By Jim Lachimia
The Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MLSWPA) is celebrating its 15th season, and the organization that provides children and adults with special needs with an opportunity to play organized baseball is a testament to the hard work and commitment of a lot of great people.
Its facility, known as the Pirates Charities Miracle League Field, is situated in the heart of Cranberry Township’s Graham Park. It features an all-weather rubberized field surface that can accommodate players with crutches, walkers and wheelchairs. The “big-league” environment also includes an electronic scoreboard, public address system, covered dugouts and a covered pavilion.
When the MLSWPA’s inaugural season got underway in May of 2009, it featured approximately 130 participants. That number has grown to more than 450 this year.
The success of the league also led to the creation of seven other Miracle League facilities in the region over the years -- in Upper St. Clair, Moon Township, Murrysville, Indiana and Altoona in Pennsylvania and Wheeling and Morgantown in West Virginia.
Mike Sherry and his wife Chris are co-founders of the MLSWPA. The couple was living in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2003 when they saw a Miracle League Field for the first time. A year later, they moved back to Pittsburgh and their daughter Jordan was born.
In 2007, Jordan was diagnosed with autism, and something else also happened that guided the Sherrys toward starting a Miracle League program in Cranberry. Mike was coaching his son Tanner’s baseball team as it was making the transition from tee-ball to coach-pitch when he received an email from a parent who asked if her son could continue to hit off a tee because of a physical disability.
“The email was very simple, but it had a profound impact on our lives,” Mike Sherry said. “I sat at the kitchen table with Chris and said, ‘Are we going to be the next parents asking for an exception so Jordan can do something?’ And Chris said, ‘You know, we should build one of those fields we saw down in Birmingham.’ That simple email was God’s trigger.”
“After that I went to the township and things heated up. Plans for Graham Park had already been approved and they were about to begin moving dirt, but we put on a heck of a pitch. We said, ‘Look, you can’t be a community of inclusion with opportunities for all and build a 150-acre park that kids with special needs don’t have access to.’ The township agreed and converted one of the fields into a Miracle League field.”
Current Cranberry Township Manager, Dan Santoro, said: “Mike Sherry knows how to get things done. He and his wife Chris were the perfect people to spearhead the effort to bring a Miracle League facility to the region. It’s been an outstanding partnership from the beginning. From a community perspective, we’re fortunate to have an organization like that here.”
“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb that means the entire community needs to have positive interactions with children for those children to grow up and become healthy and productive adults. The Miracle League is an example. Each year scores of volunteers help to organize and execute league activities, serve as coaches and buddies (who assist players during their time at the ballpark), and fulfill other duties that keep things running smoothly. Outside organizations also help the MLSWPA raise needed funds.
“It’s amazing how the community comes together and really supports us,” Chris Sherry said. “We’ve always had a great outpouring of support from community leaders, the Pirates, volunteers, the school district, everybody.
“We wouldn’t have become successful without all those people. In turn, we’ve been supportive of others who want to start their own Miracle League program. They say, ‘Hey, we’re interested.’ And we say, ‘Okay, great. Here’s how you do it. Feel free to change whatever you’d like, but here’s what worked for us.’”
Kevin Delaney managed a team in the early years of the MLSWPA and now serves as vice president and league coordinator. Among his duties are overseeing registration, organizing teams, and recruiting managers, coaches, buddies, and other volunteers. Mike Sherry refers to Delaney the organization’s “boots on the ground guy.” He also said: “Kevin Delaney is the Miracle League. I get way too much credit. Kevin is an angel.”
Delaney, who is content behind the scenes, said: “As the league has grown so has the number of things on my desk. My hair has changed colors along the way, but this has always been so rewarding. At five years, we said it was a quick five years. Then we said it again at 10 years, and now here we are at 15. With everything these kids and families go through, this is just an opportunity to come out and enjoy some baseball on a Saturday afternoon.”
Holly Recker signed her son Luke up for the MLSWPA’s inaugural season. Luke, who has cerebral palsy, is a young adult now and still loves the program.
“We’ve been involved with the Miracle League since Luke was just a little kid,” she said. “He’s grown up here. We’re here every Saturday in the summer and every Saturday in the fall. Miracle League changed Luke’s world. It gave him the freedom to come to a place where everyone is the same. No one judges. We’ve made so many friends here. I don’t know what else to say without crying.”
Heartwarming stories like that are plentiful whenever you talk to anyone associated with the program.
Fred Roberts, a member of the MLSWPA board of directors, has a son named Jack who will turn 21 this year and has participated in the program since he was eight.
“My son was hooked from his first exposure to the league,” Roberts said. “He loved everything about it -- from making friends to being on a team to putting on his uniform. Then you watch from the stands and see your child with a disability hit the ball and run to first base, and they’re elated. That’s when you think, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’
“If I had to cut back on the things I’m doing, the Miracle League would be last. I love doing it. It creates such a great environment within our community. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
The facility in Cranberry is called the Pirates Charities Miracle League Field for a reason. It’s because Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting provided $150,000 in seed money to help build the complex, and Miracle League programs remain a point of emphasis in the ballclub’s community relations efforts.
“Seeing it start from the small seed of this very field and expand into the Pirates supporting nine total fields (including one in Bradenton, Florida) -- the number of kids impacted, the number of parents impacted, the number of families impacted -- has been remarkable,” Nutting said at the Miracle League fantasy camp in Cranberry last summer. “There are so many places where we (as a society) get divided today, and too few places where people come together. One place where they do come together, frankly, is baseball. And one of those is the Miracle League program.”
In quiet moments, Mike Sherry sometimes allows himself to think about everything that’s happened over the past 15 years. How the MLSWPA grew from a suggestion that Chris made into a thriving program. How numerous other Miracle League fields have resulted, at least in part, from the success the one in Cranberry enjoyed. How people too numerous to mention contributed greatly to the program achieving its goals.
And last, but certainly not least, how Jordan has enjoyed participating in the program from the very first game back in 2009 to this year as a 19-year-old.
“You realize the impact your daughter has had, directly or indirectly, with the special needs community,” he said. “You can’t help but think, ‘Without God blessing Chris and I with Jordan would this have ever happened?’ And part of me goes, ‘No, it wouldn’t have.’
“Jordan has blessed so many people. I wish someday she would know that. I wish she could know the impact she’s had in our lives, in the lives of the people of Cranberry, and in a lot of other places.
“In the beginning, all I had was a vision. I didn’t know how to make this happen. I didn’t have any architectural plans or anything like that. God just kept putting people in front of me. Every time I had an issue, someone would introduce themselves to me. Someone was always there when I needed help. That’s the fascination of this story.”
It takes a village, indeed.
For more information about the Miracle League or to register as a player or volunteer ~ please visit our website at www.mlswpa.org