Harang on hand for opening of ballpark he helped build
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CINNATI -- Instead of real grass or dirt, the playing surface is a synthetic rubber. But the games that will be played there is baseball in its purest form.That's what lured Reds pitcher Aaron Harang and his wife, Jen, to the idea of having a Miracle League field in Cincinnati for children with special needs."You should see their faces. It's unbelievable," Harang said. "They're getting to go out and play the game like we do."A few years ago, the Reds Community Fund partnered with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission in a field renovation program around inner-city parks to create safe and modernized places for children to play baseball. One of the priority projects was to create a field that was truly wheelchair accessible.That goal was finally realized Saturday when the ribbon was cut at the newest Miracle League Field at the Dunham Recreation Complex near Price Hill on the west side of Cincinnati. The Miracle League operates under the belief that "every child deserves a chance to play baseball." Following the dignitary-filled ceremony, a team appropriately named the Reds played the Brewers in the first of several one-inning games on the schedule."I've been to a lot of opening days and a lot of ballparks," said Reds radio voice Marty Brennaman, who emceed the opening ceremony. "I don't know if I've ever been to one as special as an opening day as this one is because of all the people this park will touch, not only immediately, but down the road in the days, weeks, months and years to come."What makes the Miracle League appealing is its mantra of inclusion. The basic rules are that every player gets to bat once each inning and all players are always safe on the bases and get to score a run. Players can hit off a tee or face a pitcher that tosses underhand and have a "buddy" assist them around the bases, if needed.And most importantly, everybody wins."For most of them, they can't walk or have wheelchairs and can't play on ordinary teams with ordinary kids," Harang said. "There's too high a risk to get hurt. Now, this puts them in their own element with kids at their level. Everybody hits and plays. It's more for fun, and it gets them out there."In the past decade since the first Miracle League field opened in suburban Atlanta, more than 200 Miracle League fields have sprouted up to benefit more than 100,000 players.The CRC started an adapted baseball program in 1986 and formally began the first Miracle League in Greater Cincinnati in 2004. All of the games, however, were played on dirt fields. The surface often became treacherous after rainy days, with wheelchairs and walkers getting stuck in the mud. Injuries were more prevalent, which was certainly not part of any fun for kids.When Harang heard about that, it motivated him to become involved. As the Reds' 2007 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award for community service, he donated his $7,500 prize to the Miracle League and then matched it. Eventually, Harang's contribution totaled $55,000 toward the $880,000 project, which included covered dugouts, a pavilion, scoreboard, lighting and easy access to the adjacent aquatic complex."I heard stories of kids going through this but can't get out and play a normal game because it's so hard to participate," Harang said. "Now with these fields, it gives them an opportunity to actually help their kids swing and push them around the bases and get to see the smiles on their faces. It's really cool. We're so excited about this program."The designers and builders at Dunham Field spared no detail. Although made of a rubber that cushions falls, the flat wheelchair-friendly surface has a grass and dirt look. Even the ballpark flagpole has baseball significance -- it came from the old Reds' home at Crosley Field after being found in storage.Karen Wiegand was with her 10-year-old son and Miracle Leaguer, Kyle, who had already played in his first game at the new field last week. Kyle, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, loved getting to play in a game."He really feels like he's on a team and part of something," Wiegand said. "His brothers can come and watch instead of him just watching his brothers. It's pure fun. They're all excited, and everybody helps everybody. It's a great thing to do. He gets a sense of being a part of a team, taking turns and making new friends. It's hard to find friends. It's a good way for parents to make friends, too."