Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Miracle League: A Sensory Haven for Baseball

Ben practices his swing in preparation for his big hit.

Saturday mornings in the spring have come to mean baseball in our family.  Our little ball player dons his bright orange jersey and matching hat.  He grabs his bat and glove and heads confidently to the field.  I remind him to keep his eye on the ball, and he tells me that he’s going to hit another home run.  Maybe today, he tells me, is the day he will knock that ball over the fence.  At first glance, this may seem like an ordinary day at the baseball field.  But this is no ordinary field, and this is no ordinary league.  This is the Miracle League.

The players on Ben’s team range from four years old to adulthood.  Each player has some form of disability, whether physical, mental, or developmental.  Many of the players face sensory challenges as well.  On this field, however, their disabilities become secondary.  On this field, they are baseball players, and this is their team.

This field is a safe space.  It has been designed especially for them.  The turf is the perfect surface to allow a wheelchair to glide, while also providing cushioning for the medically fragile child.  The bleachers are shaded from the sun, so that the child with the skin condition can still participate in the game.  Each player is provided with a buddy who stays with them for the entire game.  

The rules of the game have been adapted too.  There are no outs in this league.  Every player gets a turn at bat, and they swing until they get a hit.  And every player is supported based on his or her level of need.  Some need very little support.  Some require the guiding hand of the coach to hit the ball.  One player uses a special ball that emits a high-pitched beep to compensate for his visual impairments.  Some players wear noise-cancelling headsets.  Some players whiz around the bases in their wheelchairs while others move more sedately with the support of their buddies.  Some players concentrate fully on the game and crack the ball with astounding power.  Others use the tee to hit the ball with the support of the coach.

Watching my son’s team play baseball is a beautiful thing.  The coaches, the fans, the buddies, and the players all show mutual respect.  Many players have been coming to play baseball with this league for years.  All variations of the game are accepted, and everyone cheers for every player. 

Each time I watch a game, I notice something new.  Before my son’s diagnosis, I had embarrassingly little contact with the special needs community.  Truth be told, I used to avoid those with disabilities because I did not know what to do or what to say.  My son changed all of this for me.  I no longer shy away from those who look or act different, nor do I feel sorry for them. This is not meant to minimize the challenges they face.  We all have challenges in life, and I respect the fact that some of these players have significant struggles.  However, rather than feeling sorry for the boy in the wheelchair, I now appreciate his kind and gentle heart as he spends time with the youngest players.  I notice the girl whose smile shines brightly every single game, despite the limp in her walk.  Still another has sass and spunk to spare, and after she rounds the bases, curtsies at the audience before bouncing off to get a hug from her mom.   The crowd laughs appreciatively at the confident swagger of the teenaged boy with Down Syndrome who points his bat in the direction of left field and then proceeds to knock the ball all the way to the fence.  The coaches patiently guide the hand of a boy who is fixated on twirling a stick that he found on the field.  Rather than removing the stick from his hand, they manage to help him hit the ball while holding the stick at the same time. 

And then, finally, it’s my son’s turn to bat.  He bounces up to the plate, laughing expectantly.  Voices from the stands shout his name in encouragement.  Coach helps him adjust his stance, and he is ready.  He sticks his tongue out in concentration as the pitcher winds up the throw.  Crack!   He knocks the ball deep into right field on the very first pitch.  In a flash, he rounds the bases and sails past home plate, high fiving his coaches and teammates.  Then, he heads into the dugout to guzzle some Gatorade in celebration.

As I watch the game, I cannot help but wonder what our world would be like if it were designed like this league.  How different would our world be if the proper supports were available for children and adults who needed them, whether at school, in the workplace, at the restaurant, or at the local grocery store?  What would happen if we encouraged the strengths of others rather than always fixating on the deficits?  What would happen if we saw one another for who we really are?  What would happen if we stopped feeling sorry for others who are different and stopped shying away?

We have a long way to go before our world mirrors this place of acceptance, where accommodations are provided naturally and without question.  Until that day, I will continue to carve out safe places for my child, and I will enjoy our Saturday morning oasis at the ball field.

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!