Another season of the Miracle League came to an end today. Considering it is almost the end of October, it was an unusually warm New England day and the game was played under clear blue skies. Nikhil has added another trophy to his burgeoning collection and will rest on his laurels till the next session that starts in Spring. This was his eighth season and he is turning into a veteran. The Miracle League is organized by a dedicated couple who are also the parents of a special needs child. They are assisted by a core group of volunteers. Significant effort goes into raising funds and organizing the games and their execution is flawless. The playing field has a rubberized surface and was made possible by a land grant from the town we reside in as well as by funds raised from a variety of sources.
Each team is mentored by a coach and each player is assigned a buddy. The buddies are generally middle school and high school students although some adults also volunteer. The games are played on Saturdays and usually, there are 4 games. Our daughter volunteers as a buddy at these games. The league would not be possible without the assistance of these buddies and I salute them, especially the younger ones who show up each Saturday during the season and do a great job of assisting and encouraging the players. The spectators are comprised of parents and friends. Kindred spirits, united by their children’s disabilities. The game starts with each coach giving his team a pep talk. One of the kids says “play ball” into the microphone and the game is on. At the end of the game, the coaches pull their respective teams into a tight circle and commend each player for their performance that day. They then do a team cheer and disband. At the end of the season, trophies are handed out to each child. The announcer calls each child by name and congratulates the child for his or her performance throughout the season. The children then pose for a group picture, beaming with trophies in hand.
The league is open to children with physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities. The range of physical disabilities vary, some children are confined to wheelchairs which have to be pushed by their buddies while others are capable of running independently. Nikhil turns up in his Red Sox team shirt, he refuses to don his cap. I’m not sure how much he follows the game, but he can hit the ball off a stationary tee. When his team is fielding, he wanders around the field with his buddy (who usually happens to be his sister). He loves to walk up to the replica of the Green Monster and trace his finger along the characters on the scoreboard. Just as all roads led to Rome, with Nikhil, all combinations of alphabets, spell his name. As he jabs his finger at each character in the word “B-O-S-T-O-N”, he expects his buddy to read out “N-I-K-H-I-L”. Once he is convinced that his buddy can read effectively, he points to himself just in case the buddy still has doubts and wanders off again. If he spies one of his classmates in a wheelchair, he will go over and chatter excitedly. If he sees us standing along the fence, he will come over, reach up over the fence and pull his mom’s face down and kiss her. It’s true that the ballplayers always get the pretty girls!
When his team is batting, he loves to play with the water fountain in the dugout. When it’s his turn to bat, he ambles up to the tee and hits the ball gently. He then usually strolls leisurely between the bases gently goaded by his buddy. If there ever was a ballplayer who stopped to smell the roses, nay lie down amongst them, it is Nikhil!
There are players who understand the game and take it seriously. There is a kid who follows a set routine when it’s his turn to bat. He is no doubt emulating his idol. He walks up, adjusts his cap, pretends to spit on the ground, adjusts his crotch, tilts his cap, swings the bat and then takes strike. A girl who participates in the league went on to compete in the Special Olympics. There are kids who connect the ball at their first attempt and are fleet of foot often outrunning their buddies. There are kids who swing repeatedly and miss but the coaches are ever so patient. The announcer encourages the batter and the coaches keep lobbing the ball no matter how many attempts it takes till the batter connects. The announcer does a stellar job, announcing the names of the players, encouraging them and keeping the crowd aware of the proceedings.
Each kid has a distinct personality and merits his or her own story. However, one boy stands out in my mind for his passion. I shall call him M. M uses a wheelchair to move around and is usually the first on the field. When his team is fielding, he is in the thick of the action. He prowls the field and tries to hunt the ball down, at times stumbling but collecting the ball nevertheless and returning it to the pitcher. He also takes turns pitching. He comes into his element though when it is his turn to bat. He raises himself from his wheelchair, concentrates on the ball and swings. When he misses, he falls back into his chair but stands up, steadies himself and takes strike again. When he does connect, he sets off leaving his wheelchair behind. He walks between the bases, stumbling but picking himself up and walking with purpose and determination. He is a showman too, doffing his cap to the spectators as he walks. The spectators start to take notice. Knitting needles are put way, siblings, who are playing their own games at the side stop to watch. Mobile phones are tucked into pockets and a few people stand up. The announcer starts to chant his name and as he rounds third base, his coach calls out his name urging him to go on. All his teammates including Nikhil stand in a line and he high-fives each one of them. The crowd is now clapping in unison and as he gets close to the home plate, he completes a home run with a dramatic dive. The pride and joy on his face is a sight to behold and in that moment, the collective dream of the Miracle League is fulfilled.
As a child, I dreamt of sporting glory, whether it was hitting the winning six in a game of cricket, or scoring a dramatic goal in the dying minutes of a closely fought soccer game. Both world cup finals of course, with me as the captain, battling an injury. Those were mere fantasies and I knew even at that age that this was not possible in the realm of any of my contemporaries. These children have dreams too. Their dreams, however, are the reality for the vast majority of people in this world. We take them for granted without giving a second thought. Walking independently, having the coordination to strike a ball or catch it. A natural way to express their thoughts and feelings. The feeling of the wind upon their faces as they run. To jump up in joy or do a small jig. Sadly, for many of these kids, much of this may never come to pass, but they show up each week with passion and for an hour, they play their hearts out. They seek no glory, they have no complaints, they just want to play. This is sport at its best and it is played out in front of very small supportive crowds.
Tonight though, the athletes can reflect on another game well played and go to bed with dreams of home runs, with another trophy on the mantle. The spring season beckons but till then the wonderful organizers and volunteers of the Miracle League will take a well-deserved break.