Miracle smiles

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

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Brianna McGovern, 10, from Emmaus, Pa. is excited about playing in a Miracle League game.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

HEIDLEBERG TOWNSHIP, Pa – The van door slid open and four ballplayers wearing Yankees pinstripes poured out and rushed to the field. It was game time.

It didn't matter that Brianna, 10, doesn't have a right leg or right arm, or that Jenica, 10, has metal pins in her legs and burns that cover most of her body, or that Luke, 7, struggles to walk because part of his brain slipped into a hole in his spinal cord, or that Eric, 3, can't walk at all because his spine doesn't extend to his legs.

All but Luke went to their positions in wheelchairs, accompanied by volunteers who helped them put gloves on their hands. A coach rolled out spongy rubber balls for warm-ups, and Brianna, Jenica and Luke scooped them up and rolled them back. Eric, as rascally as any other kid his age, picked up a ball, did a 180-degree turn with his wheelchair and tossed it into the outfield.

The pitcher was another volunteer, a woman named Joyce Reed-Ebling who happens to be the mother of former Buffalo Bills great Andre Reed. The batter's name was splashed across an electronic scoreboard in left field, music played and the crowd cheered.

Sara, 5, had visualized the moment that morning, saying to her mom when she woke up: "Now batting, Number 12, Sara Miller!" Here it was, later the same day, and she heard those very words over a loudspeaker. Sara was at home plate, seated in her mom's lap and holding a plastic bat. The underhand pitch from Reed-Ebling came floating in, and Sara made contact, the ball rolling toward third base. Kate Miller helped her daughter stand and they resolutely made their way down the first-base line, not stopping until Sara touched the bag.

For a few breathtaking moments, it was unimportant that Sara can barely move any muscles because of a reaction to vaccination shots four years ago. She was playing baseball, just like her brother does in Little League and just like the kids do on the team her father coaches at Southern Lehigh High School.

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Kate Miller from Coopersburg, Pa., helps her daughter Sara, 5, who can barely move her muscles because of
a vaccination reaction.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

"I got a hit and it was fun," Sara said in a whisper, shortly after she'd touched home plate to score a run. "Now I'm going out to play second base."

Sara's father, Todd Miller, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1990 and pitched professionally for five seasons before becoming a high school coach. He's been around the game at every level.

Yet he's never seen anything like the Miracle League of the Lehigh Valley.

"Everybody is happy all the time," he said. "Nobody is complaining. Nobody is sad or angry. It's unlike any other baseball game in America. It's pure joy."

Pleasure is evident on the beaming faces of Brianna McGovern and her adoptive siblings Jenica, Luke and Eric.

"I thought playing baseball would be cool, and it's even better than I imagined," Brianna said. "It gives me such a good feeling."

SEEDS OF A MIRACLE

A TV news segment two years ago caught the eye of a Lehigh Valley hotel executive with a long history of helping disabled and terminally ill children in this sprawling region of rolling hills, bustling suburbs and rusty steel-mill towns located an hour north of Philadelphia and an hour west of New York City.

Kostas Kalogeropoulos saw joyous faces on the screen from Conyers, Ga., the birthplace of Miracle League, and he envisioned the same in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and throughout the Lehigh Valley. He put together a board of directors and hired a director, Dan McKinney. Talk about movers and shakers. Local turkey farmer David Jaindl donated land, and within months a $750,000 facility with a springy, safety-first artificial surface was built, hundreds of volunteers enlisted and 14 teams of mentally and physically disabled kids signed up to play ball.

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Alexis Palmenta, 6, from Coplay shakes hands with Cheyenne Mack (right), 10, from Catasaqua, Pa. after their Miracle League game.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

The rules emphasize participation and ensure success: Every inning, every player gets a turn at bat, reaches base and scores. Nobody makes an out. Score is kept, but the final after the three-inning games is always a tie.

"I wanted the basic structure to be just like any other baseball league," McKinney said. "We have coaches who fill out lineup cards, the players are announced as they come to the plate, and everyone lines up at home plate and shakes hands after the game."

Any child from 5 to 18 with a disability that keeps them from playing in a mainstream league is eligible. Kids with multiple sclerosis play on the same teams as kids with Down syndrome; autistic kids share the dugout with physically handicapped kids.

Miracle Leagues are sprouting up all over the country – there are about 180 serving 30,000 players – and the one in the Lehigh Valley is considered a shining example of a well-run organization. Once the field was built, McKinney, the only paid employee, spread the word by visiting schools, hospitals, rehab centers and other therapy providers.

"I can't say enough about Lehigh and what a wonderful job they've done, and how their program is growing," said Diane Alford, the Miracle League national director. "It's amazing to watch this model continually repeat itself all over the country."

There are other baseball organizations for disabled children, and the largest is the Little League Challenger Division, launched in 1989. One of the Miracle League's distinguishing characteristics is its emphasis on building a dedicated field with an artificial surface, eliminating dirt, grass and bases. Miracle League bases are painted on the surface, improving safety.

"Our immediate goal is to reach 500 leagues," Alford said. "That would enable us to serve about 1.3 million children."

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Jarrell Yearwood (right), from Bethlehem, Pa. is the "Angel in the outfield" for Alexis Palmanta.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD

For Jarrell Yearwood, the Miracle League is an eye-opening experience he never could have imagined while growing up in Queens, N.Y., gravitating toward trouble and ending up being shipped off to KidsPeace, a non-profit organization based near Allentown that provides residential treatment and education to youth in crisis.

Nobody would have described Yearwood, 20, as an angel in his old neighborhood. Yet when McKinney asked that "all the Angels" convene for instructions moments before the game, Yearwood was front and center.

Every Miracle League player has an "Angel in the outfield," a volunteer that helps in any way necessary, whether it's to push a wheelchair, gently steer a runner around the bases or roll groundballs to fielders during lulls in the action.

"I see kids like this and praise God I wasn't born like that," Yearwood said. "It makes me thankful."

His first day as an Angel was mandated by KidsPeace. Now he comes on his own, intrigued by how happy the players are in the face of such adversity. It puts his own problems in perspective. "It's changed the way I see things," he said. "Most of us, we never see kids with disabilities. Here they are out in the sun playing ball. I think it takes a lot of courage."

Many people in the Lehigh Valley are drawing the same conclusion. McKinney goes to local businesses and, instead of asking for money, requests bodies. He said about 250 volunteers are needed each week to operate the league, which runs from May through October.

"WalMart sends 10 every week," McKinney said. "I also go to high schools and colleges in the area, service clubs, a semi-pro baseball team, Boy Scout troops, it really adds up."

"Miracle League has the potential for culture change in our area," said Kathy McGovern, who has adopted five children – four disabled – and also has three children of her own.

"So many people are afraid of disabilities. They are uncomfortable around the disabled because they rarely see these kids. All those volunteers are people who now see past the wheelchairs. When my kids turn 18 and need a job, maybe somebody will look at them in a different light."

Angels come from all over. The Lehigh Valley Catz, a collegiate summer league team, volunteered for a game about a month ago. McKinney brought along some baseballs, and the college players signed them for the disabled kids.

The strangest thing happened after the game. The Catz began pulling baseballs out of their own equipment bags, and they asked the Miracle Leaguers to sign them.

"By the end of the day," McGovern said, "it was so obvious that they had been touched by our kids."

CHEERING PARENTS

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Eric McGovern, 3, from Emmaus, Pa. swings during a Miracle League game. His spine does not reach to his legs and he is unable to walk.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

Besides serving as Angels, volunteers fill all the typical youth-sports roles, working at the snack bar, maintaining the field and keeping score. The parents, however, stay in the stands, cheering their kids.

McKinney doesn't want their help. He wants them to enjoy themselves.

"This might be the only 90 minutes all week they don't have to watch over their kids," he said. "We want to bring as much normality as possible to the families. They are watching their child hit the ball and run to first base. They are able to jump up and down and scream."

Parents with disabled children often feel isolated. Life can be a grind.

"I've seen people at games I knew from the community, and I had no idea they had a child with special needs," said Todd Miller, the high school coach and Sara's father. "This is like a support group for parents. We devote our lives to our kids, we've all sacrificed. And we finally found something we can count on, once a week, for some joy."

As a special education administrator in the area, Tee Decker sees many of the Miracle League families during the school day. She understands their difficulties and heartache as well as their quiet courage. A ballgame, she said, is a rare opportunity for everyone to relax.

"They see the smiles and the excitement on their children's faces, and know they are safe," she said. "They are able to go to a youth sports event and have a good time like any other parent, and any other child."

PLAY BALL

Because Hannah, 9, is the only one of the five adopted McGovern children who does not have a disability, she cannot play in the Miracle League. But she certainly could participate.

Moments before a recent game, McKinney asked that everyone in the stands rise, and Hannah sang the National Anthem. As she began, her elfin 3-year-old brother Eric showed he has substantial backbone even though he was born without a complete spine. He turned to his Angel, a man seated next to his wheelchair, and ordered: "Stand up."

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Jake Breininger, 11, from Germansville, Pa. has a bone disease, making physical activity risky.
(Rob Kandel/For Yahoo! Sports)

Early in the game it was obvious that two players stood out athletically. Chris Ritter, a burly 17-year-old dwarf, hit two home runs over the outfield fence. And Jake Breininger, a lanky 11-year-old, moved with the grace of a polished ballplayer.

Looks can deceive. Jake has a bone disease so rare that he is one of only 300 documented cases in the last 70 years. The interior of his bones are a milky mass, and although he yearns to participate in sports like his two brothers, most physical activity is too risky.

Soon, Jake may need titanium rods inserted in his legs. On this day, though, he played long toss between innings with McKinney and hit line drives all over the field.

"I've made a lot of friends playing here, I'm meeting more people every time I come out," Jake said. "I never got to play Little League. There was no T-ball in my neighborhood, and then when I was 8 we found out about my disease.

"There are lots of kids my age on my team. I can see what's wrong with them, and I feel lucky because I can throw and hit, and some of them can't as much."

Jake's coach, Turk Starniri, can appreciate his talent. Starniri played and coached baseball at several levels, yet at 58 has discovered the game is just as easily enjoyed by disabled children in a non-competitive setting.

"These kids get so enthusiastic at the smallest things," he said. "Making contact with the ball and getting down the baseline. They cradle the ball in their hands. It means so much."

He looked around the field and smiled.

"For all of them, this really has been a miracle."