Franny Melancon beamed as, barehanded, he caught the yellow softball tossed toward him at home plate by none other than Iraq war veteran and “Dancing with the Stars” champion J.R. Martinez.
“I think it’s very nice to get a chance to do that because us handicapped people don’t usually get to do that,” said Melancon, who is one of 99 participants in Whitfield County’s Miracle League since the league started two years ago.
Melancon caught the first pitch of the game at Saturday’s awards day ceremonies in which everyone got an award to wrap up their eight-game season. Martinez is in the Dalton area visiting family and friends for a few days and said he came to the games after Dalton resident Nicki Rayburn, whom he knows through his work with another charity, requested it.
Martinez, a 2002 graduate of Dalton High School, was seriously injured in a March 2003 explosion in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Army. He suffered burns over more than 40 percent of his body when a Humvee he was in struck a roadside bomb. Martinez spent three years in the hospital and has had 34 surgeries.
During his recovery, Martinez became a motivational speaker, then in 2008 he landed a role on the soap opera “All My Children.” He stayed with the show until its cancellation in 2011. That year, he and partner Karina Smirnoff won season 13 of “Dancing With the Stars.”
His autobiography “Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit” was released last year by Hyperion. He continues to tour as a motivational speaker.
“In some way I connect with these kids,” Martinez said of the Miracle League players. “When I was injured from 19 years old, I was told by my doctors that I was a disability and through the choices that I’ve made, through opportunities that I’ve received and through support from a lot of people, it’s made me feel like I’ve been able to dis the ‘dis-’ and what I have left is ability.”
Martinez said it’s important for these children to be able to be competitive and enjoy getting to do something normal.
The Miracle League — a youth baseball program for children who cannot participate in regular recreation leagues due to either a physical or mental disability — is played on a synthetic rubber field aimed at the safety of all participants.
“In the Miracle League everybody gets a trophy,” said co-organizer Millie Hicks, whose daughter, Peyton, 13, was excited to meet Martinez. “In our league, there are no outs, there are no strikes. Everybody hits, everybody runs, everybody scores a run.”
She said Martinez told her he hopes to continue being involved in the league. Martinez is currently between trips to South Africa where he is working on the television show “SAF3” (pronounced “safe”). The series focuses on an elite division of the Malibu Fire Department charged with making difficult rescues on land, air and sea in dangerous situations. Martinez plays Alfonso Rivera, a paramedic-firefighter and U.S. Air Force pararescueman, in the series. He said he’ll return to South Africa in November and stay through part of December to finish shooting. The show has been airing on Chattanooga WDSI Sunday at midnight (OptiLink Channel 161) and on Atlanta WATL at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Martinez said he still finds himself on the road 300 days out of the year, following a schedule that, while sometimes exhausting, is worth the effort.
“For us in the Miracle League, he is just such an embodiment of strength and determination and resilience in the face of adversity,” Hicks said, adding, “We just really appreciate all of the dedicated volunteers and buddies and all of the dedicated fans who come out to see these players because they love to have a big crowd.”
For more information on the Miracle League, visit www.whitfieldcountymiracleleague.com.