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Play ball! Miracle League allows children with disabilities to play baseball

Braelyn Whitford, center, waves to the camera with Miracle League mascot Homer and Duluth Huskies infielder Chase Strumpf during a Huskies game earlier this year at Wade Stadium. (Submitted photo)1 / 5
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Emily Kram

For the Superior Telegram

Braelyn Whitford is a sports aficionado.

The nine-year-old gets her fill in any way she can, from attending minor league baseball games to tagging along to watch her mother play softball.

“Anything that has to do with a ball, she loves,” said Matt Whitford, Braelyn’s father.

This summer, Braelyn launched a new chapter in her pursuit of sports. She is playing organized baseball for the first time.

The Superior girl is one of seven children from northwestern Wisconsin playing in the Miracle League of the Twin Ports.

Since league play began June 10, Braelyn has been a regular at Harrison Community Park in Duluth.

She comes to every game with her pink glove, pink batting helmet and a happy smile.

“It is absolutely wonderful to just watch your kid play and have fun,” Whitford said. “They treat them like children, not like special needs kids but like everyone else.”

The Miracle League, with more than 300 chapters, puts baseball within reach for children with physical or mental disabilities. The organization spans five countries and serves more than 200,000 people.

Locally, participants travel from as far as Askov, Minn., about an hour south of Duluth, to play on the Miracle League field at Harrison Park.

The specially designed field was completed in the fall of 2011, and the Miracle League of the   Twin Ports held its first games there in 2012. The rubberized turf field can accommodate children with wheelchairs, crutches and other mobility issues that would prevent them from playing on a traditional grass field.

Gameplay is also tailored to meet the players’ needs, and volunteers assist with elements of the game.

Braelyn, who has a genetic disorder known as Kabuki syndrome, is one of the younger Wisconsin residents playing in Duluth. Her condition often causes skeletal abnormalities, short stature and developmental delays.

At times Braelyn struggles with coordination, Whitford said, but her enthusiasm never wanes.

When she takes the field for a Miracle League game, Braelyn is a smiling nine-year-old just enjoying a day of baseball.

“This is a massive opportunity, not only for the kids but for the parents too,” Whitford said. “Thank you. Thank you for treating our kids like kids.”

Six children from Superior and one from South Range play in the weekly games, which continue each Saturday through Aug. 5. The Duluth Area Family YMCA runs the local Miracle League chapter.

Emily Ranta, associate executive director of the Duluth YMCA, said 33 children currently play in the league, up from 13 last year.

“I think some of the growth was due to word-of-mouth,” Ranta said. “Getting a mascot this year, Homer, was a big help too.”

The Miracle League field in Duluth fills an important niche, Ranta said. The next closest fields are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region and St. Cloud. In Wisconsin, participants would have to travel to Eau Claire for the nearest field.

That leaves Duluth as the only viable option for local families.

“We will take as many kids as want to play,” Ranta said.

Scott Kilpela, of Superior, expects the league to continue its growth. He sits on the steering committee for the Miracle League of the Twin Ports and led a concerted outreach effort this season.

Kilpela said the results parents see and the stories they tell draw new families to the league.

“It’s the look on players’ faces,” he said. “When they hit that ball and run the bases, just seeing the joy on their faces is amazing. There are always smiles on the field.”

Kilpela’s 16-year-old daughter, Sailie, has played Miracle League baseball for the better part of a decade. She began with a league in Kentucky and joined the Duluth league when her family moved to Superior.

She has played in the local league for about four years.

Kilpela said the change in his daughter has been amazing. When she first joined a Miracle League team she was “kind of shy and didn’t want to put herself out there,” he said. Now she looks forward to playing in the weekly games and being in the spotlight.

“She has more confidence, and it boils over to everyday life,” Kilpela said. “Every Saturday morning she knows that it’s time to play baseball. She’s got her pink glove and she’s ready to go.”

Julie McCoshen, of Superior, tells a similar story about her daughter Liza.

Liza has cognitive delays but leads a very active life. The 17-year-old participates in a wide range of activities: from soccer and swimming to kayaking and cycling.

When asked if she enjoys Miracle League baseball, she is quick with her answer.

“Yes, very much.”

Among all of Liza’s activities, Miracle League is special, Julie McCoshen said. It’s not the games but the atmosphere that brings families to the field at Harrison Park.

In Miracle League baseball, everyone wins. No score is kept during games, and teams run through their entire batting orders each inning. On the bases, all players are safe, and everyone scores a run before the inning is over.

The rules emphasize fun, not winning and losing, McCoshen said.

“And the kids make it special,” she added. “They are so genuine and they are so kind. Those guys are all winners.”

McCoshen also praised the Miracle League volunteers, who act as “buddies” to the players and help them retrieve balls and run the bases.

This season’s volunteers have included the Duluth Huskies, Little League teams and church groups, along with regular YMCA volunteers.

Interacting with those volunteers is what draws 10-year- old Stoney Alseth to the Miracle League.

“He likes meeting the people,” said Randy Alseth, Stoney’s father. “They all seem like they’re having a good time, and they always have plenty of volunteers. It’s all very well run.”

Stoney, who lives in South Range, had never shown much interest in sports before playing Miracle League baseball. Books are Stoney’s passion, so his father was surprised when Stoney asked to be signed up for the league.

Now, Stoney looks forward to meeting the new buddy each week who will help him around the bases.

The 10-year-old has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.

“He is a quadriplegic, but he has the mind of any 10-year-old boy,” Alseth said. “You can see he enjoys himself, and he gets excited when he’s running the bases.”

Alseth said he would highly recommend the Miracle League to any parents of children with physical or mental disabilities.

In fact, Alseth expects at least one new addition to the league next year — Stoney’s 12-year- old brother.

“We’ve brought him to the games and he loves it,” Alseth said. “I wish we’d signed him up this year.”

The Miracle League is open to children ages 4-19 with physical or mental disabilities.

Cost is $50, with scholarships available through the YMCA.

For more information, call the Duluth Area YMCA at 218-722-4745 or go online to www.duluthymca.org.

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