With the strength of only his right hand, Nicholas Villanueva grabs the bat tightly, waiting for the pitch. He swings hard, and sends the ball sailing through center field.
As Nicholas, 14, runs to first base, the smile on his face and the cheers from his team buddies grow bigger and louder.
A stroke when he was just 18-months-old affects the left side of Nicholas’ body, including his brain. The other 80 members of the Pembroke Pines Miracle League also have challenges: autism, Down syndrome, cancer and attention deficit disorder.
“Here, they don’t think they have disabilities,’’ said Nicholas’ mother, Irene Villanueva, of Weston. “They are out there just playing ball. They are not the ones watching.’’
The players, boys and girls who range in age from 5 to 20, come from throughout Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties to play baseball.
“I like swinging the bat,” said Corey Sticco, 22, who plays in a wheelchair. “I like that I get to play with other people.”
The Miracle League is a nationwide program founded in 1998 for children with disabilities to play baseball. There are three leagues in South Florida — Pembroke Pines, Weston and Delray Beach — and plans to create one in Miami-Dade that would begin in 2013. The Pines season continues through Nov. 9; the Weston league begins play after that.
Frank Marquez, a member of the West Pembroke Pines Optimist Club, and other Optimists, were inspired to start a Miracle League after watching a documentary on the program seven years ago.
“We had never worked with special needs kids before, it was just a calling,” said Marquez. “The kids had to learn our system and we had to learn their lifestyle.”
Marquez, a member of the West Pembroke Pines Optimist Club, and other Optimists, were inspired to start a Miracle League after watching a documentary on the program.
The first challenge was getting an appropriate field, which would be wheelchair accessible. The Pembroke Pines City Commission donated rubberized turf that enabled the wheelchairs to function properly, and minimize bad bounces or hops of the ball.
Typically, 30 youngsters show up for the Friday night games. They are divided into two teams, with each child getting the chance to bat and field.
But in the Miracle League, there are no strikes, no outs and every player is a winner.
Every special needs child is guaranteed a spot on the team, a red-and-white striped uniform, and a buddy to help with batting, running and catching.
“I know I’m improving the life of someone else,” said Danny Pardo, senior at West Broward High School, who spends his Friday nights as a Miracle League buddy. “A lot of people out there don’t get the opportunity to change someone’s life.”
During the games, parents not only cheer on all the kids, they use the time to share experiences and programs that offer help to their children.
“We are around parents who are in the same boat as we are,” said Villanueva. “Everybody has something, but here we are all in it together. There are no looks and no ‘Oh, what’s the matter with that kid?’ Here you are accepted and loved.”
The Pembroke Pines Miracle League does not end after a game. The coaches take the kids to watch the Miami Marlins, organize reunions with the families and plan yearly trips to the Keys.
“All these people are more than a family,’’ said Mara Martinez, mother of 20-year-old Daniel Estrada, who has cerebral palsy. “It’s because of this that he gets to play. There was no other place for him because of his physical limitations, but here he can be himself.”
Indeed, Daniel has never missed a game since the league began.
“I just love it too much to miss it,’’ Daniel said. “Even if I’m tired, I fight through and I come.”
The team roster continues to grow, Marquez said.
“There are so many special kids with so many special disabilities that it’s hard to understand them all,’’ Marquez said. “But the loving part, that’s easy.”