Jack Russell of Chattanooga is talking about upcoming games at Kingsport’s Miracle League Field. The baseball field for children with special needs opens at Brickyard Park on Saturday.
Jack is a special needs athlete who has played on several Miracle League Fields in his 12 years. He says he enjoys playing on every single one of them.
“You get to play on the baseball field with other people who are just like me,” says Jack. “You get to meet new people and talk to them. People get to smile a lot.”
So what can you expect when the first pitch goes out at the Miracle League Field at Brickyard?
Kim Chapman, cofounder of Chattanooga’s Miracle League Field, says the first thing you’ll notice are the smiles Jack is talking about.
“You’ll probably see athletes looking around at first, trying to make sense of this new situation made just for them,” she says. “It’s a learning curve. ... First, there’s curiosity, there’s wonder, often even bewilderment, and as they get used to it, the grins and the smiles come.
“Seeing other children just like them enjoying themselves and having fun is almost magical. Every Miracle League game is an uplifting triumph. Sometimes, the mind is not quite ready for what you’ll see, and that’s when the tears come,” she says.
“I am so happy for Kingsport. Everybody has fun playing baseball, but there is much more joy when special needs kids are given the chance to participate. It’s a blessing to have a Miracle League Field in the community. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
There are more than 320 Miracle League Fields around the country, and Kingsport’s will be the newest one. It’s the result of visits a few years ago to several fields by City Manager Chris McCartt, Chamber of Commerce President Miles Burdine, and Jud Teague, executive director of Visit Kingsport. Teague spearheaded the effort for good reason: he and his wife have a special needs son.
“We visited fields in Cincinnati, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri among others, and particularly the Miracle League field in Chattanooga, our nearest neighbor to Kingsport,” says Teague. “We wanted to know what their best practices were, what worked, and what we wanted that might require modification here at home. When we saw what the other communities had built and how we could adapt, the light bulb just went on. We were able to custom design a facility that fits the exact needs of our community.”
Chattanooga’s Miracle League Field, also known as Rotary Field, is operated by the local YMCA. It’s for both special needs children and adults to play baseball. Like Kingsport, the facility is easily accessible because it’s located right in the middle of town.
“We also liked the fact that Chattanooga’s field is a stand-alone facility,” Teague says. “It’s part of a sports complex down there in the middle of the city, with other baseball and softball fields and a future soccer field nearby. I also liked the bleacher set-up down there. ... They gave us the idea of covering the seats. We can also utilize our stadium for Wounded Warriors and some whiffle ball leagues in the area. It’s adaptable for everybody. We consulted with Play Core, the folks who installed Chattanooga’s playground for special needs children. Blue Cross-Blue Shield sponsored our playground and it’s called Blue Cross Health Place, just an incredible facility.”
When it opens, Kingsport’s Miracle League Field will be the only one between Chattanooga and Roanoke, Virginia.
Although each Miracle League field is designed to fit into the community where it’s located, each field is designed from the same basic blueprint that was crafted by the Miracle League’s home office in Conyers, Georgia, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The field is a special type of synthetic, skid-resistant, rubberized turf made by Surface America that is manufactured as one piece to prevent bumps and seams. The dugouts are wheelchair-compliant and so are the entrances to the field. All of the lines and bases are embedded into the turf.
Once the game begins, each player has a “buddy” alongside who offers encouragement, keeps them fired up, helps them to be comfortable, and helps them get around the bases. Buddies are usually community children and enthusiastic volunteers.
The game rules are simple, according to Stephanie Davis at the Miracle League’s corporate office. Among them: every player bats once each inning, there are no strikeouts, all players are safe on all the bases, and every player scores a run in every inning. Each player on both teams also wins the game.
There is a sparkle in Miracle League pro Jack Russell’s eye when he talks about the cheering he hears during the innings. “Batting and running and getting on base is fun,” he says. “You get to wave to the people and high-five everybody as you run around.”
How many friends has he made running the bases?
“A bunch,” he proudly proclaims.
Teague is proud of how Kingsport citizens and businesses have stepped up to support the Miracle League Field.
“Kingsport has a reputation for building first-class facilities for its citizens,” he says.
Chapman says the athletes feel that they have an ownership, that they have a stake in the field that was built just for them. That ownership reaches to their parents and visitors, who have great fellowship at the Miracle League fields.
She says that kind of fellowship is good for the soul.
“While the athletes are bonding together, the parents of the special needs children get the chance to socialize with each other,” she says. “We have people who don’t have special needs children who follow the Miracle League schedule and make it a habit to stop by and cheer the athletes. We’ve also had instances where other ball games have been going on next door, and when those games finish, the players and coaches come over and line the fences at the Miracle Field. They encourage the players, and one particular day, I noticed some of the coaches wiping their eyes. It was a special moment.”
Jack Russell says he hopes to visit Kingsport’s Miracle League Field some day.
“Some people like me can’t play big baseball, but we can make a Miracle League field and we can all play there together.”
Meanwhile, Chapman has a message for Kingsport: Get ready. The Miracle League is coming to town.
“When that ball flies out of the batter’s box and the cheers go up, it will melt your heart. What you see on that field will change your life forever.”