A true field of dreams
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Nov 4, 2013, 13:00
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A Miracle League player dressed as Wonder Woman gets help from a buddy to hit the ball Oct. 19.
It had been more than two dozen strikes in a row, but the batter’s smile was still as wide as if every swing was a home run.
The crowd clapped and cheered “You can do it!” as did those playing defense.
Even the pitcher called out “Alright Bernard, you got this!”
Finally, with the pop of an oversized plastic bat, he connected with the ball and dashed to first base with his buddy at his side.
This is Miracle League. Every player gets on base and everyone scores.
The players range from having developmental delays to physical disabilities that require the use of a wheelchair. Buddies hold their hands as they run the bases. Some need help swinging the bat or chasing down balls in the field.
At the final game for their fall season on Oct.19, players and volunteers dressed up in costumes for Halloween. They ranged from superheroes to gruesome creatures.
Uplifting music echoed across the special rubberized field along with the cheers from fans.
The field has an outfield that is smaller than normal but there are dugouts and a even a press box. A pavillion area built by an Eagle Scout shielded people and snacks from the light rain.
While no player ever loses on this field, it’s also clear that the parents and volunteers are winners as well.
HOW IT STARTED
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A player gets a hand rounding the bases from a volunteer.
Karen Pusey, of Mechanicsville, decided to start the Richmond Chapter of the national Miracle League organization after hearing about them 10 years ago.
She doesn’t have a child with a disability, but she saw it as a calling.
Her two children were 13 and 14 in 2003 and she wanted them to volunteer.
“I saw a segment on HBO Sports about Miracle League national, and they were just getting off the ground and they had just built the first field in Georgia,” Pusey said.
She said she just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“It was God saying ‘Come on, Karen. This is right up your alley. ... I just couldn’t let it go.”
Her family decided to create a chapter in the Richmond area, funding the initial effort themselves.
“I left my job because really I knew it was going to take a full-time obligation to make this happen,” Pusey said.
In March 2005, the chapter became a reality and Pusey financed the marketing and spread the word to any club or organization that would listen.
She originally wanted to put the facility in Hanover County but didn’t get the reception she had hoped for. There wasn’t huge support in Chesterfield either until a break happened in December 2005.
“I can remember it to this day. I almost overslept,” she said.
Pusey attended a Midlothian Rotary breakfast meeting, did her presentation and showed a video about the group. Pete Stith, the former director of parks and recreation in Chesterfield, came up to her and asked for her card. The next day, she was invited to attend an advisory board meeting.
“They unanimously made the decision to bring it to Chesterfield County,” she said.
The next step was finding a location. Pusey said they originally tried to put the field in a back corner but she stood her ground on seeking a prominent location.
“We knew we wanted to be visible and within a park,” she said.
Chesterfield finally gave up three old tennis courts near L.C. Bird HIgh School in Chester to start construction of the field.
The group started construction of the field in June 2007, raising money with annual black-tie galas. The first in 2006 raised $109,000 alone.
The inaugural season had 18 players and has now grown to 92 for the eight-week spring-summer season. There is also a fall season with games are Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
Families have come from throughout the region to participate in this program, even from as far away as Warsaw, Va., Pusey said.
Players and buddies line up to give each other high fives after the game.
Miracle League relies heavily on its volunteers.
At the last game of the season, help came from Monacan High School Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Trinity United Methodist Church and Bailey Bridge Middle School.
Karen Williams, the adviser for Bailey Bridge’s National Junior Honor Society, said they came out after her students brought it up.
“Karen [Pusey] is phenomenal. ... It’s just immediately ‘Come on. Bring all that you can. We’ve got room for everyone.’ The organization is just fabulous. Welcoming. Encouraging. Happy,” she said.
The league’s head coach, Steve Northcott, has been volunteering with the group since its first games in 2007.
At the recent game, he dressed as a penguin and called out encouraging words while pitching to the kids.
He grew up in Colonial Heights and now handles the on-field operations for all the games.
“It’s like a big family. Some of these kids have been here since we started.”
He discovered Miracle League when he was coaching his daughter’s’ fast-pitch softball team in the nearby field. He met Karen Pusey when she was trying to raise money for the Miracle League field.
“I just said ‘I gotta do this.’ ... It’s changed my life,” he said.
Joe and Dee Calabrese, who came out for the first time to watch their grandson Max play, said they were amazed with the facility and the level of care from the volunteers. They have a son who grew up in a wheelchair and remember him playing softball and basketball. They said this type of facility and this level of support did not exist back then.
“With our son 30 years ago they were just starting this whole concept and it was tar, literally tar, they played on. ...” Dee Calabrese said. “There were no volunteers. Wheelchairs going backwards and people falling on their heads.”
The group is 100 percent volunteer-run and Pusey hopes to keep it that way.
“When I went into this I was leading everything with my heart. I never thought to take any money,” she said.
But as the league grows, she said it might help to get some type of paid position, or perhaps it can be incorporated into Chesterfield County’s therapeutic programs.
PARENTS BENEFIT AS WELL
Head Coach Steve Northcott pitches.
Linda Smith cheered as her son Noah, who dressed as “Black Fear” the zombie pirate, hit a home run over the center field fence.
But she said its not just the players who benefit from the camaraderie.
“These kids give us back more than we give them,” she said.
“We used to be pitching in the yard but it got harder and harder to do so I said I’ve got to find somebody to do this with,” Smith said. Noah has now been playing for three years.
Another parent, Lori Guthrie, said the parents also share a bond, knowing they are all in similar circumstances.
“No matter what happens, if they lie down in the outfield or scream and yell, it doesn’t matter because all of the parents have seen this. ...” she said. “When you come here, its a form of respite because for once our job is nothing but to sit and watch and be a parent for a change versus being a caregiver, being a nurse, or whatever.”
The game also shows players that they are not alone.
“They see how everything works with each other ... that there are other people out there like them,” Guthrie said.
Players and buddies all lined up to give each other high fives after the game.
“Where else can you go where you are not worrying about sportsmanship or arguing. These other kids who play T-ball and stuff, its all about the win. Our kids, just hitting is a win,” Guthrie said.
“We are all cheering for the same thing. ...” she said. “We spend most of our lives dealing with what our kids can’t do. It’s nice to have a Saturday here and just celebrate what our kids can do.”
Guthrie said the program has helped her daughter off the field as well.
“Before this, she didn’t have the confidence to do anything, and now she’s dribbling a basketball,” she said.
Guthrie praised Pusey for being the driving force behind the group.
“She just saw the need and saw what we go through. Just to know that somebody that doesn’t live the same life we do had the heart and vision, it’s awesome.”
THE WORK CONTINUES
Karen Pusey, who founded the Richmond area chapter of Miracle League, talks to the crowd at the group’s field near L.C. Bird High School in Chester.
While the group has come a long way in the past few years, it still has plans for the future.
The group is trying to raise money to get their own handicapped-accessible bathrooms. They’ve raised $42,000 for the bathrooms so far and they’ve gotten approval for a modular building, but it will cost a total of $147,000. Some people have pledged in-kind donations to run sewer and water lines.
Currently, the kids have to go to a bathroom that is on the far side of the sports complex.
“Whenever our kids have to use the bathroom, at least one if not two up to three at-bats, because most are physically challenged,” Guthrie said.
For more information on Miracle League of Richmond, visit www.miracleleagueofrichmond.com or call 804-229-4966.