Just before the final inning, Jacob Carrington faces the microphone. He starts off slowly but enthusiastically, and if his words aren’t crystal clear, well, that doesn’t stop his teammates, friends and family from joining in as he leads them in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Jacob is like any other ball player: thrilled to be on the field. He shows up every Saturday suited up and ready to go; he takes his turn at the plate. He knows the thrill of rounding the bases; he understands what it means to be part of a team.
The only difference between Jacob and teens like him at the other ball fields at the Azalea Sports Complex Saturday morning is that Jacob does all those things from his wheelchair. His teammates all face similar challenges: some, like Jacob, need help rounding the bases while others need help taking a swing at the ball. They all share one thing: they’re getting a chance to do what generations of disabled children before them could not. They’re getting to play ball.
Seven years ago they didn’t get to play. Conventional ball fields aren’t friendly to physically or emotionally challenged kids. Wheelchairs have a hard time getting over bumps in the field that runners might not notice. Kid with cerebral palsy could fall more easily and injure themselves. Other teams aren’t geared towards the array of challenges special needs kids face.
The Miracle League changed all that. Six years ago the Gulf Beaches Kiwanis built a field for kids with disabilities. They built a level surface from recycled tires so kids more prone to taking a tumble wouldn’t have as much of an injury risk. They took care of getting the kids uniforms. They show up every Saturday morning to help the kids learn the ins and outs of playing on a softball team.
Parents, Eckerd college volunteers and Kiwanians help kids in wheelchairs round the bases and take a swing at the ball. The Kiwanis provides uniforms and equipment. Both the Rays and the Yankees donate time to the Miracle League, the Yankees with roving instructor Jack Hubbard and the Rays with administrative worker Tom Meloday.
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” Hubbard says. “It keeps life in the proper perspective. All you’ve got to do is come down here and see the joy in their eyes. It makes everything worthwhile.”
The 22-member club built the $300,000 and runs the Saturday morning program. David Romine, the past president, says that the average Saturday morning sees anywhere from 15 to 30 kids. There Kiwanis don’t hold tryouts and they don’t set age limits. Every game ends in a tie.
“If the kid shows up, they play,” Romine says.
Most of the kids who round the bases as part of the Saturday morning Miracle League don’t know how much work went into making sure they have the same chances as the kids playing on the next ball field over. They don’t realize their field is different. They don’t understand how hard a small group of men and women worked to make sure that every kid, no matter his ability, has a chance to know what it feels like to play ball.
They just know they get to play.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.