New Petaluma league allows athletes with disabilities to play ball
Carrying a bright red plastic baseball bat, Olivia Scott, 5, walked up to a batter’s box at Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park Sunday afternoon and fixed her attention onto the pitcher standing in front of her.
“Swing and a miss,” the announcer said after her first attempt at hitting the ball proved unfruitful. Her next swing made contact, however, and Scott took off at full speed toward first base. Two young volunteers held Scott’s hand and ran alongside her as she rounded to second base.
Scott’s mom, Jessica Scott, of Penngrove, stood nearby on the baseball field, capturing the moment on her phone, beaming with pride.
“It was amazing,” Jessica Scott said about seeing her daughter, who has Down syndrome, on the field. “She gets to come out and play; she gets to be a part of a team and do the things that she wouldn’t get to do otherwise.”
Olivia Scott was one of dozens of children who participated in Sunday’s opening day for the Miracle League North Bay, a local chapter of the national nonprofit dedicated to bringing America’s favorite pastime to children and adults with mental and physical disabilities.
The event also marked the debut of a new baseball field specially made to accommodate the Miracle League players, a roughly $3 million endeavor that was funded through donations and took four years to complete, said Alicia Hansel, a board member for the local Miracle League who oversaw the planning of the field.
About 250 people joined Sunday’s festivities, which began at noon on the west side of the park where the field is located. Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose career ended in 1989 after doctors found cancer in his throwing arm, which needed to be amputated, gave the opening remarks. He pitched for a portion of the game.
“It’s overwhelming,” Hansel said of Sunday’s event. “It’s confirming that this space is going to be loved and utilized. It’s inspiring that it’s creating inclusion.”
The vision for project came after Phoebe Ellis, another board member and Petaluma resident, saw the Miracle League in another city, Hansel said. Ellis became determined to bring the vision to Petaluma, and Hansel and other community members offered their help.
The field itself features a flat, synthetic turf that makes it wheelchair accessible, and the typically elevated mound and bases have been replaced with painted squares and colored cones that signal where the players should go. Each player in the league also is paired up with a “buddy,” or a volunteer who helps them throughout the game.
Construction for the project was managed by Ghilotti Construction Co., though businesses such as engineering contractor Team Ghilotti, Argonaut Constructors and Mike Brown Electric also helped build the field, the Miracle League North Bay said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County has been tapped to manage the baseball league, a partnership that started about two years ago, said Jennifer Weiss, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer.
In Petaluma alone, it serves annually 1,500 children, including those with special needs, making the alliance with the new league an obvious one, Weiss said. Local Boys & Girls Clubs staff members also leveraged their contacts with groups from around the Bay Area who serve people with disabilities to recruit for the league, she said.
“For families, it’s an opportunity for mom and dad to come out and sit in the bleachers,” Weiss said. “They can sit down and watch and not have to drive the experience.”
Jennifer Taylor of Petaluma said the league will give her son, Gunnar, 13, the opportunity to socialize with other children he knows, something that’s become more important to him in recent years. Gunnar, who has autism, has attended his cousin’s minor league baseball games, but only as a spectator. The Miracle League will allow Gunnar to take a more active role in the sport, and his dad will work as his “buddy” and assistant coach, Taylor said.
“This gives Gunnar the opportunity to be included in group sports and participate in something that’s bigger than him,” Taylor said. “We have such a need for this in our community.”
The last day to sign up for the Miracle League North Bay is Saturday. Children older than 5 years old and adults are welcome, and the cost is $50. To register or learn about volunteer opportunities, visit MiracleLeagueNorthBay.org.