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Everybody Gets to Play

July 15, 2009—When Mike Sherry ’90 first visited a Miracle League Field in Alabama with his wife and son in 2003, he was moved by the sight of disabled children happily playing baseball on a field designed specifically for special needs children. Four years later, after his three-year-old daughter, Jordan, was diagnosed with autism, Sherry decided to bring the Miracle League to Pittsburgh.

Miracle League

Short promotional video for "Everybody Gets to Play," an IUP Magazine web exclusive 0:40, 10 MB

“It’ll change your life, I guarantee it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to see.”

Mike Sherry at the Miracle League Field

Mike Sherry at the Miracle League Field

This past May, Sherry, as the first president of the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania, was nothing but smiles as the Miracle Field officially opened in Cranberry Township, just north of the city.

The field is the first of its kind in the Pittsburgh area, although over one hundred Miracle League fields already exist across the country and about one hundred more are under construction. Its rubberized surface allows children in wheelchairs and walkers to move easily, and the field has a concession stand, dugouts, bathrooms, lights, and a pavilion. The field allows disabled children to play organized games with volunteers who assist them, and those who built it want to serve as many as possible of the estimated 90,000 disabled children who live in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The whirlwind of the past two years—since Sherry’s daughter was diagnosed with autism to the grand opening of the Cranberry field—began as Sherry prepared to coach his son Tanner’s baseball team in spring 2007. He was approached by a parent and asked to make an exception for a disabled boy who needed to hit from a tee. Sherry and his wife, Chris, remembered the Miracle Field and were moved to action.

He founded the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MLSWPA) in January 2007 with the goal of establishing a field in the Pittsburgh area. Sherry, general sales manager for KDKA Radio, got in touch with the Pirates Charities (the philanthropic arm of the Pittsburgh Pirates), and in July 2008 the group pledged $200,000 to the Miracle League, including $50,000 from Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez and his wife, Alissa (a pavilion on the field is named in their honor). With their support, plus that of many volunteers and the community, the $300,000 needed to construct the field was raised, and in May 2009 the field had its opening day and first games.

“It’ll change your life, I guarantee it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to see,” Sherry said. “It’s all about these kids. When we had the uniform distribution, it was just a wonderful blessing to see these all these kids down on the field running around, playing, and just thoroughly enjoying themselves.”

Miracle League players and "buddies"

A Miracle League player and his buddy on their way to first base as another player heads for home plate

Opening Day on that first Saturday saw intermittent thunderstorms, but the sun broke through for the opening ceremonies, including a blessing of the field that was accompanied by an interpreter for the deaf. Hundreds of people—players, families, friends, and reporters—listened and cheered as the speakers reflected on the meaning and the future of the field. Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting, who brought the Pirate Parrot mascot along for the celebration, said, “I’ve never seen a more rewarding project come together than what all of you have done.”

Sherry’s friend Doug Lucas, who has been his right-hand man since the beginning and is now vice president of MLSWPA, said, “We built a field to last. Twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty years from now, kids will still be playing on it.”

For his efforts in bringing the field to Cranberry Township, Sherry received the 2008 Achieva Excellence in Community Inclusion Award, presented by the Achieva Family of philanthropies in honor of his work and dedication on behalf of people with disabilities.

The Miracle League ballfields are completely flat and can be easily negotiated by players who use wheelchairs or walkers. Construction of the surface starts with bagfuls of colored recycled tires—green for the outfield, white for the baselines and bases, and brown for the “dirt.” The bits are combined with a bonding agent in a small concrete mixer and laid out one wheelbarrow-full at a time, resulting in a seamless field from end to end. Some Miracle Fields are made with rolls of the material, but the thawing and freezing cycles of weather in the northeast caused concern about the seams separating.

The Miracle League was formed in 1998 with the mission of providing opportunities for all children to play baseball regardless of their ability. It was decided that each player would bat once each inning and that all batters would be safe and score a run before the inning was over. No baseball skills are required, and each team and each player always win. “Buddies” assist each player—volunteers age twelve and older who are trained in how to help the players, regardless of the child’s need.

Most games are two innings long, and the safety baseballs have a synthetic cover. For kids with sight disabilities, beeper balls are used: egg-shaped beepers that are placed at the bases so the kids can hear where to go.

Opening Day at the Cranberry Township Miracle League Field

Players, volunteers, and guests pose for a group photo on Opening Day at the Miracle League Field

From the original thirty-five players on four teams, the Miracle League grew to two hundred Miracle League organizations across the country, including Puerto Rico, serving over 80,000 children and young adults with disabilities.

Thanks to people like Sherry and his wife, Chris, who is the league secretary, it’s not going to stop there. Aside from working to raise an additional $200,000 to place in an escrow fund for future field repairs and upkeep, he is also looking to build more fields in southwestern Pennsylvania. “I truly believe that one, or even two, Miracle League ball fields in the eleven-county area are not nearly enough,” Sherry said. “There are over 90,000 kids in southwestern Pennsylvania with some type of special need. We need to build about five of these ballfields in this area so that parents have easy access to them and won’t need to travel extensive distances for their children to play ball.”

One area of special interest is his hometown of Indiana.

“I grew up in Indiana and went to IUP. My mother still lives up there. She’s in real estate and is on the board of the YMCA. I have a brother and sister who live up there—my sister teaches special education at Marion Center. Indiana’s very special to me,” Sherry said. “If we could find the real estate and the funding, there would be nothing more satisfying than coming to my hometown and building a Miracle League ballfield.”

Making a field become a reality takes a concerted effort between three important groups: the local township, borough, or county; an athletic association that the league gets to be a part of; and a group of volunteers who are passionate about the league and about raising money. Each league requires about three hundred volunteers to operate. The MLSWPA currently has ten teams and over 150 players, and every player needs a buddy. So if there are fifteen players on a team, about eighteen volunteers are needed. And, volunteers are always needed—people who are looking to give back to the community and who want to get involved and be a part of the league.

“It takes a massive dedication and involvement in the community. It’s not just ‘put a team together and get a couple of coaches and go.’ We need to make sure that every child has a passionate and loving buddy over the age of twelve that can help him or her,” Sherry said. “Our goal is to let the parents sit in the stands and enjoy the game of baseball like any other parent, cheering the children on and rooting for them and clapping for them, and actually getting about an hour-and-a-half break from all the other stresses in life they have to deal with every day. About the only formal training anyone needs is a big heart and a lot of passion and excitement to cheer these kids on.”

Mike Sherry surrounded by players and volunteers

Mike Sherry surrounded by players and volunteers

Players on the teams could have disabilities ranging from kids in wheelchairs to kids who need walkers and crutches, kids with height disabilities, Down’s syndrome, autism…all across the spectrum. They can be from ages five to eighteen, and Sherry notes that they have to keep an eye on some of the bigger children. The MLSWPA partnered with the local Challenger League, a division of Little League that may take some of the kids up to the next level, playing on a regular dirt field.

The focus of Sherry and the Miracle League continues to be on raising awareness and dollars.

“I’m going to continue my drive in my fashion and challenge corporate America, challenge towns, counties, and boroughs,” Sherry said. “When they’re looking at sports recreational facilities, they should not only think about able-bodied kids that want to play baseball or soccer or football or lacrosse, but they also need to make room for all the other kids who have some type of special need and simply want to do what their brothers and sisters and neighbors want to do, and that’s be part of an organized league.

“I tell people it’s about giving these wonderful children an opportunity to socialize and integrate amongst their peers and just have something to think about on Monday as they go through all their therapy and all their challenges, so that when Saturday comes around they’re pretty stoked to play.”

As IUP Magazine went to press, the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania was starting registration for the fall season that runs from the middle of September to the end of October. More information can be found on the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania website.

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Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton
Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton Photograph by Bill Hamilton