For love of the game

Joe Reed of Altoona didn’t think much of it when his friend in Alabama showed him a ballfield before he flew home to Pennsylvania.

“You’ve seen one ballfield, you’ve seen them all,” Reed said, not thinking too much of the Miracle League ballfield his friend had shown him.

Once he got home, Reed saw an article in his Kiwanis magazine about the same kind of ballfield. About the same time, he heard about some money available through the Pittsburgh Pirates organization to help build the same kind of field.

Too many coincidences for Reed.

“I thought, ‘I’m supposed to do this,”’ he said. What he ended up doing is pitching the start of Miracle League of Blair County to fellow Kiwanians.

The league played its first game in July 2007.

Miracle League got its start in Conyers, Ga., in 1997 when a young boy in a wheelchair wanted to play baseball. Children with special needs are matched with healthy kids, their “buddies,” who round the bases with them, so that for most, for the first time, they can play sports, Reed said.

“For most of them, this is it,” he said. “Some of them do horseback riding, and some do Special Olympics, but not many.”

The local Miracle League chapter is this year’s Season of Sharing designee, picked by the Altoona Mirror as a

worthy charity that readers are encouraged to send donations to help support. The league has just finished resurfacing its ballfield but needs to replenish its funds because it took money from other resources to help cover the cost of the resurfacing, Reed said.

The Season of Sharing program is the Mirror’s holiday fundraiser that partners with the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation and readers.

Past recipients include Shriners Hospital for Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters, U.S. Armed Forces Mothers and the Gloria Gates Foundation.

Reed said the league needs to make up between $10,000 and $20,000 to replace the money it spent on the resurfacing of the ballfield.

The league needed to resurface the field because the walkers and wheelchairs used by some of the players were getting caught in seams that ran through the old surface, he said.

Getting the local Miracle League off the ground wasn’t hard, at least not at first, Reed said. Once he’d made his own decision to proceed, he approached the Kiwanis board with the idea.

“Almost before I got it out of my mouth, they said, ‘Let’s build it,'” he said.

One of the hardest parts about building a Miracle League field is usually getting the land, but that was no problem in Blair County. The local Kiwanis club already had a tract of land next door, near where the Teener League played ball.

Reed said based on research he received through Penn State Altoona, he estimated that 10,200 children with special needs in central Pennsylvania could benefit from the ballpark.

Armed with that knowledge, he began the slow process of raising money to build the park from the ground up. It took awhile, even to win over some social service agencies that serve special needs children because he had to convince them that Miracle League wasn’t taking their place, he said.

“Once they realized that, then they came on board,” he said.

Some big companies were very helpful, including Sheetz Inc., Leonard S. Fiore Inc. general contractors, Burgmeiers Hauling Inc., M&T Bank, Reliance Bank, Blair Electric Service Co., Blair Sign Co., and many other companies, Reed said. Several firms gave in-kind donations, such as Fiore and Sheetz, which provided construction workers and material free of charge.

He also credited several media outlets for helping to get out the word that the fundraising effort was underway.

In response, the donations, large and small, started coming in. Reed remembers getting the big checks, like the $25,000 donation from Walmart and the one dollar bill in an envelope that he said obviously came from a child. Finally, they had the $115,000 they needed to finish the ballpark.

“Looking back at the fundraising we did, I don’t know how we raised all that money,” he said. “It was amazing, and it’s still happening today.” Groups like the Altoona Curve baseball team continue to provide support through fundraising efforts it sponsors that are invaluable, Reed said.

The first game featured 24 players with two teams.

This past summer, the league had grown to 148 players with eight teams.

Over the years, adults have joined the ranks of

the players.

“A lot of these adults have never played baseball in their lives,” Reed said.

Currently, there are 250 Miracle League organizations in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia. The Blair County group serves much of central Pennsylvania, with some kids and their parents traveling 90 minutes to attend games because, until a newly formed organization in Indiana recently got off the ground, the closest one was in Murrysville, Reed said.

The buddies who pair up with the players range in age from 12 years old to people in their 80s, Reed said. Many of them have no connection to anyone with special needs; they just wanted to volunteer to help, he said. Once they sign up to be a buddy, the majority of them stay with the league for years, he said.

“Sometimes I think the buddies have more fun than the players,” Reed said.

One player who has lots of fun when he’s out there on the field is Jorden McClure, now 12.

“Be sure to get the half in there,” his mom, Robin, said.

Jorden started playing in the league when he was about 5, he said.

He loves it when he’s trying to outmaneuver the referees after he’s hit the ball. Jorden, who has a motorized wheelchair, said they’ll try to get in his way, but he just quickly dodges around them.

“The refs are so funny,” he said. “I like bouncing up and down in my chair so that I can go faster.”

Jorden’s buddies are usually his older brother, Zach, or his older sister, Brittany.

“It’s a wonderful experience being involved with Miracle League,” said Brittany, who’s 20. “There’s so many things that we take for granted, like walking, talking, running and dancing. This is a great opportunity to give a child the chance to play baseball when otherwise they wouldn’t normally have the chance.”

Robin said she first heard about the league from a neighbor who was a board member for the league. She was excited about the idea because she didn’t think Jorden would ever be able to play any sport.

Her entire family quickly got involved in the group, with her husband, Sam, a retired Altoona police officer, helping to organize the popular annual Guns N’ Hoses fundraiser.

Robin, who is now a board member, credits Reed, his wife, Annette, and others for their dedication to the league, even though many, like the Reeds, don’t have any children or grandchildren with special needs.

“No one gets paid, that’s what makes it special,” she said. “They’re just there to see the joy in the kids’ faces. Usually at every game, there’s not a dry eye there. It’s a very touching thing to see.”