“Everybody deserves to play baseball, and of course this was inspired by special-needs children needing to have the same opportunities as everybody else,” said Rusty Melnick, vice president of Miracle League of East Alabama.
Melnick, who coached youth baseball in Opelika for 25 years and varsity baseball at Lee-Scott Academy for 10 years, said his passion for baseball initially prompted his interest in Miracle League.
Since becoming involved in the league, the baseball aspect is just a small part of what keeps him coming back.
“Just come out and watch it,” he said. “It will touch your heart, and you’ll want to be a part of it.”
Michelle Key and her 14-year-old son Jared became involved in Miracle League for the first time this season after recently moving to the Opelika area.
“It brings him a lot of pleasure and a lot of joy, and it’s an opportunity for him to get outside and get some exercise and be with other people,” Key said.
The East Alabama Miracle League has 135 players ranging from ages 5 to 62, and each team plays eight games per season from the end of March to May 22.
“We’ve seen several children with autism that would not even come out in a crowd like that in the past, but now they’ll go out and hit a ball and run the bases,” Melnick said.
“You see them looking forward to the Sundays to play baseball, and their interaction skills with other children their age and adults improves in that setting.”
He said common disabilities of players include Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and accident victims, but any person with special needs is welcome to play.
Approximately 200–250 volunteers, or buddies, are needed to run the program.
“We have one person that goes around with each player when they bat, and they go out and go around each base,” Melnick said. “Then when they go out in the outfield, they go out with them.”
The Miracle Field in Opelika, also known as Billy Hitchcock Field, has rubberized turf and is wheelchair accessible to accommodate all participants.
According to Melnick, there is no cost to join a team and participants receive major league hats and jerseys, which they get to keep after the season.
The Miracle League of East Alabama, a nonprofit organization, and Hitchcock Field relied on private donations to build the field, and they still rely on donations to keep the league running today.
More information about Miracle League can be found on the website, www.miracleleague.com.
For information on the East Alabama Miracle League and Hitchcock Field in Opelika and how to get involved as a buddy, visit www.miraclefield.org or the league’s Facebook page.