Strikes, home runs and even wins aren’t all that important for the Miracle League of Arizona – the 300 special-needs athletes, ages 4 and up, who comprise it, play ball at the North Scottsdale park to have fun.
“Our pitcher has never gotten anyone out in six years,” said Al Maag, past president of Miracle League of Arizona. “Almost every game ends up in a tie.”
“Everybody bats and they take the field, basically two innings,” said Maag. “They all get walk-up music and announced. They have their names on the back of their uniforms. They sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ They get together after the game is over and all have a little cheer for their own team and shake hands.”
Maag comes every Saturday to watch the children play from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the park at 11130 E. Cholla St.
“We’ve added a batting cage, an adaptive playground and picnic area,” said Cassandra Switalski, executive director of the Miracle League of Arizona. “We also added a video scoreboard just to give our families a Major League feeling where they can come here, enjoy a day at the ballpark, and then go home and enjoy the rest of their weekend.”
Out of 300 Miracle Leagues in the U.S., Scottsdale has the only stadium with a flat field to accommodate wheelchairs.
While parents are in the stands, cheering their junior player on, a buddy is assigned to each child.
“The buddy sticks with them the whole time, whether at bat or in the field,” explained Maag. “So, they have a friend right away. Some get very attached to each other. And then you get kids who have their family members help out.”
The play is free as the Miracle League relies on sponsors and fundraisers to survive.
“It’s one thing we’re so proud of, too,” said Switalski. “We know parents have other expenses with medical costs, transportation, making everything adaptive so the last thing we want is for them not to be able to participate because of funding.”
The leagues run in nine months of the year, with summer being a break time because of hot weather. Each season is about seven weeks.
“The majority of our leagues are recreational,” explained Maag. “Everyone hits. Everyone scores. It ends in a tie every time. But then we do have competitive leagues where we do adaptive strikes and closer to the real games of baseball for some of our athletes who want to use their skill and knowledge at a higher level.”
“For me personally, I have a strong connection because I have two siblings who have special needs,” said Switalski. “I have two younger brothers who are athletes here. They play twice a week. My father coaches.
“It’s just a family-run affair for me. It’s so great because when I was growing up I was playing sports and they were supporting me and now it’s all about them. I feel very fortunate.”
Sarah and Dean Allen’s 9-year-old twin boys play every week.
“It’s good because they can interact with their peers,” said Sarah. “They can talk about baseball. It helps them with interactions on the baseball field. It’s just amazing how easy it is to join in and how welcome the coaches and the volunteers are. It’s also nice the way all of the buddies look after them. They can just go out there and play.”
Added Dean: “It’s fantastic…We know the boys are going to be safe while they’re playing. The buddies and volunteers understand the boys have special needs they need to be catered for. When we come, it’s great for us because it’s rare we get to just sit and watch our boys have fun without us worrying about what they’re doing.”
Thomas Allen, one of their sons, likes it too.
“I like making friends and running around because I’m more of an active person and I enjoy sports a lot,” said Thomas, who dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.
Jessica Terrazas said Miracle League has done wonders for her daughter Maia, who can’t speak without an electronic talking device.
“When Maia started, I couldn’t even get her on the field,” said Terrazas. “She was crying. The noise. The people. Everything was so overwhelming. I know she liked sports. She loved to throw a ball. And then to be able to have this experience for her and play baseball and be around all of these people it has just brought her out of her shell. She just feels so important, so good when she gets off the field.”
At the end of the season, all players get a trophy.
“She holds onto it and she’s just so proud,” Terrazas said. “She’s been able to make friends here. She sees different people every week. Her anxiety has gotten better. She plays with friends at school when they’re playing baseball. Because she can’t talk, it’s different for her to make friends at school. So, being able to play baseball here and throw a ball and use a bat, when she sees people at school doing it, she goes and does it then.
“She feels comfortable. They have no idea she’s non-verbal. So it disappears and she blends in with the crowd. This has brought so much joy and happiness to Maia.”
Lisa Gray’s son, Xavier, has vision challenges but the 10-year-old doesn’t let it stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional baseball player.
“He absolutely loves it and everybody here knows him as the slide king,” said Gray. “Every time he makes a home-run he has to slide literally all of the way in so he loves that.”
“He has a great time,” Gray added. “I have to give credit to all of the coaches and the buddy kids who come out. They’re just wonderful with him. They give him extra time in the outfield to run around and to really feel the game and to be part of it.”
Miracle League’s confidence boost helps Xavier at school as well.
“It was such a blessing to find this place and for them to understand him and to really give him no extra special consideration other than he’s a kid first,” said Gray. “And I think it’s always important to remember with any of these kids with disabilities or other abilities, they’re kids first.”
Maag said even spectators get a lift.
“I don’t care what mood you’re in, you’re going to leave smiling because the kids are so happy,” said Maag. “And the parents are happy. Here, children of all ages can come here with some disability – it can be physical or mental. I’ve also seen miracles.
“I’ve seen some kids who barely could walk and by the end-of-the-year they could because they see other kids their age and they say, ‘I can do that, too.’”
Info at miracleleagueaz.com