Miracle League gets everyone in the game
League has 20 years of making memories in Monroe
Charlotte Wysocki, at the time 8, gets a little help from Jacob Jerome during the 2015 Miracle League season opener.
MONROE — Don Purvis’ voice booms across the Rotary Field parking lot.
“There you are!” he shouts, pointing to an arriving player. “Hey you!” he yells to another.
Purvis bounds across the pavement, hugging and high-fiving players as they get out of vans and cars. Some are in wheelchairs. One uses a walker. All have come to play baseball.
No player is more enthusiastic than Purvis. Throughout the morning, he will act as organizer, coach, pitcher, and cheerleader. This is his 10th year volunteering with the Miracle League, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” he admits later. “It’s opening day.”
Indeed it is. In a few minutes, the Miracle League’s 20th season in Snohomish County will be underway.
Blue sky and sunshine welcome the players, and a festive atmosphere permeates Monroe Rotary Field, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The Miracle League used to play on the dirt fields at Lake Tye Park. But narrow dugouts, uneven fields and regulation-size bases made it tough for players with special needs.
Rotary League Field has all-weather turf, wide entryways, and accommodating facilities. The bases are small and round, so blind runners won’t trip over them.
“Are there any more players?” Purvis booms. “OK. Coaches, line ‘em up along the first and third base lines.”
Players in this game range from age 7 or 8 to adult. There are about 50 Miracle League baseball participants, who come from throughout the region each Saturday to play in one of three two-inning contests.
Before each game players pair with “buddies,” community volunteers who help them bat and run, and protect them from errant balls. Today’s buddies are members of the Flame fastpitch softball team.
“It’s a great opportunity to see how other people live compared to you,” says the Flame’s Makena Jorgenson, who has been a buddy before. “You feel very grateful for what you have after this.”
Excitement all around
Announcer Jon Hudson exhorts the crowd. Hudson, standing on the field with a microphone, is master of ceremonies. He nicknames batters — “Awesome Autumn,” “Dangerous Dane” — narrates the action, plays music, and chides pitcher Purvis.
Flame buddies help players bat, then push wheelchairs around the bases or run beside able-bodied players. On defense, buddies and volunteer coaches out-number defenders; 20 bodies crowd the infield.
Per Miracle League rules, each player bats every inning. Each player hits, and each scores. The final batter of the inning gets a home run.
Purvis lobs softballs from varying distances — there is no mound — while dispensing encouragement and batting tips. He picks up slow-rolling grounders and flings them blindly behind him into the outfield.
As players round third base, buddies relay a ball to home.
“It’s gonna be a close play at the plate,” intones Hudson. “Safe!”
Some players celebrate wildly. Dangerous Dane roars to the crowd, jumps up and down and high-fives everyone in sight.
Others’ joy shines through ear-to-ear grins.
“This is a place where they can feel accepted and celebrated,” Hudson says. “You look around, and there’s nothing but smiling faces.”
Umpire Ric Carlson declares a player, age 6 at the time, safe during the opening game of the 2014 Miracle League season. Carlson proposed creating the league.
The Miracle League began in Rockford County, Georgia, in 1998.
Coach Eddie Bagwell invited a 7-year-old disabled boy to play on his Little League team. Other players with disabilities followed, and the league soon realized the limitations of conventional diamonds.
By the time a three-field Miracle League complex opened in April 2000, the Rockford County league had grown to 120 players and inspired Miracle Leagues across the country.
Including in Monroe.
Ric Carlson, then-incoming president of the Monroe Rotary Club, read about the Georgia league soon after it started. He was looking for a signature project for the club to sponsor. He knew he had found it.
Rotary members finagled field space and some second-hand baseball gear, while Carlson created promotional flyers.
Seven players signed up for the inaugural 2000 season.
“It was awe-inspiring,” Carlson says. “I never looked back.”
Twenty players joined the next year. Then 30.
After a decade, the program had grown so large that the Rotary Club handed off management to YMCA of Snohomish County. The Y added adaptive swimming, basketball, bowling, and karate, as well as cooking and music programs.
As the program grew, Carlson — a recently retired contractor — became intrigued by Rockford County’s Miracle League fields.
“When we were first playing games,” he says, “there were a whole lot of things you don’t think about that matter to kids with special needs.”
After three seasons at Lake Tye Park, Carlson started fundraising for a Miracle League field in Monroe.
Rotary secured land from the city at a former Cadman mining site adjacent to Skykomish River Centennial Park. It took six years to raise the $1 million needed to build the field.
When it was finished, the Rotary Club handed the keys to the city of Monroe. The ball park also hosts softball and Little League games, but Miracle League gets scheduling priority.
Carlson stepped down as league director after Rotary Field opened. He is in the process of retiring to Eastern Washington, but will be back on June 15, the season’s final Saturday, for a 20th anniversary celebration.
“I’ve done a lot of things to feel good about in my life, but nothing that comes close to (Miracle League),” Carlson says. “It makes a difference to those kids. It has inspired them in a number of ways I never imagined. There are a lot of really good people involved in this.”
Long-time big leaguers
One of those people, Jason Petty, is at the ball park for his 13th straight Miracle League opener.
He coaches players in the infield, talks with parents in the stands, and chews the fat with other volunteers.
Petty got hooked when he checked out a game while pushing his daughter’s stroller through Lake Tye Park. Soon after, he helped secure a $10,000 grant from a radio station to build the new field.
“These kids, they have a sense of determination that just blows me away,” he says. “It’s a blast to watch them grow up.”
One player Petty watched is Kayla Wheeler.
Born with no legs and one arm, Wheeler played Miracle League baseball from age 7 through high school. She graduated last June from the University of Washington, and plans to go to law school.
“I really loved being part of Miracle League,” Wheeler says. “It’s a great mix. You still feel like you’re playing the game of baseball, but without all the restrictions.”
Her mother, Joyce Wheeler, says Kayla insisted they drive from their Lynnwood home to Monroe each Saturday during baseball season. Kayla would often play in two games, sometimes all three.
“It is such an amazing program,” Joyce says. “Giving them a place where they can let their hair down and have fun, and not worry about what anyone thinks about the differences they have, is so, so important.
“The volunteers in that program are amazing people. They would do anything for those kids.”
Back at Rotary Field, Jon Hudson as master of ceremonies announces it’s time for a “second-inning stretch,” complete with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Both teams take turns batting again. The final batter rounds the bases, beats the tag at home plate, and the game is finished.
Each team has won. Each player has won. There is no scoreboard.
Purvis convenes players, coaches, and buddies in the infield. The group disbands with a unified shout of “Miracle League!”
Between games, Purvis grabs a quick bite and quiet time.
He used to coach his daughter’s softball teams, he explains. He handed her off as she got older, but he wasn’t done coaching. He also helps with Miracle League basketball and bowling.
“Baseball’s by far the hardest,” he says. “I’m beat.”
The players, and the relationships he’s formed with their families, keep him coming back.
“I love this organization,” Purvis says. “I learn so much from these kids. They give so much.”
In a few minutes, new players begin arriving. Saturdays are structured with games for younger players, then teens, then adults, but no one will be turned away.
Soon Purvis is soon on his feet again, greeting the new arrivals.Other volunteers grab coffee, hit balls to Flame buddies, fill out name tags, re-cue music. The sun climbs higher, basking the metal bleachers.
“Are there any more players?” Purvis yells. “OK, coaches, line ‘em up along the first and third base lines.”
The action continues. It’s opening day.
The Miracle League is always looking for volunteers. Call Nicole Hudson, YMCA adaptive coordinator, at 360-804-2165, or visit www.ymca-snoco.org
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