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'Priceless': Joplin's Miracle League returns for 11th season

Apr. 4—Beyond the national anthem, the announcer and the LED scoreboard, fans are a critical part of the baseball experience for the Miracle League of Joplin.

"Getting to be cheered on is not something that happens on a regular basis for them," said Heather Linscheid, vice president of the Miracle League board. "It's a nice opportunity for them to feel included and empowered."

The Miracle League of Joplin is a baseball league for children and adults who normally wouldn't be able to play baseball because of a disability. Everyone gets to hit the ball, and everyone gets a chance in the field.

This weekend's opening day marks the 11th year for the league. Games are played at the Will Norton Miracle Field at the Joplin Athletic Complex.

The six-game season starts at 9 a.m. Saturday. On game day, there are two games for youth and two games for adults. The public is encouraged to attend games and cheer the players.

Robert Carlson, a volunteer with the Miracle League, said so far there are 75 players for the youth league and 105 players for the adult league. It's a record enrollment as participation recovers from the pandemic.

"Baseball is America's favorite pastime, and being able to participate in that is a real benefit," Carlson said. "We're fortunate to have this league here in Joplin. We serve athletes from all over the Four States. Our mission is to make sure that everybody who wants to play baseball can. We have that on the entrance to our field."

Will Norton Field is a modified surface accessible for the players, no matter their ability. It's completely flat for everyone to maneuver on and has a bit of give so that it's safe for falls.

Carlson said volunteers make the Miracle League possible. Groups such as the Rotary Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars serve lunch through the season. Then there are the volunteer buddies who accompany each player during the game. Buddies are often high school and college athletes who help players go from the dugout to the plate, run the bases and provide encouragement.

"It's kind of a personal, one-on-one buddy system that helps these players be able to play," Carlson said. "It's neat to see the joy on the athletes' faces, but also on the faces of the buddies."

Players' parents can come out and watch their children play, cheer and let the buddies help them. Linscheid said that's another opportunity families don't often get, simply enjoying watching their children be a part of a community event.

In her job as an occupational therapist for the Carl Junction School District, Linscheid works with a lot of the students playing.

"I get to see both sides, and I get to see the excitement of the students," Linscheid said. "Then I hear families, when they talk to me at the games, some of them are in tears because it's the first time they've felt like their child got to be a typical kid. They said that so many times people take for granted opportunities like playing on a playground or playing in a sport. Here provides the opportunity for their child to be included. That's all they really want."

Keineth Walter's son, Brett, has played with the Miracle League since it began, starting in the youth league and moving up to the adult league.

Brett is 25 years old, and he loves to play sports, especially golf and baseball. He is also on the spectrum, so he can catch and hit, but not quite on the level of his peers, she said.

"It's been a wonderful experience for us because everybody gets to play, there's no judgment," Walter said. "Every catch, every throw, every hit, everyone applauds it. It's just a welcoming, accepting atmosphere that honestly I wish typical athletes could experience."

Watching her son on game day, Walter said it's an amazing feeling to have him be a typical player like everyone else. The community involvement, all the cheering fans in the stands, goes a long way toward helping the players feel accepted and loved.

"When you have a child with special needs, there are so many activities they can't participate in," Walter said. "This is just amazing to have an activity that they love, that they can do well. However they participate, they're applauded, cheered and encouraged. That's just priceless as a parent with a special needs child."

To volunteer Miracle League volunteer Robert Carlson said the league always needs volunteers. There's a sign-up form on the league's website, joplinmiracle league.org, for serving lunch or being a buddy to a player.