Eve Pearlman: A field of their own
For many children with disabilities, that 8 x 11 flyer that comes home from school in their backpack inviting them to Alameda Little League tryouts is a nonstarter. You can’t play baseball in a wheelchair! With a walker! If you can’t swing a bat!
But then there’s Miracle League baseball, a league of its own with rules of its own – developed to give children with disabilities an experience of camaraderie, team play, and weekend afternoon fun. Children play on a rubberized, accessible field. Everyone bats and everyone runs the bases.
The Alameda East Bay Miracle League, a local nonprofit based on a national model, was launched by Roberta Rockwell, an Alameda Unified School District speech/language pathologist (and teacher of the year in 2009).
Her aim? Giving local children the chance to just play ball.
Trust me on this: There is a good chance you will tear up if you watch a video of Miracle League baseball in action. In part, because it sets you to thinking about all the things children with disabilities might not regularly have an opportunity to do. And in part because of the joy on the players’ faces, which is unrestrained.
“If you are a special needs kid in Alameda and you have significant challenges, there’s a high likelihood that you are going to school with the same ten kids in a special classroom,” says Rockwell. “And there isn’t anything after school that is sports-related and team-related.”
Many special needs kids, says Rockwell, spend afternoons and weekends going to their able-bodied siblings’ athletic events. “I think it’s important for differently-abled kids to have brothers and sisters come to their games – and for the family to have the joy of watching their child play,” she said.
Miracle League baseball was launched in Georgia in 1996, and there are now 100 fields nationwide and 100 more on deck. But the Alameda journey toward Miracle baseball began in 2006 when Rockwell heard a news story while driving to work at Ameila Earhart Elementary. She thought of one of her students, Nicholas, who loves baseball but his disabilities – he has Charge Syndrome – prevent him from joining Little League. (Some little leagues have a Challenger Division – though Alameda does not.) “I thought, if he can get to school every day and smile,” Rockwell recalls, “how hard can it be to build a baseball field?’”
Rockwell began talking to people and sending out e-mail feelers. “Twenty people showed up at the first meeting. Most of them I never met before and not one of them had a disabled child,” said Rockwell. “It was heartwarming and most of them are still meeting every month.” They formed a nonprofit, began to fundraise, and set out finding a field location.
The city became interested – the Americans with Disabilities Act requires municipalities to offer the same opportunities for able-bodied children and disabled children – and Catellus, the Alameda Landing developer, pledged $500,000 to help fund construction of a field. A location was selected – an out-of-use baseball field off Singleton Avenue – and the property is in the process of being transferred from the Navy to the city. “It’s already gone through the Department of the Interior and the national parks have given an okay,” said Rockwell. “And now it just needs to go through HUD.” Then, says Rockwell, the city needs to approve the field plan and then the Miracle League can return to prospective donors with land in hand.
In an era in which youth sports can be so intensely competitive, the Miracle League is a great reminder that the first goal of youth sports, for all children and families, ought to be fun – as well as a chance to be part of a community, to be outdoors, to strive to do better, to practice not just sports but sportsmanship.
“Every parent cheers for every child,” said Rockwell of Miracle League games. “They’re very much in touch with the core purpose – they know that the reason for sports is to have a good time.”
On March 13, Alameda’s Back to Health Chiropractic will sponsor a benefit for the Alameda East Bay Miracle League, a third annual Saint Paddy’s Day Dash. It’s a 5k fun run/walk with a free ‘little leprechaun’ half miler. You can register here, and let’s hope this field – which Rockwell says will also be used by seniors and veterans, anyone for whom a level, accessible, rubberized field allows for participation – is completed sooner rather than later.
Eve Pearlman offers her take on Alameda’s stories, big and small, every Friday on The Island. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.