As soon as the gold shovels hit the dirt at Monday’s Miracle League North Bay groundbreaking, it was clear 14-year-old Liam Richardson was determined to get the project done — even if he had to do it all by himself.
While everyone was talking after the ceremony at Lucchesi Park, which signaled the start of phase two of construction for the special needs baseball league, the Petaluma youngster was busy at work, excavating a hole in the middle of the crowd.
Occasionally he took a break to shake a hand or give a hug — duties that come with being an ambassador for the North Bay chapter. But as soon as he wasn’t needed, he clocked back in.
Richardson continued digging well after the morning overcast had surrendered to the afternoon sun, and the large gathering had been reduced to the cleanup crew.
For him, Monday’s event was more than a public demonstration of goodwill, or an opportunity to celebrate the major benefactors involved with the first Miracle League in Northern California. For Richardson, who has Down syndrome, it was about this long-awaited chance to literally level the playing field and finally play baseball.
If that meant taking this symbolic shovel and digging until a field magically came out of the earth, so be it.
“He doesn’t see himself any different than anyone else,” said Jennifer Richardson, Liam’s mother and board president of Miracle League North Bay. “He doesn’t understand when he goes in junior high and elementary school that he couldn’t play on the teams. … That’s really hard to serve up as a parent. So he’s been the assistant coach on all their lacrosse teams and soccer, but he wants to play.”
The nonprofit provides opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to play baseball, which could range from a kid with cerebral palsy to a wounded military veteran. Richardson said there’s more than 50,000 disabled children that live less than 40 miles from the park.
MLNB has already fielded 11 teams, and that number is expected to double over the first two years, she said. The Miracle League uses a buddy system that pairs athletes with an able-bodied peer to help them play the game. The custom-designed field uses a special kind of rubberized turf that minimizes injuries and breaks down barriers that could hinder players on natural grass.
Even though there’s a scoreboard, it’s mostly there for appearances.
Part of the $2 million project, funded primarily by donations, is a special playground constructed during phase one in October. More than 250 volunteers helped build a play area that’s wheelchair accessible and designed with the safety and sensitivities of special needs children in mind.
Ghilotti Construction’s area manager Dale Mahoney said he’s heard of families coming all the way from San Ramon just to use it.
Riding the wave of momentum after the playground was finished, Richardson and the rest of the MLNB board set their sights on a quick turnaround for building the field.
But a week later came the wildfires, which decimated nearly 8,500 structures across the North Bay. Every construction partner was spread razor thin trying to facilitate the rebuilding process, and that meant phase two had to be put on hold.
Fundraising events were subsequently canceled, and the funding gap suddenly felt wider.