SARASOTA — Pockets of sunshine seep through the clouds and cast shadows across the outfield.
A crisp breeze cuts through the early-morning air.
It’s 54 degrees in Sarasota. It’s 10 degrees warmer than in Baltimore and a balmy 19 degrees warmer than in Pittsburgh.
It’s the perfect weather for baseball — at least in the eyes of 11-year-old Seth Morano.
With a blue Florida Gators sweatshirt covering his bright-orange Baltimore Orioles T-shirt and his ball cap turned to the side, Seth eagerly makes his way to the plate as he hears his name rain down from the loudspeaker.
Cheers and whistles reverberate throughout Orioles Pirates Miracle League Field of Manasota, as the Baltimore slugger settles into his batting position.
He pauses briefly for a moment, taking it all in.
He looks up and offers a kiss up to the sky, as if to say, “thank you,” before choking up on his bat and looking the Pirates pitcher squarely in the eye.
Seth fouls off a series of pitches, before sending a line drive through the center of the infield.
With a glimmer in his eye and a smile stretched across his face, Seth pumps his fist in the air and wheels toward first base.
He then reverts his attention back to home plate, as 6-year-old Leo Powell steps into the batter’s box.
Leo, who is in his first season with the team, follows up with an RBI single of his own.
The celebration continues for the duration of the inning, as the Orioles eventually come from behind to tie the Pirates on opening day of the Miracle League of Manasota’s 2013 spring season.
Seth and Leo are just two of the 102 children and adults, ages 4 and up, who are playing baseball for the Miracle League of Manasota.
On March 16, the Orioles, Pirates, Phillies, Braves, Yankees and Rays all took the field for their season openers.
“It’s fun to go out there and throw the ball,” Yankees player Amy Cross, 42, says.
Her teammate Noah Grunes agrees.
“It’s a fun sport, and the team works together,” Grunes says. “We help each other out.”
Like many of the players in the league, Grunes began playing baseball last year. Since then, the Yankees captain and team leader has developed into one of the league’s most talented players. Grunes, who many have dubbed fastest player in the league, and his teammates spent the off season working with a personal trainer to improve their skill set.
Their hard work and dedication paid off as the Yankees drew even with the Rays in the season opener for the two adult teams.
“We are machines,” Grunes says, grinning.
The Miracle League of Manasota is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing an opportunity for all children to play baseball regardless of their ability. Through the organization, players are afforded the opportunity to participate in an organized baseball league.
“It’s about being part of a team,” Miracle League Executive Director Laura Tellor says. “This is something they’ve never had the opportunity to participate in … They’re so happy to be there.”
In November 2010, the Miracle League of Manasota broke ground on its $1.2 million ballpark, at Longwood Run Park in Sarasota.
Through a partnership with the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who both contributed $75,000, the Miracle League was able to construct a new field, which is barrier free and features a flat, rubberized surface to accommodate anyone with adaptive equipment.
The Miracle League held its inaugural spring season last March, following the completion of its new ballpark.
“We’re so thrilled to have something like this for the community,” Tellor says. “We’re very excited.”
The league is comprised of six teams — four for children and teenagers and two for adults.
During the 10-week season, which concludes May 18, players will gather every Saturday morning for a series of games.
During each game, every player bats once each inning, all base runners are safe, and every player scores a run before the inning is over — ensuring that every player and team wins every game.
“It’s amazing when I hit the ball,” says 11-year-old Joey Baar, who has spent the last two years playing for the Pirates. “I feel so happy. I (also) like to chase the ball in the field with my friends.”
Fellow player Richard Dionne agrees.
“I (always) try to hit it to the water — bye, bye ball,” Dionne says with a chuckle.
After the season, the players are invited to an end-of-the-year party at which they are awarded trophies for participation.
“For a lot of them, this is the first trophy they’ve ever gotten,” says Brad Jones, director of adult services for Community Haven for Adults and Children with Disabilities. “It means a lot to them.”
Many players are returning for their second and third seasons, while a few are participating for the first time.
Regardless of their experience, the players are simply happy to be part of a team — an experience many of them hadn’t had prior to joining the Miracle League.
“My grandpa used to play baseball and I didn’t get the chance,” José Corredor says. “It feels pretty good to be (out on the field). I like to play. It’s a lot of fun.”
In addition to the players, 34 regular volunteers from Manatee and Sarasota counties and dozens of high schools and college students and athletes, including The Out-of-Door Academy baseball players Jimmy Kuebler and Jake Romine and Lakewood Ranch High softball player McKaleigh Goodale, will spend their Saturday mornings serving as buddies for the players.
Every player on the field is assigned a buddy, who acts as a source of encouragement while providing friendship and motivation.
Goodale began volunteering with the Miracle League of Manasota last fall after her mother, Stacey, became involved as an assistant coach for one of the teams.
Goodale, who tries to make it out every Saturday that her travel softball schedule allows, has watched players hit home runs, run bases and push their wheelchairs aside to cross home plate.
“They’re so excited about it,” Goodale says. “They always look so happy out there. It reminds you to never give up and that everything is possible.”
Now with the spring season officially under way, the players finally are able to revisit their favorite pastime — one that evokes a celebration of friendship and new beginnings.
“It’s a wonderful experience, and it’s very humbling for all of us involved,” Tellor says.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].
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