‘In the fall of 2014 we should have a field to play on’
by BETH ALTENA
“A lot of people are committed to this project and really excited about it,” said Tony Comden, president of the West Michigan Miracle League, who spoke to an audience in Rockford’s City Hall on Monday, April 16.
Comden was describing the concept of Miracle League, a nationwide organization that provides baseball opportunities for kids with physical and mental disabilities.
A Miracle League ball field will be included in the new baseball and softball complex being built by the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC) on Ten Mile Road in Plainfield Township. According to Comden, however, the recreation aspect of the project is just the beginning of the benefits to individuals involved and the surrounding communities.
Comden described the Miracle League ballfield as surely coming, but in need of the funds it will take to get the project finished. “In 2014 we should have a field to play on,” he said.
He is confident the project will be embraced and those involved, from playing to funding, will know this is something special to be part of. “The story of organized youth baseball is ordinary,” he said. “This story is special.”
The father of a child who uses a walker to get around, Comden has long sought a Miracle League field in this area. He said kids with disabilities do want to participate in sports just as any able-bodied kids do. He said it is heartbreaking to see disabled kids on a field where obstacles stop them. He said his own son loves to play, but if his walker gets caught on something, a base for example, the walker stops but the boy doesn’t and he hits the ground. “It’s also tough in the outfield out in the grass,” Comden described.
With Miracle League playing fields, the field is made of a special rubberized surface, which is a firm but not completely hard surface. In Miracle League baseball, each child with disabilities is paired with an able-bodied “buddy.” The buddy’s job is to ensure that the disabled child is able to play safely and effectively. This system breaks down barriers between disabled children and nondisabled kids.
“It’s about self-confidence, self-esteem,” said Comden. “The kids can see what they can do, not what they can’t do.”
“It’s amazing to watch the interaction between buddies and their Miracle League player,” he added. “Coaches always come back and say ‘I thought I was going to help them. They helped me.’”
There are four other Miracle Leagues in Michigan—one in Lansing and the other three on the east side of the state. According to Comden, kids drive hours to compete on them. He described a mom who drives 90 minutes each way for Miracle League competition for her child. The girl, who has spina bifida, loves baseball and never misses one of her brother’s games.
“Miracle League gives her the chance to be the one out on the field and have people cheer for her,” Comden described Rhind, 10, a girl who has lived in a wheelchair her entire life. “Her mom said she wouldn’t care if it was three hours to get there, she would take her daughter to be able to play.”
“There is a little bit of pride here, too,” said Comden. “If the east side of the state can have three, we can have one here in West Michigan.”
The Miracle League baseball field concept is well established across the country, and currently 200,000 youths play Miracle League baseball. In Kent County there are 13,000 disabled kids between the ages of 5 and 20. The league would draw from surrounding communities as well. Ottawa County has nearly 5,000 kids who qualify, Muskegon has about the same, and Montcalm and Newaygo counties each have over 1,200 handicapped children.
Vic Doucette, a volunteer announcer for the Miracle League field in Southfield, has seen firsthand the power of Miracle League in the lives of young people, both able-bodied and disabled. He told Comden, “You think this is a great program to bring to West Michigan, but trust me, it is greater then you think it is.”
Comden said he’s been looking for a location for a Miracle League ball field, and heard about the WMSC complex. He said an important aspect of Miracle League playing is visibility and inclusion in a complex with other baseball fields.
“We don’t want to take these kids and park them in the back forty where no one will see them,” he described.
When Comden proposed the Miracle League ball field to the WMSC as part of the process, the idea was welcomed with open arms; he believes this proves the project slogan of “Everyone Wins.”
“With the people backing the baseball and softball complex—Mr. Sechia, Mr. DeVos, and others—you know this is going to done first class,” he said.
Currently Comden and other Miracle League supporters are working hard to find sponsors and donors to pay for the construction. He noted the field can be made of any color and the color is part of the material itself, so there is no worry over wear and tear of a logo built into the field.
He also said each of the four quads of the sports complex will have a concession stand and restrooms. Total cost for the Miracle League portion comes in at about $435,000. The driveway—a separate one from the rest of the complex to make access to the field easy for physically challenged athletes—will be about $90,000. The field itself comes in at $215,000; utilities and landscaping are another $45,000; architectural engineering $30,000; construction $25,000; and a contingency fund is estimated at $30,000.
“These fees represent deeply discounted prices on some of the costs,” he described. “And we don’t have to buy the property, thanks to the generosity of the West Michigan Sports Commission and Kent County.”
Comden also described his “wish list” features. He said it would be wonderful to have a disability accessible playground on the site—estimated at $100,000. It would be inspirational to have a Miracle League player sculpture at the entrance of the facility—$25,000.
“I want these kids to go early and stay late and play on the playground,” Comden explained. “The costs could be more; they could be less.”
Sponsorship possibilities include naming rights to the field, as well as dugout, scoreboard and logo opportunities. He said the field-naming rights for other fields have sold for $300,000.
“Call me, I’ll give you a discount,” he laughed.
To date the West Michigan Miracle League has raised more than $200,000 in funding.
“Given that we only started fundraising six months ago, that’s not bad. We are really off to a good start,” said Comden.
Partners to date include the WMSC, Kent County, Plainfield Township, Progressive AE, and Owen Ames Kimball, the construction management team. Plainfield Township applied for a recreation grant from the State of Michigan on behalf of the West Michigan Miracle League project as well, although the state has not yet acted on the grant request. Wayman Britt at Kent County and John Short at Plainfield Township have been working hard through the grant process.
“We want to make sure that any kid who wants to play gets to play,” said Comden. “We have a great story to tell. We hope you are there to celebrate our first game.”
To find out more about the West Michigan Miracle League, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, visit their website at www.wmml.org.