It’s considered “America’s pastime,” yet it’s a game that many children in central Iowa weren’t given a chance to play until a volunteer organization came together to create a baseball league for children with special needs.
The Kiwanis Miracle League Field opened in the fall of 2008. Miracle League is a chance for special needs children and their families to experience the game of baseball through friendly competition, which means each child gets to bat, each child scores, and every game — games last two innings — ends in a tie.
“Since Kiwanis is all about serving children, what better place to serve kids than to make a safe place for special needs kids to play baseball?” says Jan Burch, president of the Kiwanis Miracle League Board of Directors.
Any child with special needs, ages 5 to 18, is able to participate because the flat field surface is designed so that regardless of ability, a child can play. Wheelchairs are able to freely move about, and crutches and canes don’t risk getting stuck in the grass other baseball fields have. Children who are visually impaired use a special ball.
“It’s another facet, another opportunity to provide a safe, fun place for a very underserved population,” Burch says. “There isn’t anything like this in Iowa. This is the first time a lot of these kids have even been on a team, and it’s a whole new experience for them.
“They just want to have a good time,” she continues. “They want to smile, and they want to play baseball.”
Miracle League Field is located across the street from the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium on Southwest Fifth Street. The league has a spring and fall season. Opening Day for the 2013 season was May 11. Games are played through June 29 for the spring season.
About 240 children, representing 14 teams, will come together to play this season. Teams consist of 18 to 20 players, and the schedule is organized similar to Little League. Last year, children from 35 communities, some coming as far as near Mason City, participated in the league. Each child receives a shirt and call cap with his or her team’s name and logo — each team is a Major League Baseball team — and is able to participate free of charge.
Kiwanis Club members step up
Members of the Des Moines Kiwanis, starting with the Downtown club, in 2007 learned about the Miracle League Association, which is a national organization with about 250 ballparks for special needs children all across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Des Moines Kiwanis decided to share the idea of creating such a ballpark for central Iowa with other Kiwanis clubs in the metro area. There are an estimated 3,100 children, ages 5 to 15 in Polk, Dallas and Warren counties who have disabilities that prevent them from playing baseball, according to Miracle League.
“We decided we weren’t doing anything that gave us focus or visibility,” Burch says. “We all agreed we needed a big project.”
The club didn’t realize how “big” of a project the ballpark would become. Initially, members thought it could be completed for $300,000, she says. Little did they know they would end up raising and spending $1.5 million, an amount that Burch says likely would have scared off members in the beginning.
“Once we realized what a big project is was, we involved all of the other clubs in the metro area,” Burch says.
About 15 Kiwanis clubs in central Iowa came together to make the ballpark a reality.
The Kiwanis created a partnership with the Iowa Cubs. The Cubs lease 24 acres from the city of Des Moines and agreed to allow some of that land to be used for the Miracle League Field. In addition, the Cubs pay $25,000 each year for annual upkeep, maintenance and security for the ball park.
The Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute used Miracle League Field as its class project in 2007-08. The 55 class members worked with the Kiwanis Clubs to build the ball field by raising the $350,000 needed for the design and construction of the concession stand and restrooms.
Construction on the field started in April 2008, and was completed in time for the fall 2008 season.
Volunteers play integral role
Miracle League is an entirely volunteer-based organization, from the individuals who oversee its operation and serve on its board to the parents who coach the teams to the high school athletes who serve as buddies and help players. The organization relies on grant money, as well as donations from corporations and individuals, to pay for improvements to the stadium and to operate each season.
Each player is assigned a volunteer buddy for every game. These volunteers are referred to as “angels in the outfield” and range from high school baseball players to cheerleaders to college athletes to businessmen and women. The buddy helps to “teach” baseball skills to the player and assists with other play as necessary.
“It’s really to the extent the child needs help,” Burch says. “A lot of our players don’t really need help, but we still assign a buddy to them. It might be helping them bat. It might be helping them pitch or field a ball. Some of our kids are in a wheelchair, so it might be pushing them around the bases.”
Occasionally, buddies are called upon to protect players in the field. Burch says there are some heavy hitters in the league: There were six out-of-the-park home runs last year.
Members of the Des Moines community from corporations to city departments also get involved with Miracle League. This summer there will be two pick-up games, where members of the Des Moines fire and police departments will serve as players’ buddies. The games will be played at 6 and 7 p.m. June 12.
Rob and Bonnie Baldus’ son Isaac plays on the Twins. The couple also serves as volunteer coaches for the team.
Isaac, 15, was born with Down syndrome. He participated in another baseball league prior to joining Miracle League. The Balduses heard about Miracle League and thought it would be a great fit for their son, Rob says.
“He lives to play catcher and to hit homeruns,” Rob says of Isaac.” He instantly took to the program. … He loves to play and loves people and gets really crabby if there is a rain out.”
The Balduses of Indianola have three other children and have been to many athletic events during the course of their parenting years. Rob says nothing compares to Miracle League.
“Everybody has a great time,” he says. “A lot of the kids are playing so they can get their treat ticket at the end of the game. It really makes you realize that these kids just go and have a good time. It’s too bad that in coaching my other kids that we don’t take things this light heartedly all of the time.”
One of the things the players look forward to the most is the free drink from the concession stand after each game. Another popular event is the end-of-season pizza trophy party.
Rob wrote about his experiences as coach in the most recent Kiwanis Miracle League newsletter: “Although every game somehow ends up in a tie, every game is full of its unique and memorable moments: watching a player hit from a pitch instead of the T for the first time; watching Owen stand at his wheelchair at bat for the first time; seeing Colby’s eyes light up as he jokes with his favorite buddy Jim; and watching in amazement as a blind athlete hits the beeper ball. These are just examples of many amazing moments for me. I love it!”
William Sales, 10, has played in the Miracle League since it began. It was the first time he had played any sport, and William’s case manager at ChildServe thought the program would be fun for the youngster, says his father, Will Sales, who serves as coach of his son’s team, the Brewers.
“We were interested in anything that was able to move at his pace and allow us to be on the field with him,” Will Sales says.
William was born with a chromosomal abnormality, where he has a partial duplication of his 15th chromosome. As a result, he has global developmental delays, intellectual impairment and autism-type issues.
Sales says the program has been good for William and the other players. Each child’s name is announced, and everyone in the crowd cheers for the child and yells his or her name.
“It introduces an aspect of normalcy because it’s pretty common for kids this age to be involved in activities outside of school, and other than work things like therapy, there’s not a lot that moves at his speed and makes him the star,” Sales of Ankeny says. “All of the kids on Miracle League get to be a star.
“Maybe what is most special about it is they get to be treated like every other kid out there,” he adds.