March 14, 2013

Miraculous play

Successful baseball league returns for spring

By Mitch Talley
Whitfield County Director of Communications

— Overcoming mental and physical challenges isn’t always easy for children as they grow up, but the Whitfield County Miracle League will again be offering kids — and adults — who face such obstacles a comfortable place where they can just play baseball like others.

After more than 60 players ranging in age from 5 to 39 turned out for the six-game opening season last fall, officials of the Whitfield County Miracle League are signing up players for an expanded eight-week spring season, with opening day ceremonies set for April 13. For the first time, two of the games will be played under the lights.

“There’s not a better feeling than being able to give each player a high-five, see the smiles on their faces, and hear the cheers of the crowd as their name is announced and they cross home plate,” said Kenny Burton, who coached the Red Sox last year. “It’s a sight to see and a feeling that everyone needs to experience. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be a small part of this great organization.”

The Miracle League plays its games at a special facility constructed with more than $300,000 in donations from the public and additional funding approved by the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners. The field, located on Mount Vernon Road, overlooks a beautiful lake that is part of a recreation park that will eventually be constructed there.

“Registration has only been open a few days, and we’ve already heard from many of our former players and new players as well,” said Millie Hicks, a co-director of the league, “so we’re hoping for an even bigger and better spring season. What we’re hearing from so many parents who are calling to register is that their kids are asking them every day, ‘Is it time yet? Is it time yet?’ They just can’t wait to get back.”

Registration ends March 22 to give officials time  to organize teams and order uniforms. You can sign up by going online to whitfieldcountymiracleleague.com or calling (706) 260-8861.

Mark Bailey, who coached the Angels last fall, is as eager as the players to get back on the field.

“I tell you what, you could just see the excitement last year on those children’s faces even up to Franny Melancon, who was 39,” Bailey said. “When it was all over, I think I got more of a blessing out of it than those kids did — to just let them have the opportunity to be a part of something, to let them experience sports that a lot of other children without any kind of disability just sign up for and go play. It’s great that we have something in this area like this that these kids can participate in and have fun.”

The Miracle Field offers a safe haven since it is constructed of a special material that allows children in wheelchairs and walkers to bat and go around the bases.

“When I heard that the Miracle League was for children and adults with physical or mental disabilities, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, my son Israel who is 7 and has autism, has a chance to be on a team and play baseball,” Laura Garcia said. “At first I was a little scared because my son sometimes doesn’t do well in public places. But once that first game day came, and to see all the children with their happy faces and finally getting a chance to be a team is the best thing that can happen.”

She praised the “Buddy” system that pairs each of the players with other volunteers — known as “Buddies” — who help them bat and make their way around the bases and field their positions.

“To have a chance to be with someone and not be judged on what kind of disability they have is also the best,” Garcia said. “It gives the children a rest from going to doctor appointments and other medical issues they have to do in their daily lives. I love no matter how any children act up, no one judges or stares.”

She said it was a great experience for her son and actually encouraged him to talk more and be better around people away from the field. That reaction doesn’t surprise Millie.

“What struck me last fall is there is just so much love involved — from the coaches, the players, the fans, the volunteers, you just feel it pouring out from everyone,” she said. “It’s just such a happy, safe and loving place.”

Luke Hensley, assistant coach of the Red Sox, said he went into last fall’s league thinking he was going to teach the kids how to play ball, “but after the first game I realized they were going to teach me more than I could have ever imagined.”

Co-director Chip Hicks — Millie’s husband — expressed thanks for the overwhelming support of the community, including the many organizations that volunteered to serve as Buddies for the players.

“I’ve had so many calls since registration has been open from volunteers,” Millie added. “As many calls as I’ve had for players, I’ve had twice as many from volunteers, people who are just so anxious to help — they want to be a part of it.”

Bailey pointed out that volunteers bring an enthusiasm to the program that can’t be bought.

“I’ve always said it just goes to show you if you get a bunch of volunteers involved in doing something, it’ll go so much better because the love and enthusiasm of wanting to do something and be involved,” he said. “They’re there because they want to be there.”

Last year, such eager volunteers included Brent James, who serves as announcer for all the games; Kevin Cline, who cooks hot dogs at each game; and Mark Young, also known as Dr. Cluck, who brings a smile to the faces of young and old alike with his antics in his San Diego Chicken outfit.

“The kids loved the chicken,” Millie said.

Said Bailey, “We even ended a couple of games letting the chicken bat. The kids would be out there watching, and he would run goofy around the bases and fall down and stuff like that, and the kids would pile on him.”

James, meanwhile, said he gets to witness up close the smiles on the faces of the players as they hear their names called out.

“They wave to the fans in introductions as they are cheered on,” James said. “The feeling you get inside from being just a small part of the Miracle League is a blessing that money cannot buy. As the season progressed, the players developed personalities on the field, some picking or earning nicknames. But to just not only see the smiles of the players, but to feel the true happiness and inner joy from their smiles, that’s what it’s all about.”

Bailey praised the efforts of “dugout moms” who “are kind of like the unsung heroes because they’re wanting to make sure the next person is ready to bat, that they’ve got their helmet on for safety,” he said.

“They’re the organizational crew because I’m out there pitching to the kids or I’m out on the field with them while they’re out on the defensive side. The dugout moms play a big part.”

The kids are playing on a facility that rates among the best in the Southeast, organizers believe.

“Everybody that comes out there is just in awe,” Chip said. “One thing I’ve been wanting to do is get more and more people out there just to see it. A lot of people still don’t realize how nice the facility is. The county just went above and beyond what I had expected. It’s a showplace. I think it’s one of the nicest facilities in the state of Georgia, if not in the Southeast. Everything about it is just first class.”

Millie said several people involved with Miracle Leagues in other parts of the country have visited and came away impressed, too.

The national director of the Miracle League organization, Stephanie Davis, attended opening day ceremonies last fall and was very excited about the local efforts.

“She thought it was one of the more beautiful Miracle Fields,” Millie said.

“A lot of these fields we went and looked at as we were planning for ours were just in a regular recreation facility,” Chip said, “maybe on the back side, maybe off in a corner, but for us to have that lake behind the field — man, it’s very peaceful. I’m glad they moved it to where they did.”

The facility also includes a special playground next to the field where all children can play.

“If kids were playing in the second game, they might be out there on the playground playing while the first game was going on,” Bailey recalled. “Then it switched. When the second game started, the other kids were sticking around and they were on the playground, too. There’s more than just a ballfield out there.”

Millie emphasized that the Miracle League is for any child or adult with a condition that prevents them from playing safely on a regular team.

“We have players who have had organ transplants, we have players with heart conditions, we have players with autism,” she said, “so we just want everyone to be aware that we’re here for everyone.”

That includes players from outside Whitfield County, too. Already, a player from Summerville and another from East Ridge, Tenn., are on the rosters.

“We just want everybody to come out this spring and see the Miracle Field,” Chip said.

Added Millie: “The greatest thing that people can do is come and cheer on the players. They love it. They love to hear their name called.”