Kids with special needs have friend in Casey

Kids with special needs have friend in Casey

PITTSBURGH -- For 8-year-old Buddy, normalcy is very much an ideal.

Born with Down syndrome, Buddy spends countless nights and weekends sitting in the stands with his parents, watching his two sisters -- one 10, the other 7 -- participate on various local sports teams. Youth leagues are prevalent in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh, as is the case in just about any suburban community.

But those leagues and facilities aren't designed for Buddy.

The one field where Buddy can both fit in and function isn't down the road. It's not at the local park. It's certainly not convenient. Yet in that quest for normalcy, Dave Hall spends many Saturdays making the two-hour round-trip drive with his son up to one of the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh so that Buddy can play baseball.

There, in Cranberry Township, Pa., sits a Miracle League Field, one with shortened dimensions and a rubberized surface. It is handicap-accessible and available to be used by children with varying needs and disabilities.

Here, Buddy can feel normal. Here, he can be a baseball player.

"It's awesome to see him out there and be a part of baseball and have something that he enjoys," said Hall, once a collegiate baseball player himself. "He loves it. He loves being around the other kids."

But logistically, the commute commitment isn't one that many of the families in Hall's community can make. That includes Scott Bishop, whose son, Matthew, also has Down syndrome.

"The fact that Cranberry is so far away makes it hard for people that live in this area," said Bishop, who also has three children. "It's just too hard to make that trip up there."

Former Major League first baseman Sean Casey is out to change that.

Casey has had the idea for a while. In fact, the pull to dedicate his time to children with special needs began when he was a 21-year-old senior at the University of Richmond. Looking for a way to spend his extra time, Casey volunteered to work with children with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the nervous system.

From there, he went into the Indians' farm system and shot up to the Majors in less than two years. But he did so changed by that volunteer experience.

"I got more out of that than those kids," Casey said. "That experience changed my life. That was my first understanding of those kids."

Opportunities to interact with special-needs children continued to present themselves to Casey throughout his 12-year baseball career, which included stops in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Boston.

There was the time in 1997 when, as a member of the Akron Aeros, Casey pushed a young girl in a wheelchair around the baseball field during a game for kids with special needs. There were the opportunities he had to work with the Miracle League organization during his stops with the Tigers and Reds. There was a personal tie, since Casey's wife, Mandi, has a younger sister, Genny, with special needs.

And there was the Miracle League video he saw during one particular fundraiser that really set things on course.

"It was really a tearjerker, and it hit me in the heart," Casey said. "That was the first step for me as far as, 'Wow, that would be awesome to be a part of that or to build one.'"

Casey retired after the 2008 season and began preparations for constructing a Miracle League Field in his hometown of Upper St. Clair, Pa., not long after. The work began in 2009 as Casey went through the process of getting approval from the local commissioners to purchase land near a newly constructed community recreation center.

With Casey's $50,000 donation, the land was purchased and the plans developed. Those plans include building a Miracle League Field as well as a playground designed for children with special needs. A full scoreboard, dugouts and bleachers will surround the field.

With more than 90,000 children in Southwestern Pennsylvania living with a disability, the need for such a facility is overwhelming.

"It started off as a great dream of doing that and has really become a reality now," Casey said. "I had a guy once tell me, 'Isn't there one of those in Cranberry?' That's the problem right there. These fields should be everywhere so these kids have the ability to go out and play and do something and be a part of a team."

The focus now is on fundraising. The construction of such a specialized field isn't cheap, and the goal is to also hand over ample financial resources for the field to be maintained after it opens. Altogether, the fundraising goal sits at $1 million.

Various local companies -- including Highmark, CentiMark, PJ Dick Inc. and Rohrich Lexus -- have already promised sizeable contributions.

"You have corporations willing to donate, which is great," Casey said. "But the grassroots part -- the $100 check -- is as good as the $50,000 check. We want this community to really rally around this cause. With every dollar that is given, you're going to see that it has a tangible effect on this area."

If the fundraising goes as planned, construction for the Miracle League facility will commence in the spring. The field -- which will be named Casey's Clubhouse -- will then be ready to open in time for the Miracle League's fall season.

"It's really important to note how lucky we are to have Sean and Mandi in this region, because we're going to get this done in a timeframe that blows away most timeframes because of Sean's stature and his popularity and his status," Hall said. "The presence of Sean and Mandi on this project is essential or else it doesn't get done. It's as simple as that."

For Buddy, Matthew and others in Pittsburgh's South Hills who benefit from Casey's endeavor, the work must go beyond fundraising and construction. Part of the attraction of the Miracle League program, Casey explained, is the buddy system, which pairs each special-needs baseball player with a local volunteer.

That's why Casey envisions this project uniting a community. It will take a community coming together to get the field funded and then sticking together to make sure it serves its purpose to the fullest extent. Casey has set up a website (www.caseysclubhouse.com) for those seeking more information on how to make a donation to Casey's Clubhouse or volunteer.

"I hope that this place and seeing the spirit of these kids is life-changing for everybody," Casey said. "I hope it's life-changing for the kids that play. I hope it's life-changing for the people that volunteer. I hope it's life-changing for the people that have helped us support this financially."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.