A League With No Losers

A League With No Losers
Barry Horn - Staff Writer The Dallas Morning News Conyers, GA -

Russell Slade sang between prayers those days and nights he sat vigil by the bed of his comatose 4-year-old son, Nicholas, at Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center in Atlanta. The prayers varied. The song never did.“Take me out to the ballgame,” the father would gently sing over and over. “Take me out to the crowd…” On his motionless son’s bed, the father placed the boy’s tiny blue and yellow vinyl baseball glove. Nicholas had been admitted to the hospital in March 2000 so that tubes could be put in his ears to combat infection, a relatively minor procedure compared with the dozen or so surgeries he already had undergone. This time, however, Nicholas began to have violent seizures on the operating table. Two hours later, he was deep into a coma. Doctors feared the worst. Mr. Slade already witnessed one miracle with Nicholas. Now, as he sang, he desperately hoped for another. Once, Mr. Slade believed he’d buy a baseball glove for his only son. He never dreamed he’d be able to toss a ball around with Nicholas. He never thought he’d see his son in a uniform, playing on a baseball field.

Nicholas was born without eyes. It’s called “bilateral anopthalmia,” the doctors told Russell, a suburban Atlanta firefighter, and his wife, Patricia, a jewelry store manager, soon after their son was born. It is extremely rare, the doctors said. There was, they added, nothing they could do. As the numbness of the moment passed and the haze of disbelief disappeared, a million thoughts began racing through the father’s mind as he tried to make sense of the news.

One he distinctly remembers: “I always dreamed of coaching my son in baseball…I knew at that very moment my dream was gone.” Indeed, the father’s dream remained dormant for almost four years. Then in the spring of 1999, a physical therapist told Mrs. Slade that a baseball league for disabled children had started up in the area the previous year. The league welcomed all comers. Rosters were lined with blind players and players in wheelchairs. There were players with muscular dystrophy and Down Syndrome, multiple sclerosis and autism.

Children once sentenced to the sidelines were actually playing baseball. They ranged in age from 6 to 18. The children had diverse disabilities and needed different kinds of assistance: hitting a baseball, rounding the bases, crossing the plate, making it safely back to the dugout. In its embryonic stage, the undertaking was lovingly referred to as “the Hodgepodge League.” When Mrs. Slade told her husband about the league, Mr. Slade assured her there was no way their son - forced to undergo at least two procedures annually to fit ocular prostheses in hopes that his facial tissue would develop normally - could play.

But mother knew best. Mrs. Slade persisted and, finally, her husband relented. And so Mr. Slade bought a blue and yellow vinyl baseball glove and a ball. The next order of business was explaining to his son what the ball and glove were for and the wonderment they might bring. Then came the moment of truth. Mr. Slade rolled the ball to the boy in the yard. Nicholas found the ball after it bounced off his body and rolled it back. Over and over, father and son rolled it back and forth. “I’m telling you, the smile on his face was something to see,” Mr. Slade recalls. “There was something about baseball. It was almost immediate.” Mr. Slade drove 10 miles from his home in Covington to Conyers in the spring of 1999 and signed up Nicholas to play in the hodgepodge that everyone was now calling the “Miracle League.” “I never dreamed something like that was possible,” the father says. “It was truly a miracle. Nicholas’ face lit up every time we’d go off to play.” But now the darkness had returned. It was a year later, and as his son lay comatose in the hospital, Mr. Slade prayed there might be a second season and sang the words that had made his son the happiest.

The First Pitch About a week after Nicholas lapsed into a coma, there was stirring in his bed. Mr. Slade excitedly began talking to Nicholas about going home, sleeping in his own bed, playing in his own bedroom - a shrine to the Atlanta Braves - and attending the Miracle League season opener the next week. Nicholas finally sat up, and the Slades had what they called their second miracle. Before the night was over, the Slade family was singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Once again, Nicholas’ voice was part of the choir. On April 16, 2000, Nicholas threw out the first pitch of the Miracle League’s third season - and the first in its state-of-the-art ballpark. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “I love baseball,” says Nicholas, now 7, as his hands excitedly examine a visitor’s face. “I feel good when I play.”

Sitting across the room, his father, a son of the South, is proudly sporting the New York Yankees shirt he wears when he coaches Nicholas. “For most parents, youth sports have lost their meaning,” Mr. Slade says. “Youth sports are meant to be fun for the kids. How much fun can that be? It has become a business.” In our league, we’re just happy seeing our kids get a little sun on their faces, get off the sidelines and do something that other parents and their kids take for granted,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard for our kids to use the muscles they have to use for baseball. But it’s not too hard for them to use muscles they need to smile.” With 35 enthusiastic players and 70 anxious parents, the Miracle League opened on a grass and dirt field in the spring of 1998. It was more a happy confluence of events than any grand design. A

Sports Juggernaut But opening day was only the first baby step to result from one man’s act of kindness and the community’s response. Today, the Conyers league boasts 200 players. Originally a Saturday only league, it now schedules games Tuesday and Friday nights, as well, to satisfy demand. A league in Alpharetta (Ga.) 50 miles up the road, opened in September. Play is already underway in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Every mention in the media brings scores of inquiries from around the country. CNN has ventured to Conyers to cover the story. So have Atlanta television stations and the PAX cable network. The morning after the Miracle League was featured on HBO’s Real Sports in July 2001, the phone began ringing. Diane Alford, the league’s executive director, says she answered 1,400 inquiries from that exposure alone. All asked the same question: “How can we start our own Miracle League?” Today, there are plans for 80 leagues from coast to coast, including three in Texas. There have been 37 groundbreakings for specially equipped stadiums; an additional 42 are planned by the end of next year. “Our goal is to have a league in all 50 states,” Ms. Alford says. “Our dream is to have a league in or around every city.

The need is everywhere. If we could do it, anyone can.” Once a sleepy farming town in Rockdale County, 20 miles east of Atlanta, Conyers has boomed into an affluent suburban bedroom community. But it has been a bumpy ride. Conyers reveled in its glory during the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, playing host to the Games’ equestrian events. The city, however, gained notoriety in May 1999 when a student at Heritage High School went on a shooting rampage, wounding six schoolmates one month after the shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School.. Five months later, PBS broadcast a documentary several years in the making called The Lost Children of Rockdale County. It examined the lives of troubled teens from well-to-do families living in and around Conyers.

While PBS cameras were magnifying the tales of teen sex and drug abuse, a youth league baseball coach made what he describes as “one small step,” though some might consider his actions a giant leap of faith. After he came up one player short for his Mariners roster of 5 and 6 year old boys in the fall of 1997, Eddie Bagwell asked the younger brother of one of his players to join his team in the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association. The coach had kept a watchful eye on Michael Moore during the previous spring season. The 5 year old had come to all of big brother Clayton’s games and practices, watching quietly from the sidelines. It didn’t matter to Mr. Bagwell when he extended the invitation that Michael had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. It was the sadness of sitting on the sidelines in the boy’s eyes that Mr. Bagwell remembered most when he asked if Michael might like to complete the roster that included the coach’s youngest son. “Why pick him?” asks Mr. Bagwell, a real estate appraiser at the time who now owns a sporting goods store. “Why not?”

Using His Clout Because it was fall baseball - a sort of secondary season that coaches in Conyers used more for instruction than competitive play - Mr. Bagwell says he didn’t hesitate to include Michael. Besides, Mr. Bagwell had been recently elected president of the baseball association and was more than willing to test his new powers if someone objected to his plan. “Who was going to argue with me?” he asks. “I was in charge.” His other Mariners players accepted Michael immediately, Mr. Bagwell reports. There was only one problem: Teammates argued over who would push his wheelchair around the bases and help him in the field. Although he never heard a negative word from the kids, Mr. Bagwell encountered some opposition from rival coaches. Other coaches didn’t fear for the safety of the boy in the wheelchair. Instead, they conjured up notions that he somehow might give the Mariners a competitive advantage. “There are always some people who are going to be ding-dongs,” Mr. Bagwell recalls, the smile of a bridge player about to lay down a trump card working its way across his face. “I told one coach who complained to write a letter to the president of the league. I told him it would wind up on my desk and I’d get around to looking at it just as soon as the season was over.”

Safety Issue Mr. Bagwell’s Mariners didn’t win a single game of coach pitch baseball that fall season, and he still winces when he mentions that fact. But it will be a season that the coach and his players will never forget, even though Michael and his family moved away soon after and remained out of touch. “Michael got to wear a uniform and play with the other kids,” Mr. Bagwell says. “He couldn’t catch the ball or throw the ball, but he sure tried.” Mr. Bagwell pauses, his mind replaying scenes from the season. “But then again there are not many 5 and 6 year olds that I have met who can catch and throw properly.”

The spring season of 1998, however, was another matter. Baseball is a more serious game in the spring. As a member in good standing of the Dixie League Association - a Southern version of Little League - Rockdale Youth Baseball could not field a team with a player in a wheelchair who needed help to play. It was in the rules. “It’s a safety issue as much as anything, Mr. Bagwell says. “A baseball field can be a dangerous place.” But Mr. Bagwell was not willing to see the sadness return to a boy’s eyes. Once again, he wielded the power of his office. As league president, he offered an alternative. His association controlled 10 baseball fields. If there were enough disabled children who wanted to play, and a system to protect them from hard hit balls could be devised, his baseball association would provide them a home.

Like most of his neighbors, Mr. Bagwell never gauged what the response might be. All around they saw parents working diligently to build their healthy children into trophy athletes whom they could brag about around the water cooler. But they never considered how many children there might be who never ventured anywhere near the youth sports fields. They never dreamed that the latest census figures for Georgia would reveal that 8.2 percent of the population ages 5 to 20 - 158,000 boys and girls, young men and young women - were classified as having a disability. Relying mostly on word of mouth to recruit players, the fledgling league embraced 35 pioneering children - enough for four teams - before opening day. With no cutoff date for signing up, by season’s end the league had swelled to 60 players who could not wait to put on their uniforms and play baseball on sunny Saturday mornings. Though the players’ smiles were captivating and their parents’ joy contagious, there were plenty of tears in the stands.“The first thing the kids do is steal your heart,” says Ms. Alford, the league’s executive director. “But you watch them play and watch them having fun, and they’ll have you bawling like you’re at your mama’s funeral.” The Miracle League’s first season in 1998 taught the people of Conyers two important lessons: There was high demand for what the league was offering, and a regular baseball field can be a minefield for a child who uses a wheelchair or a walker. Subsequent research told league organizers that there were almost 80,000 disabled children in the Atlanta area alone unable to participate in youth sports. Meanwhile, protective parents were leery about allowing their children to play on a field where a pebble in a base path might as well be a boulder. Even the slightest elevation change can tip a wheelchair or trip a blind player.

A Dream Realized As preparations were being made for the league’s second season, two Rockdale County Rotary clubs joined forces to form the Rotary Miracle League Fund. The goals were to spread the word about the league so more children might participate and to build a field that might better accommodate players. With the help of local Lions and Kiwanis clubs as well as area churches and youth groups, more than $1 million was raised to build a special field in the midst of Conyers’ sprawling youth baseball complex.. When Nicholas Slade threw out the first pitch of the 2000 season, he did it at a spanking new McMiracle field with its cushiony $190,000 synthetic turf designed to ensure slower bounces. There is also a special sprinkler system to keep the field cool on hot Georgia days as well as wheelchair accessible dugouts, restrooms and concession stands. That McMiracle Field, which pulled a $300,000 donation from McDonalds, stands in the heart of the complex is no accident. “We want our children to go to the same ball fields as their sisters and brothers and friends,” Ms. Alford says. “We want to expose them to mainstream America and expose mainstream America to them.”

Games’ Format The games themselves are tightly formatted, having changed little from the league’s original opening day. Miracle League pioneers devised two inning games in which every player gets to bat twice. Coaches lob balls to batters. For players who have trouble making contact or cannot see pitches, the ball is set up on a tee. Those who still have problems hitting the ball are assisted by a “buddy.” Every player is assigned a buddy to help him or her in the field and at bat. At first, most nervous parents elect to be their child’s buddy. As they become more comfortable with the league, however, they often relinquish the role to a player from one of the other youth league teams and retreat to the stands to soak up the atmosphere. There are no strikeouts in Miracle League play. When a ball is hit, the batter can take as many bases as he or she pleases. Some can make it around the bases without resting. Others may have to pause at a base to catch their breath. There is no rule that disallows passing on the base path. Everyone scores in the end. There is no scoreboard perched above the right field fence. After all, what would a state of the art baseball field be without a scoreboard? But runs are never recorded. Neither are hits and errors. In the Miracle League, everyone leaves the field a winner. Mr. Bagwell says that several of the coaches who originally complained about his using a player in a wheelchair have volunteered for Miracle League duty. Having his own business in the community, he says, makes him reluctant to name names. “But I will tell you this: There are those who have been involved in our youth baseball association for years who are scoundrels - overzealous dogs - when it comes to competition. But this has changed some of them. This has changed everyone who has taken the time to get involved all for the better.”

Assuming the Risks Twelve-year-old Lauren Gunder has emerged as the unofficial poster child for the Miracle League, speaking on behalf of many compatriots who have difficulty communicating. A seventh grade honors student in Lawrenceville, a 45 minute drive from Conyers, Lauren is a vivacious and quick-witted Miracle Leaguer who lives and dies with her Atlanta Braves. Lauren bats right-handed and throws right-handed. “I do everything right-handed, except read,” she reports. “I read Braille with my left hand.” Lauren was born with osteoporosis, a disease that leaves her bones brittle and ready to snap at even the slightest touch. The disease has even affected her hearing and sight. Watching her Braves on television can be a chore. But snuggling up with a radio on her pillow and listening to a Braves game is always a pleasure. Like most parents, the Gunders came to the Miracle League cautiously. They fretted over Lauren’s playing, even on a specially designed field where the smallest seam could be devastating to a brittle boned girl in a wheelchair. Always before, whenever Lauren came home from school with fliers or sign up sheets for soccer or basketball or baseball, her parents had to say no. But Jesse and Jenifer Gunder weighed the risks and rewards for their daughter - who, doctors told them, would be lucky to make it to her first birthday - and played a hunch. They understood that even with her father as her buddy and alongside her every step of the way, her wheelchair could tip over. They understood there could be trips to a local hospital and a six-hour dash to Charleston, S.C.; to see the world-renowned specialist whose experimental treatment has kept Lauren alive. But they also understood her desire to do something her “normal” friends do and to talk about it at school. “When a child has a disability, that child always wants to do the things he or she can’t do,” says Mrs. Gunder. “Lauren wanted to play baseball. We finally said OK.” Says Lauren, “What I like best is that I can swing a bat by myself. I don’t need anyone to help me. There aren’t a lot of other things I can do by myself. In the Miracle League, I get to live my dream of playing baseball just like my friends.” In April 2000, on opening day of McMiracle Field, Lauren was introduced to several dignitaries. She was happy to meet so many from the Atlanta Braves organization, but she was smitten only by Brian Jordan, an outfielder, who took the time to trade stories with her about their respective games. Lauren was devastated when Mr. Jordan was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 2002 season.

Touching Them All The Dodgers were in Atlanta in May when Lauren celebrated her 12th birthday. She and her family went to the game at Turner Field. Before the game, Lauren was invited onto the field to renew acquaintances with Mr. Jordan. As she stepped from the stands to the field - a drop of not more than a couple of inches, her mother reports using her thumb and curled index finger for emphasis - Lauren’s right leg snapped. She broke her shinbone and had to be rushed to the hospital. Her spring 2002 Miracle League season was over after two games. The fall 2002 season wasn’t any better. Lauren broke her right thighbone stepping out or her wheelchair - a routine step - just before the season and spent most of the season in a body cast. When she started in the Miracle League, Lauren stood when she batted and hopped into her wheelchair to round the bases after hitting the ball. But her bones have become more brittle, and her doctors now demand that she bat from the wheelchair. In her first at-bat of the season, the ball the pitcher threw had a beeper implanted to help her gauge where it was. Like a veteran major leaguer facing a new pitcher, she didn’t swing. Rather, she judged the timing of the pitch. On the next pitch, Lauren hit a line drive and circled the bases. “I can’t wait for the season to start up again in April,” Lauren says. “I have a lot of things to make up for.” She motions for her interviewer to come closer. She bends forward and whispers conspiratorially. “The doctors say I’ll have to bat in a wheelchair. But I’ll be standing at the plate again. Come and see me.” *Photos above were not part of the original print story.