Stepping to the plate for a special cause

Miracle League offers perfect fit for MiLB teams' charitable endeavors

(Jack Newton)

By Benjamin Hill / Special to | October 10, 2008 6:00 AM

During the Major League Baseball postseason, each and every managerial move is relentlessly scrutinized. There is no margin for error, and one bad decision may end up haunting these beleaguered skippers for the rest of their careers.

Just ask Grady Little.

Contrast this pressure-cooker environment with the one found in the Austin Miracle League.

"I have a perfect record, and there are is no such thing as a bad decision," said Seamus Gallivan, who has served as the head coach of Austin's Miracle League Yankees since 2006. "I spend a lot of my time coaching third, rounding my players home by doing the windmill. Everybody scores."

The likes of Charlie Manuel, Joe Torre, Terry Francona and Joe Maddon wish they could be so lucky. Clearly, the Miracle League is in a class by itself.

The Miracle League was founded in 1998 with the core belief that "Every child deserves to play baseball." To achieve this mission, the league gives disabled children the chance to suit up, take the field and swing the bat, so that they may enjoy the national pastime to the fullest extent possible.

What started as a local project in Rockdale, Ga., has blossomed into a nationwide phenomenon. Currently there are over 200 Miracle Leagues nationwide, serving more than 80,000 disabled children and young adults. Many of these leagues play on specially built rubberized fields, which minimize the hazards that grass and dirt can impose on wheelchairs and walkers. Each Miracle League game lasts three innings, and every player bats and scores a run in each of them. These players are all assigned "buddies," high-school-aged volunteers who assist with batting, running and fielding while also serving as friends and cheerleaders.

Given the organization's mission, the Miracle League is an obvious fit to be a charitable partner of a Minor League franchise. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in Austin, Texas, home of the Pacific Coast League's Round Rock Express.

Miracle League Takes Express Route in Austin

In 2001, the HBO Television program "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" broadcast a story on the Miracle League, featuring an 11-year-old girl from the Atlanta area who had been diagnosed with brittle bone disease. The piece had a profound impact on Steve Brown, an Austin-area businessman who served on the board of directors for the local Town and Country Optimist Club.

"I saw that and I thought to myself, 'Why aren't we doing this in Austin?'" recalled Brown. "At the Optimist Club we have 96 acres of land and offered a wide variety of sports, but we weren't giving all of the children the opportunity to participate. I went to the board and told them that the Miracle League was something we needed to look into."

Look into they did, and soon Brown took up the difficult task of securing funding for the project. According to his initial estimates, setting up a Miracle League Field would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million.

Enter the Round Rock Express. One of the principal owners of the Austin-area ballclub is Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, and his son, Reid, serves as CEO. Through the charitable Nolan Ryan Foundation, the Express donated a $250,000 naming gift to the project.

"That $250,000 was huge, because it allowed us to turn the process on," said Brown. "We partnered with an architect who donated his time to the project, and we worked with engineers who donated their time as well. Working with the Express and the Nolan Ryan Foundation gave us instant credibility, because the Ryans don't do anything halfway."

As a result of acquiring much of their labor and materials at a significantly reduced rate, the cost of building the field ended up at approximately $500,000. The Austin Miracle League debuted in May 2006 on a standard grass and dirt ballfield, and play began on the rubberized "Round Rock Express Miracle Field" the following season. The Austin Miracle League currently features both a fall and spring season, and hosts four games each Saturday.

"One of the biggest surprises has been the impact the Miracle League has had on our teenage 'buddies' who volunteer with the program," said Brown. "At first these kids are apprehensive, but after a game or two they are playing around with the Miracle Leaguers like they were brother and sister. It's that sort of thing that makes this a really gratifying experience, and we're always trying to get the word out to more people."

Meanwhile, the Express' commitment to the project has gone far beyond the initial cash gift.

"Nearly all of our fundraising efforts focus on the Miracle League," said Express general manager Dave Fendrick. "It costs about $50 per child to play in the league, which covers things like insurance, T-shirts and uniforms. We are working on establishing an endowment fund that would allow these children to play for free, like a scholarship."

Fendrick cites a veritable "laundry list" of fundraising activities the Express have done on behalf of the league, including an upcoming golf tournament and the post-game "Skills for Bills Ball Toss." This unrelenting commitment has caused the community to rally behind the project as well.

"Fundraising can be a Catch-22," said Brown. "You can't start a project until you get funding, but many people won't understand what it is you're doing until they see you out there doing it. To get the Express on our side in the early going was just huge."

Getting Hooked in Corpus Christi

The sister franchise of the Express is the Texas League's Corpus Christi Hooks, who are currently attempting to duplicate the Miracle League success that has been achieved in Round Rock.

"Once the program was established in Austin, it was a natural fit to bring it to Corpus Christi as well," said J.J. Gottsch, former president of the Hooks who now serves as executive vice president of Ryan-Sanders Baseball. "Over the last two years, 75 percent of our fundraising efforts have been geared toward the Miracle League."

All told, Gottsch and the Hooks are hoping to raise $1 million.

"That would fund the construction of a new ballpark and leave money in the bank to allow the league to operate at a high level," he said.

The Hooks have so far found several key supporters as they aim for a 2009 ballpark opening. The Whataburger fast-food franchise has signed on as corporate partner, and the No Bats Baseball Club has emerged as a primary donor as well.

"[No Bats] is just a group of guys, 35-70 years old, who get together to play baseball and donate money to different baseball-related charities," said Gottsch. "Last year, they came to play in Corpus Christi and presented us with a check for $52,000. These are guys from all walks of life, from all over the United States."

On a smaller, day-to-day level, the Hooks have made Miracle League fundraising a primary feature of the Whataburger Field experience.

"Every time the Hooks turn a double play, we have a local company donate money to the Miracle League," Gottsch explained. "We also have a group of fans here called the "High-Fivers" who donate money after every run that's scored. Even the players have gotten involved. After every home run, we pass a bucket around the stands, and that money is generally split among the team. At the end of that season, the players took some of that money and donated it to the Miracle League.

"Any Minor League team wants to give back to the community, but to give it back to a baseball-themed charity like the Miracle League really ties it all together. This is something fans can really wrap their arms around, and to be a part of it is a very gratifying feeling."

One person who is very familiar with how gratifying the Miracle League can be is Gallivan, the aforementioned coach of Austin's Miracle League Yankees. Gallivan joined the Express front office in 2005, and currently serves as director of gameday entertainment for the Hooks.

"The Miracle League offers a chance for these kids to put that uniform on and really feel like they're part of a team," he said. "And it means so much for the parents, too, for them to be able to cheer on their child after a great catch or a game-winning home run. Many of them had thought that they'd never be able to experience that moment.

"It's easy to find support for this, because this is our national pastime, and every child deserves the chance to play baseball. It is something that has had a profound impact on me, and I consider it to be a lifelong commitment. The rewards are great for everyone involved, and we all feel like we are part of something that is truly special."

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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