By Jim Newell
The crack of a bat, the roar of the crowd, the high-fives and cheers – these are the things that make baseball such an endearing American game.
And at the games soon to be played at Friendship Park, everyone plays, everyone has a great time – so everyone wins.
That’s because Orion and Independence townships and Easterseals Michigan teamed up to create the Miracle League Field of North Oakland at the park, ensuring the area’s special needs athletes have a field where everyone can play.
Community supporters joined officials for a groundbreaking ceremony for the inclusive baseball field on Friday at Friendship Park.
“We are really excited to bring this vision to life,” Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett said. “This idea of inclusivity has been on our minds for years, and today is a celebration that will bring this world series experience for those with disabilities to Southeast Michigan.”
The new field will remove the barriers that keep those with mental and physical disabilities off the baseball field and let them experience the joy of America’s favorite pastime, according to a news release about the groundbreaking.
“This is an exceptional day of celebration of what communities can do when everyone shares a common vision and comes together to make it a reality. This Miracle League field will not only provide opportunities to play baseball, but it will also create lifelong friendships and bring joy to the hearts of the children, parents, volunteers and supporters,” said Brent Wirth, President and CEO of Easterseals Michigan.
The Miracle League Field – which started out as the smaller Orion On Deck project – will have a rubber surface to make it safer for players, dugouts and the entire parking lot will be paved. It will be accessible to able-bodied and special needs players. Barnett said there will also be a concession stand staffed by individuals with special needs.
“Part of the mission of Easterseals is to teach job skills to individuals with special needs. They concession stand will be open to everyone at the park,” Barnett said.
The opening day of the Miracle League field will be a spectacle, with a concert and other activities that that organizers are keeping quiet, for now. The township is also trying to get local, and possibly national, celebrities to participate, Barnett said
“It will make the opening day at a major league ballpark look boring,” Barnett said. “We’re still working on some of the details, but for anybody who knows me they know I dream big. I’d love to see 5,000 people out here watching, experiencing the that and seeing the joy on the faces of these kids for the first time.”
Volunteers will also be needed throughout the season to help the players. Miracle League fields use a buddy system – pairing each player with an able-bodied peer to play alongside each other.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface – 95 percent of the volunteer opportunities haven’t even happened yet,” Barnett said. “Easterseals said we’re going to need to have about 400-500 volunteers in our roster. Pitchers, umpires, announcers. For a while we might need help in the concession stand.”
In the next month or so, there will be volunteer signup links on the Orion Township and Easterseals websites, he said.
The field will also be used for disabled veterans, therapeutic programs, the Lake Orion Wiffleball Association, kickball tournaments and the community-at-large.
Friendship Park already has two wheel-chair accessible swings, a seesaw and an inclusive whirl merry-go-round.
The project is funded through donations, without the use of taxpayer dollars, and is expected to cost about $600,000. Nearly $400,000 has been raised so far, and about $100,000 has been donated through in-kind services, Barnett said, so they still need to raise about $100,000.
He added that while there were several large donations, most of the donations came in smaller increments – $100 here, $50 there – from caring citizens.
Larry Mullins, executor of the Jim and Betty Guy trust, donated $50,000; the Lake Orion Wiffleball Association donated $20,000; and the Daisy Project of Michigan – the group behind the LO Palooza fundraiser – has raised more than $50,000.
For more information, visit EastersealsMichigan.com.
For more information, or to find out how to become a partner in the project, contact Chris Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jenny Bhatti at email@example.com or call Township Hall at 248-391-0304.
Anyone who wishes to donate to the field can send checks payable to Easterseals Michigan, with “Orion Miracle League” in the memo line, and mail to Orion Township Hall, 2525 Joslyn Rd., Lake Orion, MI 48304.