Megan Zahneis

Special league nothing short of a Miracle

Cincy branch helps offer kids with special needs a chance to play baseball

Special league nothing short of a Miracle

There's farmland just past the outfield fences, which are plastered with the names of businesses and individuals who contributed their time and money to help manifest the dream.

In fact, the whole place used to be a tract of farmland, but then came the bulldozers, destined to realize a dream rather than destroy one.

Yet the crops peek out past the chain-link fence. They aren't corn this year, but you can't help but conjure up that famous image.

In fact, that very scene once played out right here, in a quiet little suburb in southwest Ohio, in the cluster of fields off a side road.

Except it wasn't the Chicago White Sox walking out of those cornfields.

It was Reds legend Sean Casey -- "The Mayor" -- and a few of his friends.

Not just any friends, though. These were kids, and special ones at that. These were kids living a baseball dream, staging a scene from one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, emerging from amidst the cornstalks. And, for some, walking onto a baseball field and playing a game of baseball for the first time.

This is the aptly-named Miracle League. More specifically, it is the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields -- honoring the memory of the Reds pitcher, broadcaster and community legend -- where, as the league website puts it, "every kid with every challenge gets every chance to play baseball."

"They get to play a game of baseball. It's a little different than maybe you and I play it," volunteer Doug Coates said. "They don't have any road rules, they bat through the lineup each inning and the last batter -- they run all the bases at the end of each inning."

The players are of all ages, races, creeds and backgrounds -- and all abilities. They face a wide variety of physical and mental challenges in their everyday lives, but not here.

Here, the fields are made of synthetic turf and are completely flat, so as to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.

Here, there are tees to hit off, and even an assistive device designed to swing a baseball bat at the push of a button.

Here, there are ADA-certified accessible dugouts, complete with roofs, water fountains and misting systems.

Here, there are "buddies" -- volunteers in neon yellow shirts -- that assist each player during the game.

Here, there are scoreboards, PA systems, stadium seats, a press box and a concession stand.

In other words, the players here aren't limited by their minds or bodies. Here, they are just part of the team.

It's a beautiful thing.

That's something I know from experience. As a kid growing up with disabilities, all I ever wanted was to run out and join my brother's sports teams. I couldn't -- there were always safety issues, and the promise of a visit to the ER lingered in my parents' minds.

Sports, and especially baseball, were the holy grail for me, whether the playground pickup game or a nightcap under the lights of the local Little League field. They held the hope of being a hero, even for an hour, and hitting that game-winning home run.

But baseball was always an unattainable dream -- until my parents found me a local Challenger Baseball league to play in. And play, I did: I shagged flies, slugged softballs and slid headfirst.

This is what the Miracle League does. It gives kids like me a chance to get in the game, and everyone else a chance to learn a little about baseball, and life.

There's no feeling like it.

Just ask Kim Nuxhall, son of Joe Nuxhall, who sees his dad's legacy carried out everywhere he looks in that park.

"It's just a feeling I hope I always have, whether it's two years or 20 years down the road. That teared-up feeling when I see a kid out there playing ball for the first time, it's special," he said.

Ask Damon Knoche, executive branch director of the Fairfield (Ohio) YMCA, which sponsors the Miracle League.

"For me, it's absolutely rewarding to see these kids and their peers interacting together and all working in the same direction," Knoche said. "I think beyond the players' growth and development, both physically and socially, I think the biggest reward for me is seeing a whole new generation of kids who are more accepting and more appreciative and more willing to get together and help out their peers. In 15-20 years from now, we fully expect those relationships to still carry on."

Ask Miracle League volunteer Joe Wiesman, who tears up just thinking about how the Nuxhall family and the Miracle League has affected his life.

"The real joy comes from seeing these kids smile," Wiesman said. "Even the most [severely disabled] kids get something out of it, you know? And if you can just see them smile, it just tears you up. You know that you're going to be back, because it's like anything that you get joy from. And I think we get more out of than they do.

"I think when you see those kids react the way they do -- and then knowing that this is their only chance to really come out and play -- it means so much to us. I do it for selfish reasons, to be honest with you."

Or ask Fairfield mom Julie Lunsford, whose son Carson has been playing in the Miracle League for three years.

"We never even thought he would be able to walk or talk or play any kind of sports, so watching him walk out on the field was definitely a first experience for our whole family," she said. "We do a lot of not-so-fun things that we have to do with him because he has special needs, so to get to enjoy him as a child and just watch him laugh and play is very rewarding."

It's that perspective that keeps the Miracle League organizers motivated.

"That's what we all keep in mind -- what it would be like if, you know, one of these kids was in school, and they're always hearing their friends talk about playing ball and they were never able to, and now they can tell [their friends], 'I've got a ballgame this Saturday,'" Nuxhall said. "When they come out, we want to make them feel special. They feel like they're at Great American Ball Park when they come down here. Each week is another memory for them."

Since the late 1990s, over 250 Miracle League organizations have been created in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia. The one in Cincinnati started with one man and his dream.

Joe Nuxhall was a local legend with a passion for giving back to the community. According to his son, Joe had a special affinity for children with special needs.

"His brother, my uncle, had a daughter with some severe needs, and I think Dad never forgot that," Nuxhall said. "He saw the struggles that his brother had and so on, and his daughter, it was kind of ingrained in him to do something for those kids, and we're glad to keep the torch lit.

"I always tell people, 'Dad always got what it was all about.' People called him a celebrity -- he was very embarrassed by that -- but he understood that it was the community and it was the fans that made his career, and this was his way of giving back. And I think it's neat that some six, seven years later, [after his passing], they've given back to him, based on the relationship that he had with them."

And so it was that construction on the $3 million facility began, with the city of Fairfield donating the land and volunteers offering up thousands of hours of labor. Coates recalls a group of electricians who, after being laid off from their day jobs, donated their expertise in wiring the entire facility.

"There hasn't been an organization that hasn't been involved," Nuxhall said.

Dedication Day for the new fields was in May 2012.

"You couldn't avoid it. There was a big buzz going on. And every time I ran into Kim, he was always doing some sort of a function [for the Miracle League]," Wiesman said. "So it got our curiosity up, and we were excited to come down and meet the Reds players, and I think that was our first draw.

"I really didn't know what it was about, and then when I saw it and I realized what they were trying to do, I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Seeing these parents and how hard they work, day in and day out, to try and help these kids, to make them feel like they belong with everybody else."

Today, the Miracle League serves over 200 players in its youth and adult leagues, playing spring and summer seasons.

As it turns out, if you build it, they will come.

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.