In 1996, Phillip Deason was approached by the mother of Corey Freeman, a spunky 3-year-old with Down syndrome who desperately wanted to play baseball. Deason, then president of the youth sports association in Moody, Ala. (pop. 8,053), put the youngster on a non-competitive Cap Ball team, a precursor to tee-ball.
But after five years, Corey grew too big to play with the 3- and 4-year-olds, and Deason considered starting a baseball league for kids with special needs. In 2002, he did just that, creating the Moody Miracle League, which now boasts 150 players.
“In regular youth associations, parents will holler because of a bad call or a child who didn’t get to play,” says Deason, 44, a city councilman in charge of Moody’s parks and recreation department. “But at a Miracle League game, you hear them talk of wrenching decisions between buying a new automobile or their child an electric wheelchair. That puts it all into perspective.”
Deason’s search for a special needs team led him to the National Miracle League Association (NMLA), a Conyers, Ga.-based organization that formed after a Georgia coach started a special needs team in 1999. The NMLA informed Deason that a Miracle League field would cost about $400,000.
Fund-raising efforts for Moody’s field began in July 2002. Deason teamed up with two Birmingham, Ala., deejays, who collected $10,000 during a radiothon. The city donated park space for the field, while Deason blitzed local corporations for donations.
“We raised about $200,000 in funds, the rest in materials and manpower,” Deason says.
The Moody Miracle League field was completed in April 2003 and includes a flat, cushioned, synthetic playing surface with bases painted on to eliminate barriers for players with wheelchairs, walkers or visual impairments. The league involves players from seven Alabama counties that form 10 teams. Every player gets a chance to bat, every at bat is a home run, and every game ends in a tie. There are 16 Miracle League fields nationwide, with 61 under construction and more planned.
Moody’s league has a regular spring season and an abbreviated fall season, the latter ending with a fall festival at the park. Although the NMLA sets ages at 3 to 21, many Moody players are in their 20s and 30s, with two in their 70s. Some, like Corey Freeman, have Down syndrome, while others are autistic or suffer from cerebral palsy. One woman is blind, and her guide dog leads her around the bases.
Butch Hallmark, 17, is one of the “buddies” who walks bases with players or stands in the field alongside them to make sure they don’t get hurt. “I’ve loved doing this since opening day,” the Moody High School senior says. “The player I buddy with can’t talk, but he lets out this excited scream, so you know he enjoys it.”
Playing baseball helps the participants feel good about themselves, says Patrick Shipp, who umpires the games. “Some can only blink or smile, but to see their faces light up when everyone stands and cheers for them, well, it’s a blessing.”
According to Freeman’s mom, Rhonda, the Miracle League field is a place where parents of children with special needs get to share their stories and where her son gets a recreational outlet to let off steam and energy. “Corey has a blast there,” she says.
Deason, a modest man who prefers to remain in the background rather than coach a team, credits donors and volunteers for the league’s success. Parents, however, call him “the heart and soul” of the league, convinced that his involvement has been crucial to its success.
“I don’t feel like we’d be where we are now, debt-free, if not for Phillip,” says Renae Harris, a league volunteer.
Deason says that he grew up like a typical teenager, picking on people who were different. “Now, I watch our two 70-year-old players and wonder how many years they wanted to play baseball and were made fun of by people like me,” he says. “I’ve got to believe the majority of my 30 volunteers have these same feelings.”
For more information on the Miracle League Association, call (770) 760-1933 or log on to www.miracleleague.com.