Baseball bat, glove and ball on a bench in the dugout

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Posted onDecember 10, 2010 A field of dreams for special-needs children

What the president of the Miracle League of Manasota sees will install lumps in throats, if you’re at all a player in the human race.

It’ll be a field of dreams Bob Mitchell already sees as a reality.

And what the president of the Miracle League of Manasota sees will install lumps in throats, if you’re at all a player in the human race.

Kids and adults alike, their commonality some form of disability or affliction, playing a baseball game where averages aren’t maintained, winners aren’t crowned, and score is kept by the number of can’t-wipe-’em-off smiles.

“The looks on the kids’ faces are absolutely priceless,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been involved in the disability marketplace for a while and this thing just hit me in the heart the right way.’

It’s bull’s-eyed a bunch, the first time more than 10 years ago outside Atlanta with the forming of the inaugural Miracle League and its simple goal of giving children with special needs the chance to play baseball.

Since then, it’s expanded to 235 leagues around the country, with more than 200,000 participants. Some can’t walk, requiring wheelchairs and walkers, can’t hear or even see.

Others have muscular dystrophy, autism, spina bifida and Down syndrome. In the Miracle League, they’re all equal. In the Miracle League, no one is turned away.

Proof, in fact, that miracles can and do happen, with our national pastime the facilitator.

“It makes me excited every day,” said Mitchell, “to get up and find out what’s going to happen with this thing.”

Three years ago, nothing was happening. Other Florida cities had Miracle League baseball, but it took a meeting with pitcher Trever Miller to spark the process of bringing it to the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

The former Tampa Bay Ray left-hander, the father of a handicapped child, showed Mitchell, a life insurance agent specializing in families with special needs and a board member of the local Easter Seals, a video on the Miracle League.

“I said, ‘I got to do that in Sarasota,'” Mitchell said. “‘It’s gotta be.'”

Thus, the project commenced. An existing softball field at Longwood Park, just off University Parkway, was earmarked for renovation according to Miracle League specifications.

Each field must have a flat, rubberized surface to accommodate the special needs players, accompanied at all times by a “buddy” who assists in the field and at the plate.

Sarasota County committed $500,000 to capital improvements, with Mitchell and his board of directors responsible for the remaining funds that will provide restrooms, a pavilion, a concession stand and electronic scoreboard “so the kids can see their picture.”

Said Mitchell, “My dream situation is we have so many kids signed up that we have to build another field.”

The renovation of this one has yet to start. Mitchell hopes work begins in April or May and is completed in time for the league to start playing next fall.

And with 14,000 disabled children in Sarasota and Manatee counties, Mitchell sees the field getting plenty of work.

“If we get two percent,” he said, “that’s 280 players and that will give us a good 10-11 teams.”

Among the Manasota chapter’s many community partners are Tropicana, Inc., the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, who have designated it the beneficiary of their February golf tournament at the Founders Club.

Mitchell said he devotes more time to this than his insurance job.

“My wife says ‘money?’ It’s all consuming.”

All rewarding as well.