Hoping for Miracle of new field

Local Miracle League seeking $300,000 for a safer place to play

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter



Like many 13-year-olds, baseball is one of Matthew Long's favorite activities.

But it isn't only the chance to swing the bat and run the bases that excites Matthew each game day. It doesn't matter how many hits they get or how many runs they score. For Matthew and his younger brother Jack, the baseball diamond is a happy place.

For now, that place is at Burton Elementary School, where The Miracle League of Vancouver Washington gives children and adults with special needs a chance to play ball in the spring and the fall. But the league dreams of building a special rubberized field at Pacific Community Park that would make playing baseball safer and more fun for the children and adults who use crutches, walkers and wheelchairs.

In addition to discussing the project with Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation, the league is developing strategies — including a golf tournament and other events in 2013 — to help raise the estimated $300,000 that is needed to complete the project.

Did you know?

• Columbia River Miracle League, which played its first baseball games in 2007, has grown to include 120 players of all ages with a range of disabilities. The league is changing its name to The Miracle League of Vancouver Washington.

• Miracle League hopes to build a special rubberized field at Pacific Community Park. The price is estimated at $300,000. The field would be made available to other groups when not used for Miracle League baseball.

• Cost to play: $35 per season.

• On the web: http://columbiarivermiracleleague.org

Matthew and Jack Long, who each have autism, were among the first to join Miracle League when it was introduced to Clark County in 2007. Lisa Long said Miracle League baseball has improved her sons' confidence, and their ability to be socially engaged.

"It makes them feel important. It makes them feel part of the community and makes them feel like they have friends," Lisa Long said.

That sense of community was part of the inspiration for Art Liss, who founded the Columbia River Miracle League in 2005 and worked to get a special rubberized field built at the Harmony Sports Complex. Funding challenges delayed that dream, and Liss stepped away from the project several years ago, but he remains passionate about Miracle League and said he hopes a plan for a permanent home at Pacific Community Park succeed.

Ralph Heiser, who was among the original coaches when the league had enough players for only one team, took over as the league's president. He said the league is changing its name to The Miracle League of Vancouver Washington to strengthen its identity in the community.

The Miracle League is a national organization based in Georgia that currently has 250 leagues across the country. Vancouver and Monroe, Wash., are the only Northwest communities with active Miracle Leagues.

In the five years since it played its first games, the league has grown from a handful of players to 120. Heiser, like Liss before him, dreams of a day when the league can reach many more of the thousands of children and adults in Clark County living with disabilities.

Miracle League proponents including Liss believe the games can also significantly impact those who serve as buddies to the players.

"I think it makes our kids feel more special than it does the Miracle League kids," said Billy Hayes, whose Showtime Baseball Club teams are among those that volunteer as buddies to assist during Miracle League games.

"There's a lot our players get out of it," Hayes said. "They get to make someone's day, which is always special. And they understand that playing the game of baseball is a privilege."

Craig Mills, the league director, said the buddies — who have included area high school baseball teams — make the game. Buddies are paired with each player, pushing their wheelchair around the bases and assisting them in the field.

"Having the buddies there, that's a big thing for us," Mills said. "The buddies set the tone for the games."

Among those who have been moved to action in support of the Miracle League program is Brian Hunter.

A Fort Vancouver High School graduate and two-time American League stolen base champion, he recently formed the Designated Hitters Foundation to promote activities for youth. He said Miracle League is a good example of how major leaguers can support programs in their own towns.

Hunter has given several clinics for Miracle League players and said he is interested in planning fundraising to help the league build its field, a facility that he and Heiser note could help other groups that serve people with mobility challenges such as retirement communities.

While Heiser and Miracle League supporters work to build a special place, the league will continue to provide baseball and friendship for people facing all sorts of challenges.

People such as Matthew Long.

"Matthew is not very interested in sports in general," Lisa Long said. "But if it's a Miracle League day, he is up and is the first one who wants to get to the game."