Surprise donation will allow accessible playground
By BETH ALTENA
When Tony Comden, Director of the West Michigan Miracle League, spoke to the members of the board of directors of the West Michigan Sports Complex, he was asking them to give up considerable space in the new baseball complex planned for property off Ten Mile in Plainfield Township. He wanted the space to build a Miracle League ball field for children with disabilities to play with able bodied buddies. As a father of a son who uses a walker, Comden is a strong believer in the importance that all children, regardless of ability, be able to experience the joys of playing ball.
“After five minutes I had them in tears,” he said of his talk about his vision for the field. “After 15 minutes they said yes.” Dick VanderMullen, Chair of the West Michigan Sports Commission, followed Comden in speaking to a crowd during the complex groundbreaking held Wednesday, May 15.
“He didn’t have to talk for fifteen minutes to get us to agree,” he said. “He just couldn’t stop talking about it.”
The groundbreaking for the Miracle League ball field took place at the site off Ten Mile where the field will be built this summer, with play beginning in September. With room running out for parking, there was an extensive crowd, including classmates of Comden’s son Jed.
Comden talked about the importance of baseball to our country’s culture, and how his childhood, like so many others, included the memories of playing ball in the summer. “I cried if the game was rained out, I wanted to play so bad,” he said. “Tonight thousands of kids will play baseball with parents cheering for terrible playing.”
“Unfortunately for thousands of kids they never have that opportunity to play, they never get to high five their teammates, they never get to wear their jersey to school on game day, they never get to hear the cheers of their parents.”
The Miracle Field will allow kids of all abilities to play baseball and softball, with a two-part solution to the limitations of kids with physical or mental disabilities. The surface of the field is a smooth rubberized field, which will allow kids in wheelchairs and walkers or other mobility challenges to compete. In addition, each disabled child will partner with an able-bodied buddy who will do those things their partner can’t do—reach down to pick up a fallen ball, or reach down to catch a groundball.
“For kids in a wheelchair this is the only place they will have this opportunity,” Comden stated.
“As you might imagine, we did not get to where we are without the hard work of a lot of people,” Comden noted. “West Michigan has an amazing philanthropic spirit.” Comden said in just 18 months much of the funding has come in, although more is needed. He said he donations for the project are at $689,667.33, not including the checks donated that day. The Rockford Lions contributed $10,000.
Tony included among the philanthropic leaders in the area David VanEslander, whose father founded Art Van Furniture. The company is the majority donor for the entire West Michigan Sports Commission project after last year donating $1.8 million dollars and earning naming rights.
David was one of the attendees of the groundbreaking, who stood to make a surprise announcement of the donation of an additional $50,000 for a handicap accessible playground on the Miracle League property. He stood and spoke about the importance his father placed on being involved in the local community and doing good works. Referencing the Sports Commission’s theme of the complex, “Everyone wins,” VanEslander said, “This will truly be a place where every child, regardless of ability, will be able to win.” He talked about the inspiration for the field’s namesake, Nate Hurwitz, 16-years old West Michigan Sports Commission board member who was wheelchair-bound by Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and who died last year. “Give it up for Nate,” VanEslander said.
The final speaker was Dan Hurwitz, Nate’s father, who spoke haltingly about how important the Miracle Field will be to children. “It has been eight months since we lost Nate,” he said. “He believed every kid should hear their name announced over the loudspeaker. He won’t be here to see the first game. But the Nate Hurwitz Miracle Field—what an amazing tribute for an amazing son.”
Comden wrapped up the event telling how in Nate’s obituary, he had wanted people to donate to this cause. He recalled the emotions the day Nate was laid to rest. “As people were saying goodbye to Nate, Dan came up to me and slapped me on the back—pretty hard—and said, ‘We have to get this done.’”
Comden said he couldn’t help but compare this ball field to the one in the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. He said he was on the site well before the scheduled time of the groundbreaking, and couldn’t help but be apprehensive about the turnout for a project he believes in so strongly. He said as the time neared, he saw car after car turn in and drive down the long road to the site.
“How many kids are going to play on this field? I can’t tell you. He said the long line of cars heading up the road to the groundbreaking for the Nate Hurwitz Miracle Field gave him the same haunting feeling as the final scenes in the movie with James Earl Jones telling Costner, “If you build it, they will come. People most definitely will come.” Speaking with difficulty, Comden stated, “I thought about that today as I saw all those cars.”