Dreams come true at field
Grand Island baseball complex serves the disabled
By Gene Warner BuffaloNews Staff Reporter - Updated: April 4, 2011, 10:59 AM
It's a true field of dreams, a new ballpark on Grand Island where kids and young adults with disabilities can finally play baseball on an even playing field.
The Sabres Miracle League Field complex is set to open late this summer in Grand Island's Veterans Park. Its crown jewel will be a baseball diamond topped by a special two-inch rubberized, seamless surface.
No longer will kids using wheelchairs, crutches or walkers have to negotiate a field filled with mud and ruts, an inconvenience for some players but almost a land mine for people facing physical challenges.
The $500,000 complex, replacing the volleyball courts in the park, will include the baseball diamond, a 40-by-100-foot pavilion, a wheelchair-accessible playground, concession stands and restrooms, all tailored for the disabled.
There are plenty of heroes in this story, most of them key donors: the Buffalo Sabres, the team's Alumni Association, the Town of Grand Island, an anonymous donor, the Lions Club and hundreds of contractors and workers who donated labor and/or material to build this special field.
But the real dynamo behind the new field is Teresa Hooper of Grand Island, a longtime volunteer rink captain with the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped whose 10-year-old niece, Ellie Podsiadlo, uses a wheelchair.
The new field is expected to attract existing groups of baseball players from the Challenger and CAPS leagues, along with plenty of new converts who have been itching for an appropriate field.
"If you build it, they will come," Hooper said of the disabled baseball players. "And they are coming."
The real winners in all of this are the disabled kids who have spent their lives tagging along to watch their brothers' and sisters' hockey games, swim meets, soccer games and gymnastic meets -- always from the sidelines.
Now they will get to play in their own games.
"I think that's the home run, that these kids can be part of a team and play in a league," said Larry Playfair, president of the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association. "Now their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas can come to watch them play."
Hooper, president of the Miracle League of Grand Island and Western New York, describes it another way.
"It represents freedom," she said of the field. "It takes away barriers these kids face every day and gives them a sense of normalcy."
The new field is part of the growing Miracle League, a Conyers, Ga.-based organization with chapters in about 240 communities and fields in about half of them. But this will be the first such field in Western or Central New York, organizers say.
The game is a little different, played with a soft-core softball, and with "buddies" assigned to each batter and fielder to help them hit, field and run the bases. The more-challenged players will play by T-ball rules, with each player batting every inning.
The field looks like a regular one, with its green, rubberized playing surface and its tan, sand-colored base paths.
"Anyone with a disability, even if they can't run or hold a bat," Hooper said.
Besides the opportunities the new field will provide, the birth of the local Miracle League has been its own whirlwind story.
That story can be traced to the day last June in McMahon's Family Restaurant when Hooper talked with co-owner Fran McMahon, who showed her the Miracle League website.
Or the summer day when Sabres Chief Operating Officer Dan DiPofi told the Sabres Alumni board, "Why don't we do something really big in the community?"
Or the late-summer day when Hooper met Playfair in church and shared her dream about the baseball field, and Playfair remembered DiPofi's remark.
As the wheels started to turn, the Town of Grand Island donated the land in Veterans Park. And Hooper, along with her husband, Mike, spread the word to local contractors and roofers and concrete workers and others who provided labor and/or materials.
"The community support has been just overwhelming," Hooper said. "People are coming to us to donate and to give of their time."
So far, the project has received the following commitments: $75,000 each from the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association and the Sabres Foundation; $25,000 from an anonymous donor; $6,000 in 50-50 Club raffle sales at two World Junior Hockey tripleheaders; $16,500 from a March 12 benefit dinner; and about $12,000 in donations. Those funds, plus an expected $75,000 from the Lions Club, bring the raised total to about $285,000. Plus all the donated materials and labor.
Most Miracle League chapters, in these challenging economic times, need two to 2 1/2 years to form their chapters, build a field and start play.
"We're doing it in about six months," Hooper said. "That's because of the community support and the town's support."
Hooper has been told that the new complex will be completed by August or September. But she hopes to see the first games in July.
"I just tell them they have to work longer and faster," she said of the workers.
It's all for the kids.