By Collin Atwood
Sunday, September 15, Archie Allen Field hosted Opening Day for an astonishing group of athletes. They came ready to play: caps on, cleats tied tight, and smiles brighter than ever.
These kids may not be the extremely gifted athletes often recognized at Springfield College, but the young boys and girls playing for The Miracle League of Western Massachusetts have more heart and joy playing the game of baseball than many others.
The Miracle League of Western Mass. is an organization that allows kids with physical or mental disabilities, which prevent them from being able to participate in local town leagues, the chance to play the game of baseball.
“I’m just trying to have everyone have the chance to play baseball, because I love baseball and I think every kid should be able to play baseball and enjoy themselves playing it,” said Co-Founder, Executive Director and Coach, Ernie Fitzell Jr.
Each game is two or three innings long and allows every batter to get up one time each inning. Whoever is last up to bat every inning gets a homerun no matter where the ball actually goes. One or two other “home runs” occur in an inning as well. A ground ball or even a foul tip wouldn’t look like a homerun to most baseball fans. In The Miracle League, a ball that doesn’t even reach the pitcher can be considered a home run. Nobody is out, everyone hits, scores, and wins.
When attending a baseball game at Springfield College one might not notice what lies in the outfield. Deep in right field there is a much smaller diamond, which is the home field for the participants of The Miracle League.
In 2017 Springfield College and The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation teamed together to create the adaptive field that is built to be safe for people with special needs. Without both parties, Miracle League players would not have such a beautiful and safe environment to play the game they love.
Every Sunday morning family and friends get to witness something welcoming on that field. They get to see a group of kids not only play baseball, but they see them socialize, create memories, and build relationships that no one will ever forget.
Every child gets paired with a “buddy,” which is a volunteer who helps them play baseball. The goal is to have the same buddy and kid paired together for the whole season. This allows the buddy and child to learn things about each other and become friends.
Benjamin Blanchard Nieves is an eight year old boy who has been playing for the Miracle League of Western Mass. ever since it was founded in 2015 by Ernie Fitzell Jr. and Tammy Fitzell.
Ben, who has Down Syndrome, wakes up every Sunday for game day with an unmatchable attitude and a smile from cheek to cheek. Like many people, Ben loves baseball. He comes prepared with his blue batting gloves lined in lime green and carries a brand new baseball glove that matches his batting gloves perfectly.
Ben is accompanied by his mother, father and two brothers; Sebastain and Gabriel almost every week. It is clear that the family receives tremendous joy watching Ben play baseball.
As Ben walks up for his first at-bat on Sunday, you can hear the announcer say, “Now up to bat, BENJAMIN BLANCHARD NIEVES!” The announcer appears silent when being compared to the roars of the crowd: “Here we go, Ben!”, “Yay, Benjamin!”, “Hit a home run for Mama, Ben!”
He grabs his favorite bat, which is splattered with green, white and black with a bright green grip tape and walks up to the plate. Ben slams home plate vigorously with the bat three times then lifts the bat over his shoulders, ready for the pitch.
The underhand pitch comes in chest high, Ben’s sweet spot, he swings the bat with all his strength and makes contact. The ball dribbled along the third base foul line, not even reaching third base. Ben was last in order that day so the announcer screams: “IT’S GOING BACK, BACK, WAY BACK AND IT’S GONE! A HOME RUN FOR BENJAMIN BLANCHARD NIEVES!”
As the crowd yells, Ben rounds the bases at full speed. As he rounds first he puts up his signature rock and roll signs that he does every single time he hits a home run. Once he crosses home plate he goes to his knees, puts the sign back up with both hands and takes in the glory. He sits there for seven seconds while his family in the stands scream and shout his name.
The environment at Archie Allen Field on Sunday mornings is like no other. There is not a frown in sight. The field, dugouts and stands are filled with joy.
No one said it better than Public Relations Manager and Coach, Brian Feeley: “It makes my Sundays worth getting up for…I go through withdraw in the summer when we don’t play.”
Miracle League has over 240 organizations around the world. More than 200,000 people with disabilities are given the well-deserved opportunity to play baseball thanks to The Miracle League.