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Published: 6/13/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Hens help league score miracles

Ball club’s trio help pitch fun during regional all-star game

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Editor's Note: The original photo gallery link misidentified the Miracle League as the Miracle Network.

Alivianna Gallup, 5, who has spinal muscular atrophy, tools to first base in her motorized wheelchair, where she can stow her gear when not playing ball. She hit a home run in Sunday’s All-Star game. Alivianna Gallup, 5, who has spinal muscular atrophy, tools to first base in her motorized wheelchair, where she can stow her gear when not playing ball. She hit a home run in Sunday’s All-Star game.
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Toledo Mud Hens pitcher Robbie Weinhardt was ahead in the count against Corey Pappas when the batter suddenly made the Miracle League of Northwest Ohio crowd on both sides roar.

“Help me out, crowd, please,” the 21-year-old Oregon man good-naturedly pleaded before hitting a rubber ball he couldn’t see — but his father assured him was in the strike zone.

Mr. Pappas, who has cerebral palsy and cerebral blindness, played Sunday in the annual Miracle League of Northwest Ohio All-Star Game with help from three Mud Hens heroes: pitchers Weinhardt and Thad Weber and outfielder Deik Scram.

“This is an absolute joy to come help out these kids,” Weber said between helping Miracle League athletes in the infield. “This is the best part of the day right here.”

PHOTO GALLERY: See more pictures from the Miracle League all-star game.

Said Weinhardt, who at times could be seen nudging a hit farther into the field to give a batter time to reach first base: “We get to live our dreams every day playing ball, and to get to fulfill their dreams by helping play baseball is really special for us.”

For three seasons, the mostly disabled Miracle League athletes have played baseball on a specially cushioned and rubberized field in Northwood’s Brentwood Park. The nonprofit league was established in 2006 after founder and president Jeff Barton saw a television show about a league in Georgia.

Northwood leased the field’s space at Brentwood Park to the Miracle League for 50 years at a $1 cost. Other donations of $350,000 in cash, labor, and materials made the special field with wheelchair-accessible dugouts and other features possible.

The league has about 60 players on six teams and finished the first half of its season yesterday. Play is to resume in September when temperatures are cooler. Most Miracle League players are from Lucas and Wood counties, but some come from Findlay, Oak Harbor, and elsewhere for regular two-inning Sunday afternoon games.

Mud Hen Robbie Weinhardt winds up to deliver a pitch to athletes of the Miracle League of Northwest Ohio. Mud Hen Robbie Weinhardt winds up to deliver a pitch to athletes of the Miracle League of Northwest Ohio.
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All players hit once an inning. Although no one keeps score, the last person at bat always gets a home run.

Sunday, 5-year-old Alivianna Gallup of Northwood was one player who hit a home run off Weinhardt in the one-inning All-Star game. She has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a motorized wheelchair, which even has room for her pink bat and glove.

“I like it,” Alivianna said of baseball.

Alivianna was shy last year during her premier season, but even Weinhardt remarked Sunday about how the girl had become more animated, her mother, Beverly Gallup, said.

“It’s really gotten her out of her shell,” Mrs. Gallup said.

Many players need some assistance from relatives or friends, and they use an oversized bat, tee ball stand, or whatever other equipment they require.

Mr. Pappas on Sunday received help from his father on the diamond and in the outfield.

“He has a pretty consistent swing, so as long as they put it in there, I tell him when to swing, and he usually connects,” Mike Pappas said.

Said his son: “It’s really fun.”

Detroit Tigers fan Keontaye Anderson, 11, hit off a tee ball stand Sunday and was wheeled around the bases by his father, James Anderson of Toledo.

“It just gives him a chance to do more things like other kids do,” Mr. Anderson said of his youngest child, who has cerebral palsy. “He should be able to have other chances and other opportunities that other kids have.”

Chris Moreno of Northwood could be heard Sunday cheering on his son Jason, 34, who also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

“Go deep, buddy,” Mr. Moreno told his son while at bat with the help of his aunt, Lucinda Perkins of Northwood. “Ready, everybody, here we go.”

Sabrina Niezgoda and brother Kyle plot strategy during the league’s one-inning All-Star Game. Sabrina Niezgoda and brother Kyle plot strategy during the league’s one-inning All-Star Game.
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Of course, Mr. Moreno, who coaches one of the teams, could be heard cheering all the players on. There seems to be no partiality in the Miracle League.

Mr. Barton, the league’s founder, got to know parents of developmentally disabled residents when he worked for Josina Lott Residential & Community Services in Toledo.

And Mr. Barton figured if he and his wife, Lisa, had a special-needs child, he would want that child to have the opportunity to play baseball.

“A lot of these parents don’t have time do something like this,” Mr. Barton said about heading up the league.

The Barton children, Vincent, 5, and Brody, 3, do not have special needs.

But Vincent plays in the league for anyone who is at least 4 years old, which allows those who are not disabled to take the field with friends or siblings who are.

“It’s a good way for him to learn about kids who are different from him,” Mr. Barton said of his older son.

Some of the players are pretty competitive, including a player with Down syndrome whose hit one Sunday went over the fence after bouncing in the field, Mr. Barton said.

Some special-needs players, such as those who are mildly autistic, go on to play in regular leagues, he said.

There are times when the basics of baseball escape some players, but no one seems to mind.

Kyle Niezgoda, a 9-year-old Curtice boy with a neuromuscular disease who gets help playing from his 17-year-old sister, Sabrina, sometimes wants to play offense and defense at the same time.

“As you can see, he’s running the bases, and he gets the ball to throw it in,” their mother, Carol Niezgoda, said with a grin.

She added, “It’s so heartwarming to see these kids, even the ones in wheelchairs, get out there and play.”

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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