Bleachers, snacks, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" — we know what to expect at a baseball game. And while, yes, you will find all of those things at a Miracle League of Arkansas game, there's a lot more in store on Saturday mornings at Junior Deputy Park.
In fact, the actual sport itself is secondary for Miracle League, a nonprofit that hosts baseball games for kids with special needs.
"People tell me all the time when I tell them to come out, 'I don't know anything about baseball.' We don't even keep score, for crying out loud," laughs Darek Braunecker, ex officio board member and longtime volunteer. "You just play."
Inspired by the first Miracle League launched in 2000 in Conyers, Georgia, the central Arkansas League held its first inning in 2006 with help from Little Rock Rotary Club 99 and Kidsource Therapy, and spearheaded by now-executive director Peggy McCall.
"Our goal is to ensure that every child in the state of Arkansas with a special need has an opportunity to play the game of baseball," Braunecker says, "but it's not just about the kids. Miracle League allows families to watch their child participate in something they would never have otherwise had an opportunity to do, to cheer for their kids while they're being cared for and tended to and having a great time. It's pretty magical."
For Braunecker, joining was a no-brainer. The Illinois native first came to The Natural State to play baseball for UA Little Rock. After a stint as a minor league pitcher, Braunecker set up shop in Little Rock as a sports agent. He's now a partner and co-founder of Frontline Athlete Management, a boutique agency headquartered in Little Rock that represents athletes like Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson, the sixth highest-paid athlete in the world, according to Forbes.
"Miracle League made perfect sense for me," Braunecker says. "A baseball league for special needs children? I'm in, lock, stock and barrel."
He first joined forces with the league when McCall reached out in hopes of getting in touch with one of Braunecker's clients in 2005. There was no funding, no board, all McCall had was the field space. Braunecker knew immediately this was for him, and he's been involved ever since, spending years on the nonprofit's board before rolling off a few years ago.
In its first season, Miracle League of Arkansas had four teams and 41 players. Now, there are approximately 400 participants across three separate leagues: the original league, an adult league for players 19 and older and a league for more competitive kids. The league has also expanded to northwest Arkansas, with plans to open a third field in Batesville in the coming months.
Though no score is kept, each game has special rules to maximize the fun for each player: Everybody bats every inning, everybody gets on base and everybody scores.
For an organization like Miracle League, safety is top priority. The grass and dirt field is replaced by thick, rubber tiles made from recycled car tires arranged to eliminate obstacles for wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and impaired vision.
Miracle League's Buddy system is not only one of its key safety components, but also one of the primary ways people volunteer. Every player on the field has a “Buddy.” Most kids need some sort of assistance, whether it's helping a child with cerebral palsy hold a bat, pushing a wheelchair around the bases or keeping a child with autism company in the outfield. The idea is that everybody has someone to interact with who can also provide assistance should they need it, and it's a favorite aspect of both players and attendees.
But everything came crashing to a halt this summer when the Arkansas River experienced historic flooding levels. The Miracle League field's close proximity to both the river and a nearby creek proved disastrous for the specialized tiles. Despite thousands of sandbags placed around the facility, the field sat underwater for days, causing tiles to become dislodged and unsanitary conditions to settle in underneath.
"We were told more than once it would be more cost-effective to replace the whole field and start over, but we just didn't have the means to do that," Braunecker says. "Granted, the tiles were pretty gross, but they were fine. We just had to buckle down and labor through it."
With the fall season only a few weeks away, it was all hands on deck as volunteers from across the metro showed up to help remove every tile, hand wash them with dishwashing soap and place them back onto the field.
Then, 4,200 hours of community service and 25,000 tiles later, plus construction companies working to maintain the integrity of the playing surface and biologists testing toxicity levels, Miracle League was ready to open the season just one week off schedule.
"We were told that was impossible, but Peggy — who put in multiple 15-hour days for weeks on end — was bound and determined not to let them miss out on the opportunity to play," Braunecker says.
And that love for Miracle League is contagious. Despite not being one of the more long-standing organizations in the city, the league has found a place in the hearts of many central Arkansans. Companies bring teams of volunteers, student athletes from UA Little Rock join the fun and even able-bodied kids from the neighboring Little Rock Junior Deputy League accompany their peers as Buddies.
Braunecker says it's a routine he sees time and again. People come to one game and they're hooked, but sometimes getting people in the stands can be a struggle.
"There's an assumption that watching one of these games will make you sad," he says. "People aren't sure they want to watch kids with special needs try to play sports, and we get that. But even if you show up with fear, the moment you see the excitement, the smiles, the cheering, singing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' it's an energy that is super infectious.
"There's a certain sort of delight that completely overcomes any of those fears of the unknown. It's compassion that creates that concern, but it couldn't be any more different for people who come out and actually experience it. To say it's rewarding is an understatement and sounds cliche, but the reality is the rewards that everybody receives are something you'll never understand until you see it and feel it for yourself."
And that's why you see an evangelical nature to people involved with Miracle League. They actively recruit friends, family, even strangers to join as volunteers or donors because it's a great resource for the kids and, according to Braunecker, it reinforces their own belief in their fellow man.
"In society today it's easy to believe that everyone is in it for themselves," he says. "This gives you hope, it gives you optimism, it gives you belief that good still prevails. It makes you proud of your community and it makes you excited for your children to know that the world is still a good place.
"When you participate in something like this, whether it's Miracle League or whatever, you just hope that it continues to build a foundation for the generations to come that ensures they're living for something other than themselves."