New league geared toward adults with special needs

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

Individuals facing various disabilities and life challenges have been presented with a wonderful opportunity to participate in organized baseball through their involvement in the Miracle League, which has branches in Blair County and several other counties throughout the state.

A couple of years ago, the Miracle League of Blair County, with the safety concerns of its younger players in mind, established an age limit for each participant.

“I think it was a wise choice for them to make,” Barb Smilnak, behavioral specialist at Skills of Central, Pa., said of the Miracle League of Blair County’s decision. “They’re geared more toward helping the younger kids, and they have to protect the younger kids. Some of the older people hit the ball very hard.”

The decision, while prudent, left many of the adult players with disabilities temporarily without an avenue in which to participate in baseball.

Then Smilnak and several of her co-workers at Skills banded together to form an organization called Batters Up Baseball, which offers disabled adults 21 years of age and older — many of whom had participated in the Miracle League as youngsters — an opportunity to continue playing baseball.

Smilnak, Jamie Friedenberger (a direct support professional at Skills), Kristen Luciano (Skills director), and Missy Huss (Skills manager of transportation) joined forces, along with a group of committed volunteers, to get the Batters Up Baseball organization up and running.

The program, now in its second season, features six teams this year that are financially sponsored by area or regional businesses or organizations including New Pig, Domino’s Pizza, Daversa Pest Control, Blair County Airport, Kades and Margolis, and Tri-Star Automobile.

The sponsors are very important, providing financial backing for such items as uniforms and insurance.

“Without the sponsors, we wouldn’t have the teams,” said Huss, who also serves as the organization’s treasurer.

Each team fields 10 to 15 participants, with two coaches per team, and the Miracle League of Blair County officials have generously donated the field used by the younger participants to the older players for their use.

Three non-competitive games are played each Sunday afternoon throughout the summer months. There are no winning or losing teams in the games, but players derive an inherent satisfaction from simply participating in an activity that other, fully able-bodied athletes may take for granted.

“Myself and Kristen Luciano and Jamie Friedenberger started talking about it after we noticed how disappointed some of the (older) people were that they couldn’t play ball any more because of the age limit,” said Smilnak, who serves as the overall manager of the adult league. “We worked (an arrangement) out with the Miracle League that we could use their field, and that was a really big deal, because it is the only field in our area equipped to be able to handle people with disabilities.

“The sponsors have been great, (this program) has really taken off,” Smilnak said. “It gives everybody a sense of community, a chance to get together and to play a sport that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to play on a field like everybody else, wearing uniforms, and having fun.”

Batters Up Baseball is open to any adult with a disability, regardless of the disability.

“They all have different disabilities,” Friedenberger said of the players. “Some people are unable to walk, confined to (wheel)chairs, some are autistic, some have intellectual disabilities.”

Caleb Mitchell, 31, of Duncansville participated in the Miracle League for one season a couple summers ago, then started up in the Batters Up Baseball organization last summer. He is grateful for the chance to continue playing baseball.

“It’s good, it makes me happy,” Mitchell said. “I like to hit the ball, and I like seeing my teammates and coaches.”

Mitchell is a member of the team sponsored by New Pig, where his father, Monty, is employed in manufacturing.

“We come out to the field an hour early before the games,” said Monty Mitchell, who serves as one of the team’s coaches. “He can’t wait to get here. If they wouldn’t have started this league, the adults wouldn’t be playing.

“You see their faces — there is so much joy,” Monty added. “He talks all week about it.”

Miracle League rules are followed in the adult league, and a regular baseball is used, although it is softer than the average ball. League officials always make sure that the score is even at the end of each game.

Numerous volunteers serve in a number of capacities and fill very important roles.

“I have volunteers who go out on the field, and help (the players) pitch, catch, or do whatever they want to do,” Smilnak said. “I have some younger girls ages 13 to 17 helping out each game, and that’s fantastic. It’s a real learning experience for them. It’s probably the first time that some of them are around people with disabilities, and they’re learning that (people with disabilities) are just people, too.”

This Sunday, for the second straight season, some Altoona Curve players will visit the Miracle League field to hold a clinic for the adult players from Batters Up Baseball.

“They (the Batters Up Baseball participants) are so excited about that,” Smilnak said. “That’s all they are talking about. The fact that the Altoona Curve players are taking time to do this is an exciting thing, (and) the smiles on the faces of our players about it are an exciting thing to see.”

Organization: Batters Up Baseball

Manager: Barb Smilnak

Noteworthy: The organization offers disabled adults age 21 and older the chance to participate in the sport of baseball, regardless of their disability

Contact information: Barb Smilnak can be reached at (814)-502-6849

Miracle League benefit July 27

The third annual cooperative effort between the Pittsburgh Pirates, Altoona Curve and Thrivent Financial to benefit the Blair County Miracle League is set for Thursday, July 27.

Activities will take place at People’s Natural Gas Field.

A noon luncheon at the ballpark will feature Pirate and Curve front office personnel, Curve players, Miracle League youth, stadium tours by the Curve staff, lunch in the picnic area and other surprises.

The Curve will play the Trenton Thunder at 7 p.m., and there will be Curve and Pirate raffle items as well as pre-game and between-inning activities.

Two ticket packages are available — $20 for lunch and the game and $8 for those desiring just game tickets. All proceeds will benefit the Miracle League.

Tickets can be ordered by calling Gary McGovern at 207-5805 or emailing gary.mcgovern@thrivent.com, or by calling Nate Bowen at 238-3118 or emailing nbowen@altoonacurve.com.

Payment can be made via check to Miracle League of Blair County and mailed to P.O. Box 1091, Altoona, Pa. 16603, or payment can be arranged when calling the above numbers with credit card information.

Donors are asked to make sure their names, addresses, quantity of tickets desired and ticket type are included with any check.

Sponsors include Sheetz (gold), The Altoona Mirror and Tyrone Daily Herald (media sponsors), Keller Engineers, Stiffer, McGraw & Associates, Elder Photography, Thrivent Financial, the Curve and the Pirates.

All questions can be directed to McGovern at 207-5805.

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