He built it, they came

Miracle League baseball field lets everyone play

By Jim Hannah

Photo: The Miracle Field comprised of flat surfaces and free of infield dirt allowing wheelchair access

It’s written all over their faces—the thrill of it. Their daily world of limits, obstacles and hurdles has suddenly melted away and been replaced by a delicious universe of possibility and hope.

That’s the reason it’s called the Miracle League baseball field. The transformation of children and young adults with disabilities who play on the diamond in Springboro is truly a miracle.

“It’s magical to see their faces,” says William Crotty, a Wright State University film student with cerebral palsy who was the inspiration for the field. “When they’re out there, they are in the big leagues. It’s really cool to see something they’ve always wanted to do, but never could. And they’re playing like Pete Rose—110 percent.”

Crotty’s family got the ball rolling on the Miracle League Field of Warren County and Greater Dayton, kicking off a $1 million fundraising effort that included support from the Cincinnati Reds, YMCA, Warren County Developmental Disabilities and private donors.

The field, located on the grounds of Springboro Junior High School, opened in September 2009.

Attending the grand opening were former Cincinnati Reds stars, including George Foster, Tom Browning, Aaron Harang and Sean Casey. (Casey has since built a Miracle Field near his home in Pittsburgh.) Reds sportscaster George Grande and Kim Nuxhall also attended.

“The grand opening was a day I’ll never forget,” Crotty says. “I threw out the first pitch. Sean was catching and the other players took the infield positions and threw the ball around the horn. It was just a really cool moment.”

Crotty was born three months prematurely with a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia, a chronic neuromuscular condition that causes tightness and stiffness in the muscles of the legs, hips and pelvis. He had to rely on a walker until he was 8 years old and was once confined to a wheelchair for seven months because of hip spasticity.

“I’ve dealt with a few obstacles here and there—such as falling about once a day—but the minor things I have to think about are simply incomparable to the challenges that these other children and adults have to face every day,” he says. “As the country singer Craig Morgan says, ‘This ain’t nothin’.’ There are many kids out there who are much stronger than I am because of the challenges they have had to face and overcome.”

The field enables children and adults with disabilities to play organized baseball on a team.

Most Miracle Leagues play on custom-designed fields that feature cushioned, rubberized surfaces to help prevent injuries. Flat surfaces (no raised bases or pitching mounds) and no infield dirt eliminate barriers to wheelchair-bound or visually impaired players.

“There are no restrictions on what they can do because the field is made for them,” Crotty says. “It’s a great thing to see.”

The Springboro field also features dugouts, bleachers, a concession stand and even baseball-headed Homer the Mascot.

As many as 10 teams have been using the field and play on Saturdays. The upcoming fall season begins the weekend after Labor Day.

Each player has a “buddy,” who helps him or her bat and get around the bases if necessary. The players range in age from 4 through adult. For young kids, there are plastic bats and oversized balls.

During a recent game, parents of the players packed the bleachers.

“Did you see that? He whomped it,” one proud parent says.

Anita Raker, the adoptive mother of 8-year-old Michael, is watching her son play in his wheelchair. Clad in Cincinnati Reds gear, Michael pitches much of the game.

“He lives for this place,” Raker says. “He loves sports. Once he got to come play here at Miracle field last year … this has become his love. He loves coming here because he actually gets to play in the big leagues—that’s for sure—in his opinion.”

Raker says the field has also become an important social site for the parents.

“When one of the kiddos and their family isn’t here, for those of us that regularly are here, we’re kind of curious what’s going on, hoping things are OK,” she says. “But it’s fun to make those connections and be able to be excited that our kids are all enjoying something together—that they feel very, very accomplished at.”

Crotty’s father, Brian, first heard about Miracle Fields on an HBO television special. The concept was developed in Conyers, Georgia, in 2000. Today, there are more than 200 Miracle League organizations around the world serving more than 200,000 children and young adults.

“I’d love to see a group of teams come from Wright State,” Brian Crotty says. “If you can make good use of the field, you’re more than welcome.”

Historically, baseball fields have not provided good physical access for people with disabilities. For example, dugouts are usually two or three steps below the surface of the field, making access difficult for people in wheelchairs.

“The Miracle League baseball field is an example of great universal design that benefits everyone of all abilities, types and sizes,” says Tom Webb, director of Disability Services at Wright State.

He said at least 120 Wright State students would benefit from the field, which would provide both physical and psychological benefits.

“Without taking part in organized sports, our students with disabilities miss out on the ability to develop socially—being coached, critiqued, encouraged, winning/losing as a member of a team,” Webb says.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 56 percent of people with disabilities fail to participate in physical activity. Research shows that children and adolescents with physical and cognitive disabilities have a higher prevalence of being overweight or obese than their non-disabled peers.

“I grew up in a family that breathed, ate and slept baseball,” Webb says. “I would have done anything as a kid to have an opportunity to use a Miracle League baseball field.”

Crotty’s uncle, Bob Crotty, has helped fund Miracle League fields through his Character and Courage Foundation, which uses baseball to support projects that help disadvantaged youth in the greater Cincinnati area.

Crotty owns the Green Diamond Gallery, a treasure trove of baseball memorabilia. The gallery, in the Cincinnati suburb of Montgomery, houses thousands of items, including game-worn jerseys of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson.

“Some kids have never had the opportunity to experience the thrill of playing baseball,” Crotty says. “If there is any way we can make that thrill happen or that experience happen for those who are physicially challenged, I’m all in.”

Crotty’s foundation has helped fund Miracle League fields in Cincinnati and nearby Fairfield. It has also supported baseball-related Make a Wish projects and helped renovate baseball fields in low-income areas.

Crotty says watching kids with disabilities play baseball at the Miracle League fields is an emotional landslide.

“It’s overwhelming,” he says. “You see kids in wheelchairs, operating wheelchairs with their mouths, in wheelchairs outfitted with IVs. What you see are kids that are just having a ball.”

Will Crotty grew up in Springboro, attended Miami Valley School, and moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when he was in eighth grade. He came back to Ohio to attend Wright State and is currently a sophomore.

Crotty says he decided to attend Wright State because it has a great film program.

“It’s not like other film programs,” he says. “You’re watching a lot of art-house films, independent films. At other schools, you’re not going to learn as much about underground cinema.”

Wright State’s national reputation for accessibility was the other reason Crotty came to the university.

“There is probably no other school in the country that has as much accessibility as Wright State—from the tunnels that ease mobility in bad weather to assistance with meals in the cafeterias,” he says. “Everyone’s in the game together.”

Crotty’s father would frequently take his son to the movies when Crotty was a boy, and he became interested in how they were made. Today, Crotty says, he actually enjoys DVD Special Features more than the movies themselves.

“Toy Story”—a 1995 computer-animated, buddy-comedy adventure film released by Walt Disney Pictures—has Crotty’s vote as the best movie of all time. It was the first film he saw in the theater and moved him in way he finds hard to describe.

“It triggers an emotional feeling that no other movie does,” he says. “It is technologically groundbreaking; it’s clever in its writing.”

In 2008, Crotty began writing movie reviews, analyzing the acting, writing and technical aspects of films.

“I started posting them on Facebook and got a really nice response, which I wasn’t expecting and was really cool,” he says. “I have over 100 reviews on there.”

Crotty’s career goal is to combine his love of movies with that of baseball.

He said he has noticed that radio and television interviews of both baseball players and movie stars often involve the same tired questions that result in the same predictable answers. Crotty wants to switch that up.

“My dream job is to do a show where I interview movie stars about baseball and baseball stars about movies,” he says. “For example, asking Tom Hanks about his favorite baseball memories and Joey Votto about his favorite movies.”

Athough the Miracle League field is named after Crotty, he says, “it’s just a title.”

“This field is made for other kids who are the real miracles,” he says. “People say that I inspire them, but the truth is they inspire me. Their spirit is what wins the games, not the score.”

Crotty says he sometimes wonders whether he would actually choose to take medication that would eliminate his disability, if that medicine existed.

“Honestly, the recreational and social side of me certainly says ‘yes’,” he muses. “It would be nice not to have to deal with certain, little things. But my heart ultimately says ‘no.’ There are so many things that have happened in my life where my disability has acted as a catalyst for so many great experiences, like the Miracle League field. Without me having cerebral palsy, that field wouldn’t exist.

“In the end, he says, “I would find someone else to give that medication to that is more deserving of it than I.”

The Miracle League field is located at 1605 S. Main St. in Springboro, on the grounds of Springboro Jr. High School. For more information, please visit miracleleaguedayton.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

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