ACTON, Mass. -- Clad in matching red Red Sox T-shirts, Miracle League's Team Ortiz huddled outside the dugout at Miracle Field."Go Red Sox," they cheered, raising their outstretched hands in sync to the sky.The league's spring season ended last week, but it gathered one more time for two games on
ACTON, Mass. -- Clad in matching red Red Sox T-shirts, Miracle League's Team Ortiz huddled outside the dugout at Miracle Field.
"Go Red Sox," they cheered, raising their outstretched hands in sync to the sky.
The league's spring season ended last week, but it gathered one more time for two games on Saturday for the Red Sox Play Ball event -- an initiative that brings baseball to local communities in the Boston area.
"Working at the Miracle League, it just makes my heart so full," said Sam Nipatnantaporn, the Red Sox's coordinator for fan and youth engagement. "... Just adding something special and extra for [these kids] to enjoy really is [gratifying]. ... [Play Ball is] an event that I can't put words to, because it's just an experience that's very fulfilling."
The Red Sox have partnered with Miracle League for two years, but the seeds for this event were sowed long before that -- four years before the field these athletes played on was even created. It started when Miracle League coach and co-founder Andy Richardt was coaching his daughter in softball, and the thoughts he had about his son with special needs, Henry.
"I thought, 'Where's Henry going to get to play?'" he said.
Richardt read an article about the Miracle League and brought it home. Then, he and his wife, Lauren, decided to take action. They heard about a couple who was trying to bring Miracle League to Boston and offered to serve as coaches.
"We thought, 'Well, we can do this,' not knowing what we were getting into," he said.
Forty-five athletes competed in the league's first season in 2008. And as they began to recruit buddies for the athletes from local middle schools and high schools, word spread quickly. Today, 172 athletes compete in Miracle League.
"[When] we started out, we would chase people down and annoy people to talk about the Miracle League," Richardt said. "And now people come up to us, and are like, 'Oh yeah, the Miracle League. I know about that.'"
More and more members of the Acton community began donating their time and money to the league. They earned enough donations in 2012 to build Miracle Field, in partnership with the Town of Acton. The facility has an accessible turf field, where games do not need to be canceled due to rain, as well as a flat surface easy for athletes in wheelchairs or walkers to circle the bases -- all surrounded by a fence for safety. It even has its own Green Monster behind left field, where the Miracle League athletes and coaches lined up in between innings on Saturday to get a picture with a visiting Green Monster, Wally.
The athletes were also able to explore Red Sox batting practice through virtual reality, collect a free bat and Play Ball T-shirt, and even take a picture with the 2013 World Series trophy. But Wally was undoubtedly the highlight of the event.
"We [told] them ... Wally's [was] coming, but I don't think their parents [told] them," Richardt said. "Or they [forgot], 'cause they [got] so excited to play baseball. And then when Wally [appeared], it [was] just overwhelming for them -- because they've seen Wally on TV and they've seen him at games, but he [was] always so far away. So to be able to interact with him on the baseball field, I think that [was] probably their favorite part."
Richardt said after last year's Play Ball event, athletes asked him during the spring season, "Are you going to do it again?" They were eager for an exciting end to their baseball season.
Mike Brodsky, whose 12-year-old daughter, Allie, just finished her fifth season playing for Miracle League, said they were out of town when Play Ball came last year. But they heard about how fun it was, and were excited to join the event to see Wally in person.
"She [was] really excited about Wally, right up until he [got] close, and then she [wondered] about it," Brodsky said, laughing. "But she gave him some knuckle bumps and high-fives, so she warmed up to him."
When asked how she liked the Play Ball event, Allie flashed a grin and gave it two thumbs up. Her smile was equally as wide when Wally was mentioned. That was Richardt's favorite part of the day -- watching how much fun the athletes were having, from high-fiving Wally to dancing in the outfield.
"We really appreciate the support of the Red Sox," Richardt said. "It's a big deal to have the Red Sox come out, and it means so much to our athletes. So we're lucky that they're supporting us, too."
Blake Richardson is a reporter for MLB.com based in Boston.