A Cherry Hill field where baseball dreams come true for special-needs athletes

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Before the Miracle League’s Philadelphia Phillies team even hit the baseball field to take on the rival New York Yankees, the score was already decided.

The rules are few and simple in the Miracle League: Every team and every player is a winner. Every inning and every game ends in a tie.

In a league of their own, amateur athletes with special needs get a chance to embrace America’s favorite pastime, regardless of talent or physical ability. All it takes is a passion for the game.

On a recent overcast Saturday morning, players in the Camden County Miracle League met at Boundless Field in Cherry Hill for their weekly competition. The league has about 80 players, males and females, on four teams — two composed of  younger players ages 5 to 12 and two teams with older children, young adults, and a few senior citizens.

Some players were gently pushed to the batter’s box in wheelchairs. Others used walkers to slowly make their way. An announcer called each player’s name, and excited family members cheered from the packed stands. The players get as many as six pitches at bat, and get help, if needed, until they get a hit.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Damien Usen, 9, of Marlton, who attends every game with his grandmother, Beverly, a volunteer. “Sometimes I like to steal the bases when the pitcher isn’t looking.”

The Miracle League was launched in 1997, when a softball coach in suburban Atlanta invited a disabled child to participate. The child, who was in a wheelchair, attended games and practices. The following year, children with disabilities were invited to play on a typical baseball field. The league’s first sports complex opened in 2000, with 120 players.

Today, there are more than 300 Miracle League teams in the United States, Canada, and Australia that serve more than 200,000 youngsters. Pennsylvania has teams in Bucks County and the Lehigh Valley; South Jersey has teams in Hamilton, Mercer County, and in Sewell in Gloucester County.

Every league plays by the same rules. Every player bats once each inning. All players are safe on the bases. Every player scores a run before the inning is over (last one up gets a home run). Volunteers serve as “buddies” to assist the players. Each team and each player win every game.

“It’s like Disney World in New Jersey,” said Camden County Miracle League coach Jeremy McClure, 28. “Every time I come here, it’s stress-free. You feel like a better person.”

The teams play at Boundless Field, at Borton’s Mill and Caldwell Roads. The 13,000-square-foot diamond has a rubberized playing surface that allows for easier access for wheelchairs, rather than the uneven contours of traditional fields that can impede players with physical disabilities. The county spent $337,000 from its open-space fund to build the field, which was spearheaded by Freeholder Ed McDonnell, who has a special-needs daughter.  

The field is in Challenge Grove Park, which is also home to Jake’s Place, among the first of its kind playgrounds in the region for children with physical challenges. The playground is named after Jacob Cummings Nasto, a toddler who died in 2007 from a cardiac condition.

“There are not very many places where people with special needs can go,” said Jacob’s father, Joe Nasto, 41, of Pennsauken, who hopes to open another playground in Delran. “We want to try to provide inclusive play for everyone.”

Nasto is a cofounder of the Miracle League. The goal is to provide children of every ability a place to play together. The spring baseball season runs through June 3. A six-week fall season begins in September.

Linda Luciano, of Sicklerville, said her special-needs son, Gabe, 43, joined the Camden County Miracle League when it started in 2013 and especially enjoys the camaraderie. He also has a part-time job at a convenience store, works out at a gym, and studies martial arts, she said.

“He loves it,” said Luciano, 69. “I think it’s wonderful.”  

The players have “buddies,” who assist them during the game. A buddy is waiting at every base to give a high-five, pat on the back, and words of encouragement. They include siblings, parents, and volunteers like Holly Seybold, 17, a senior at Cherry Hill East who organized a buddy volunteer club.

“I’m getting more out of it than I’m giving,” said volunteer Terry Hassett, 58, of Mount Laurel. “It’s priceless, such a joy.”

Two years ago, in his first year on a team, Mark Black, 23, of Blackwood, lived up to the league’s name. Black, who has cerebral palsy, traded his wheelchair for a walker to bat for the first time.

The crowd waited breathlessly and patiently while Mark walked to first base. It took 2½ minutes for him to complete the journey. Many wept openly.

“Everybody was cheering. It was truly an amazing day,” recalled his mother, Sherry Black. “He just loved it.”

The field is slightly smaller than a traditional field. But that doesn’t put a damper on the competitive nature among some players. The league’s motto is “everyone deserves a chance to play baseball.”

Kurt Schmidt, 53, of Pennsauken, jubilantly rounded the bases after slamming two balls out of the park.

“I love baseball,” he said.

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