Even steady showers couldn’t dampen the sunny smiles surrounding opening day of the new Miracle League of Stanislaus County.
The baseball league for children with physical and mental disabilities held the unveiling of its new specialized field Saturday morning amid persistent rainfall. The downpour meant the teams couldn’t play, but they could still show off their jerseys and celebrate the accomplishment eight years in the making together.
The nonprofit group was founded in the county in 2008, and since then members have been working and fundraising to build the custom-designed rubberized baseball diamond, which can accommodate those in wheelchairs and who need other assisting devices. The local league is the first in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and part of the larger national Miracle League, which has helped to build some 300 similar baseball fields across the country.
“I am so proud to be a father of such an amazing young person,” said local league board President Terry Battcher, whose son is on one of the teams and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. “Today you all become part of another team, a very special team, the Miracle League. Now moms, dads, grandparents and family of special athletes can know you are not alone.”
Battcher’s 13-year-old son, Dalton, was 5 when plans for the Modesto-based Miracle League began. He said the finished field, at Pelandale Avenue and Tully Road next to Big Valley Grace Community Church, should mean a lot to all those who play on it.
“When you have friends who all play on baseball teams at school, you miss out and tend to feel left out. But now to get to play on my own team is great,” said Dalton Battcher, who was born with cerebral palsy.
The league has six teams – all named after real-life professional baseball teams such as the Giants and the Dodgers. The league is open to players ages 5 to 17 with a wide range of special needs including Down syndrome, autism, hearing impairment and others. Players come from Stanislaus County and beyond. Teams include players with a mix of ages and abilities, as well as coaches and volunteer buddies. Each player has a “buddy” who helps them as needed on the field.
While opening day games were rained out, the league will begin its eight-week spring schedule next weekend. Each game will be two innings long and the noncompetitive play allows everyone to bat and scores runs.
Stanislaus Miracle League CEO Marci Boucher, who is also executive director of the Society for Disabilities, said being part of a team sport such as baseball is an invaluable experience for the players and their families.
“It’s a social thing on top of being a game,” Boucher said. “It builds team spirit and it’s more than just playing a sport. It lets the kids and parents know there are other people, families with disabilities, too, and make friends.”
The excitement from the youths and their families was evident. All the teams were introduced and cheered on by professional players from the Modesto Nuts as well as area celebrity mascots. Families held handmade signs and wore custom T-shirts to cheer on their players.
Among them was Salida resident Krissi Ackison, who wore a tank top emblazoned with “My Little MVP – Charlie.” Her 7-year-old son, Charlie, has autism and had tried playing on regular T-ball and soccer teams in the past, but it didn’t work out. Now with the Miracle League, she said he will be able to fully enjoy being on a team in a program geared toward his needs.
“This gives my son an opportunity he never would have had before,” she said. “I played softball and baseball my whole life and finally he can, too.”
Like Ackison, proud mom Felicia Cortez was there to cheer on her player, 11-year-old Michael Padilla. The Modesto mother said she was excited when she heard about the league and eager to sign up her son, who has autism and is nonverbal. Like many of the players, this will be the first team sport in which he has been able to participate.
“It’s emotional and exciting. I just want him to have fun and know he can do it,” she said. “I just want him to be part of a team like everyone else.”
The league has 70 players and is open to others who want to join.