids have never known.

Butch has been Jake's buddy from Day 1. Each week the little boy greets his friend with a big hug and smile. "Jake's a great hugger," says the soft-spoken teen, who recently finished his junior year in high school.

Whether Butch is helping Jake swing at the ball or letting the 4-year-old sleep in his arms after a game, the look of contentment on both faces remains constant.

"They call this the Miracle League," says Butch, "and that first game, when I was watching everybody play, I couldn't believe it. It was great to see their smiles as they came around the bases, especially since some of these kids can only smile or blink. It's very rewarding for me to be here."

Butch looks over at Jake, who claps and squeals when he hits the big, rubberized softball off the T. "I've matured a lot since I started," he says. "I take nothing for granted now."

What the 137 players in Moody can depend on, though, is the devotion of many volunteers: Phillip Deason, for example, who spearheaded the effort to build this park and spends hours making improvements each week. Patrick Shipp, a single man who umpires all five games each Saturday. He knows almost every child by name and drives 40 minutes out of his way so two players can come to the park. Dana Dowdle brings Jelly Bean, her miniature horse, for the kids to pet. The off-white purebred leans toward children who can't quite reach him.

Most players range in age from 3 to 19, but people like Eugene Miller and James Bolt, who are both senior citizens, are also welcome.

Everyone in Moody smiles when they recall Mr. Miller's first time at bat last year. He ran to first base, threw up his arms, and yelled, "I'm 68 years old and I'm finally getting to play baseball."

Stories like this make Alford smile. "So many times [society is] so bad about taking [handicapped] people and putting them on a shelf," she says. "Shame on us."

There is no shame on the Moody field, however, not even when Miller sings the national anthem off key, "rewriting" most of the lyrics as he goes. People here applaud every effort.

Rod White, league director, remembers how frustrating life used to be for his daughter, Kamiko. For her first 11 years, he avoided driving by the Little League field, because he knew that she would ask to play.

"I tell her she can't be a cheerleader, she can't be in the band," he says, his eyes welling up.But on Saturdays, "she doesn't have to hear, 'You can't play.' "

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