Miracle League Baseball Finds A Second Home In Coronado - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: News

Miracle League Baseball Finds A Second Home In Coronado

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Posted: Friday, November 9, 2012 10:27 am

Miracle League of San Diego Baseball, a program that provides recreational opportunities to players with disabilities, is about to conclude their first fall season in Coronado. The league, which is comprised of players who range in age from very young children to young adults, will play Saturday at noon and 1 p.m., at Green Field, located behind Village Elementary School.

To provide some background on the Miracle League, we turned to San Diego Cofounder and President Dan Engel, who started the local version of the nation-wide organization eight years ago. “Miracle League has been in existence since 2001,” said Engel. “The organization is based in Conyers, Georgia. There is a focus on the buddy system, so that every player has a buddy.”

The Miracle League is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its first San Diego location was constructed at San Dieguito Park and took two years to build. The structure is entitled Engel Family Field, which is also a Little Padres Park. According to the Miracle League’s website, more than 800 children with disabilities and 1,200 volunteers from throughout San Diego County have participated in the program since its inception.

One drawback to the San Dieguito location was the 50-mile drive from the South Bay and East County that several of the players and their families had to negotiate to play baseball. Perhaps an obvious question to ask Engel was, ‘Why Coronado as the first satellite location for the Miracle League?’ “Purely to satisfy demand,” Engel replied. “We have been looking for a South Bay location for the past year and a half. Mark Blumenthal was instrumental in bringing the location to us.”

A quick team meeting among Coronado Unified School District personnel including Superintendent Dr. Jeff Felix, Assoc. Superintendent for Business Affairs Randie Allen and Asst. Superintendent for Student Services Richard Erhard and Green Field was the new South Bay home for the Miracle League. At last Saturday’s Miracle League games Erhard described the decision to become involved with the Miracle League as, “A no brainer.”

Engel said of the school district’s participation, “The district has been a terrific supporter and that came straight from Jeff Felix. To partner with the school district was a tremendous win for us. We’re really proud of how the Coronado community has embraced us. Richard Erhard loves what we are doing and he has been out there several times. We also had great support from Randie Allen. Tony Isabella, Becky Black Isabella and Lina Douglas have all been major supporters.” 

Green Field is completely covered by the artificial surface FieldTurf, including the brown areas around the bases. The home of the Coronado High School and Coronado Middle School softball programs, as well as a recreational outlet for Village Elementary School, the all-artificial turf surface is perfect for the wheelchairs employed by several of the Miracle League athletes. The facility is also completely accessible by Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Engel, who would be the resident expert on constructing fields suitable for Miracle League implementation, said a completely new stadium installation costs in the range of $500,000 to $750,000.

For the fall 2012 season, a total of 62 players are evenly divided among four teams competing in Coronado. Approximately 20 percent of the players are from Coronado and the athletes range in age from four to 30 years old. Sponsors for the Coronado portion of the Miracle League include the Optimist Club of Coronado; Blumenthal Insurance Services; the Which Wich Sandwich Shop; the Vivien A. Nelson Foundation, Bob Plumb Trustee; and the Sweeney Family/SoCal Business Partners.

Midway through our phone interview, Engel was asked how he became involved in the Miracle League. “My wife and I had seen a piece on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that Frank Deford did. We watched this piece and fell in love with the Miracle League. My wife looked at me and said, ‘We have to do this in San Diego.’ Most of the Miracle Leagues around the country were started by people without special needs children. There are over 35,000 special needs children in San Diego County. We have only scratched the surface of the demand.”

Between the San Dieguito and Coronado locations this fall, a total of 200 special needs athletes participated in the Miracle League along with more than 200 volunteer buddies, or personal coaches, who were involved. Typically there is a $50 registration fee to participate in the Miracle League, although that fee was waived for the first season in Coronado. According to Engel, no one is ever turned away from participating in the Miracle League.

“Next season the $50 fee will apply in Coronado, but we offer scholarships, with no questions asked, for people who can’t afford it. Our annual fundraiser, which is a Home Run Derby event, raises money for scholarships, specifically for that purpose.” The ultimate goal of the Miracle League is to serve 200 special needs children at each of their two locations.

Support for the Miracle League of San Diego runs deep, particularly among the members of the San Diego Padres organization. “The Padres are great partners of ours,” Engel said. “They are a critical partner to what we do every season. They help us with fundraising, sponsorships and they send the Friar out along with celebrities for Picture day. Trevor Hoffman, Brad Ausmus, Mark Kotsay, Heath Bell and Mark Loretta have all participated. Loretta is an active member of our board. We also have a terrific partnership with the Junior Seau Foundation, which has sponsored our uniforms for three years. The Drew Brees Foundation held a charity golf tournament recently and they wanted to honor Junior by raising money for Oceanside High School and the Miracle League.”

The games themselves are a blast to watch as every batter eventually puts the ball in play, sometimes with considerable assistance from their buddy. Everyone runs, everyone scores and there are no outs recorded, ever. An inning is over when every player gets to the plate. Sometimes a veritable traffic jam occurs at home plate with four members of the same team lined up to score a run.

The game ball used by the league is soft, but travels well when struck by the large plastic bats the league uses. The ball is designed by Mark Rappaport from Rancho Santa Fe and sold under the name of Marky Sparky Toys. The ball has the same size and dimensions as a Major League ball. Engel noted that Rappaport donates bats and balls to Miracle Leagues throughout the country.

Although each player also plays in the field, defense is minimal. Coaches acting as pitchers often stand just a few feet away from the hitters, taking a chance that a player might line a pitch at them. All of the fans cheer both teams equally. Last Saturday by some miracle, the score at the end of an hour and two innings of play was 28-28. After all, it is the Miracle League.

Blumenthal served as the public address announcer for Saturday’s first game, reminding the crowd about the players’ favorite television shows while maintaining a constant stream of positive patter about the athletes. After an inning and a half, the players and the crowd sang “Take me out to the ball game.” After the game there was the familiar ‘2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate’ cheer from both teams, followed by a handshake line among the players, buddies and coaches.

Engel discussed his background and what the Miracle League means to him. “Growing up in a Jewish household, charity is what you do. To be able to give families this opportunity and to have their kids play a sport where they have been told ‘no’ forever is rewarding. We have the buddy program so parents can sit and enjoy the games. One family brings their own pop up tent to the games. All sorts of family members come out and cheer. It’s a very spiritual place for me.

Parents hang out with other parents and become friends. The Miracle League in San Diego is a tremendous community and family. The overriding message is how strong that community is and how strong the support is. We focus on one mission every Saturday and that is for the player, buddy, coach, volunteer and parent to have a great day. If we succeed in that mission every Saturday, we have done a great job. It’s fun and tremendous to watch the kids.”

On game days Engel coaches a team himself at the San Dieguito location, while his wife Suzie is also heavily involved in the league’s activities. Their daughter Jordan has been a buddy for all 12 Miracle League of San Diego seasons. Their son Sam helps manage the Engel Family Field location on Saturdays and is currently serving a public relations internship with the organization. As Engel says, “It’s a family commitment.”

In the next couple of weeks the Miracle League will begin registration for the spring 2013 season, which will run from March through May of next year. “We’re working with the school district on the calendar,” said Engel. “Our goal is to have at least twice as many players in Coronado as we have now. By opening in Coronado, we are able to expand our operations at Engel Family Field. Playing in Coronado should allow us to double participation throughout the county.”

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