“Put me in coach, I’m ready to play — clap clapclapclap — today. Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.”
John Fogerty’s rock-and-roll anthem about America’s national pastime blared from the sound system one quintessential fall day at a unique field last September. Without a second thought to the background music, children with physical and cognitive challenges — youngsters with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, hearing or sight loss, limb differences and cancer diagnoses — put the peppy lyrics into jaunty motion. They tugged caps on heads, slipped hands to gloves, heaved neon-yellow softballs, swung aluminum bats, connected barrel to ball, and aimed their way for first base, then second, then third, onward to home. With Hope College softball student-athletes by their sides, unstoppable smiles lit their way.
At the West Michigan Miracle League (WMML), a place where “every
child deserves a chance to play,” the tune that pays rowdy tribute to baseball also does another important thing: It highlights the liberating and rejuvenating power of play, no matter one’s abilities or life circumstance. There may not be a better place in America to shout its catchy chorus.
“Look at me … I can be … centerfield.”
Since the WMML started in 2013 in Rockford at Nate Hurwitz Field, head coach Mary VandeHoef has scheduled a fall-ball Saturday to take her Flying Dutch softball team on the 40-mile trek away from campus to give back via a sport that is as organic to them as outfield grass. Each Hope student-athlete is paired with a Miracle League child playing in one of three one-hour games. With their families in tow, the children, ages five to 18, travel in from throughout the region to band together and play a beloved game that strengthens their social bonds, self-esteem and physical coordination. It is an inclusive experience for them to feel valued and seen.
Everything at WMML is ADA-compliant, from field to dugout accessibility. Bases are sewn into the artificial turf so wheelchairs or walkers have no hindrances on the base paths. The rest of the field has true Little League dimensions and aura, though, right down to the advertisers in the outfield and an enthusiastic PA announcer.
Waves of applause and appreciation fall over them, and they are covered in a uniform of delight. And while they are, though they don’t know it, the WMML kids are imparting life lessons to college students. It’s a profound paradox that plays out quite regularly on this field of miracles.
Hands over hearts, players and volunteers begin every game in proper seriousness with the national anthem, and then with the next diamond- related tradition. “Let’s play ball” jump-starts unbridled exuberance. Every WMML child — with varying degrees of help from their Hope buddies — bats, gets on base, scores and plays a position in the field. The positive energy they emit lets off enough wattage to light up the scoreboard.
And that scoreboard, at the end of each of the two innings shows a tie ballgame between teams that take on the names of colleges favored by WMML coaches in the fall — MSU Spartans, CMU Chippewas, Ole Miss Rebels, Hope Flying Dutch, for example — and Major League Baseball teams in the spring. For posterity, the stretch between the first and second inning includes a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Through it all, WMML children are taught, encouraged and cheered again and again by their coaches, their families, their buddies. They soak in that affirmation every time a ball is hit, fielded and thrown; every time a base is reached and a run is scored. Waves of applause and appreciation fall over them, and they are covered in a uniform of delight. And while they are, though they don’t know it, the WMML kids are imparting life lessons to college students. It’s a profound paradox that plays out quite regularly on this field of miracles.
The same glove junior centerfielder Jo Cook uses to snag towering fly balls or screaming line drives at Hope’s Wolters Stadium is the same glove that she uses to patiently help her Miracle League buddies scoop up grounders that may slowly roll their way. Its leathery power is in its versatility to be used whenever and wherever it’s needed, whether on a college field or on a smaller one, just like Cook herself.
“Miracle League brings into perspective several important things in my life,” says the nursing major. “These kids teach me to be joyful for all that I have, even the little things, even the trials. They teach me to not take a day for granted. And they remind me that God gave me these athletic abilities to use at Hope but also to use to help others.”
Cook then pauses just a bit, collects up another insight as if loading up that helpful glove and adds, “Honestly, when I think about it, the Miracle League kids are using their abilities to help me, too. They show me that this sport that I love to play might have frustrating practices or games at times, but that shouldn’t matter. I do this because I love it, just like they do.”
Like little Louie, one Miracle League child, does. Though non-verbal, Louie expresses his joy to Cook through physical communication. His movements display a transparent happiness to be right where he is. He lightly touches the ball, touches Cook’s hand, touches her hair. Then he smiles, returns his focus to the game, and Cook understands his gladness in that moment. And she is happy, too. Joy sometimes needs no words, just a game to play and a person to share it with.
For junior Claire Bates, Miracle League day is one she looks forward to every fall because it connects with her Christian calling, personally and academically. A social work major, Bates sees much of her volunteering time through the lens of her faith — “We’re called to be the hands and feet of the Lord and this is one clear way that we can do that” — and her soon-to-be profession — “one that focuses on building strengths to help clients create solutions.”
“I think Miracle League is a beautiful example of that [vocational
philosophy] because they’re looking at what kids can do and celebrating that and never really looking at their limitations,” Bates says.
“I think it really just comes down to appreciating and recognizing our able-bodied privilege. Miracle League makes me think how we can play this sport in a way that honors it and appreciates it in a much deeper fashion.“ — Claire Bates
Then, like Cook did earlier, Bates stops to think more intently
about how much the Miracle League children make a difference
in her life, now and into a future that she will spend in service
to others. What she articulates is a profundity beyond most 20-year-olds’ years.
“I think it really just comes down to appreciating and recognizing
our able-bodied privilege,” she says. “Miracle League makes me think how we can play this sport in a way that honors it and appreciates it in a much deeper fashion. Like Jo said, when we do have bad days at practice or when there’s just rough plays in a game, at the end of the day, we still get to play a sport that we love completely. It just brings a whole new gratefulness.”
From Hope teammate to Hope teammate, Miracle League player to Miracle League player, evidence and expressions of gratitude abound. As they are, Acts 20:35 — “It is more blessed to give than receive” — gets pitched a curveball. Who are actually the ones giving? Who is doing the receiving? Coach VandeHoef knows the answers to those questions full well.
“We always leave feeling we received more than we gave, and that’s a pretty special feeling,” she confirms.
Other Hope teams, organizations and alumni volunteer at WMML — the women’s basketball team, the baseball team, the men’s basketball team, the SIB sorority, and grads Don Kent ’19 and Bob Dame ’83 — and each are as enthusiastic about their service there as the softball squad. WMML co-founder and commissioner Tony Comden of Zeeland, Michigan, values the league’s partnership with Hope, an
association that started with the league’s beginning. “We love how Hope students love on our kids,” says Comden. “They are amazing representatives of the college.”
Hope’s participation has influenced other MIAA teams to take part at Miracle League, too. Word has spread; volunteering there is a contagious exercise. “Too many volunteers and not enough parking — those are nice problems for a non-profit to have,” Comden adds.
“We love how Hope students love on our kids,” says Tony Comden. “They are amazing representatives of the college.”
After the end of day of service, the Flying Dutch walk to that full parking lot after packing up their gear at the field. Animated still, they share stories and laughter, piling slowly into their cars for the hour drive back to Hope. It is clear that it will take a long time for their Miracle League cheer to fade. Maybe it never will. Sophomore Whitney Wegener, for one, knows she’s made memories and learned lessons at WMML that will last her lifetime.
“Here, there might be challenges connecting verbally or physically, but it’s just about being in the moment,” Wegener says. “Then, the disability disappears, and we are all just kids at play. It’s a leveling field here. We’re all really the same deep down.”
With those last seven words, Wegener rips the cover off the essence of Miracle League play. They are words as sweet and true as a homerun lifted straight toward the heart of centerfield.
Photographs by Steven Herppich