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A league of their own: Special-needs kids play ball

Ana Romaguera has been begging her parents all year for the chance to play ball. But for kids with Down’s syndrome, it’s not that easy.

So when Ana, 13, stepped up to that plate for the first time, decked out in a highlighter-yellow helmet and pinstripe pants, it was much more than an at-bat.

It was a miracle.

“It was extremely exciting and emotional,” said Ana’s mother, Gemma Romaguera, of Miami-Dade. “She loves to do the same things her siblings do and now she finally can.”

And so can the other 40 members of the Miami-Dade Miracle League, who have mental and physical developmental disabilities.

But this league is not about what makes them different; it’s about what makes them the same.

“Ana is a energetic child who loves sports,” Romaguera said. “This league gives them ambitions and aspirations. It makes them feel like a part of society opposed to being an outcast.”

Players ranging in age from 3 to 22 gathered at Suniland Park in Pinecrest on Nov. 17 for the Miami-Dade Miracle League’s inaugural game.

Standing on first base with an ear-to-ear grin and two thumbs up, Ana said she cannot wait to play again.

“I like batting,” Ana said. “I would like to thank my family and friends for coming.”

The Miracle League is a nationwide non-profit organization founded in 1988 for children with disabilities to play baseball. The Miami-Dade league, founded in 2011, is one of four leagues in Florida — the others are in Pembroke Pines, Weston and Delray Beach — and one of 250 leagues nationwide.

Members of the Howard Palmetto Baseball Softball Association were inspired to start the league in 2010 when a special needs child asked to join a team.

“His teammates loved having him on their team,” said Lisa Mays, a Miracle League Executive Board Member. “After he joined, they found other kids started to express interest. It was such a success that we decided to build a special field for these kids.”

The Miami-Dade league held its inaugural game on a standard youth baseball field to raise community support and awareness.

“As you’re watching the game you can see that it’s a little difficult for the kids to get around the bases and in and out of the dugout,” Mays said. “The purpose of this game is to get the word out there that we need to build a field for the kids who are in wheelchairs and walkers but still want to play baseball.”

There are more than 30,000 special-needs children in Miami-Dade County, but not one field dedicated to those with special needs, according to Karl Sturge, another member of Miracle League’s board.

The Miracle League of Miami-Dade is working to change that by raising money to build two rubberized turf fields that allow wheelchairs and walkers to function properly while also minimizing bad hops during play.

Organizations like the Miami Marlins have partnered with the league and donated $100,000 towards building the field on the Tamiami Park grounds.

Former Marlins Mike Lowell, Andre Dawson and Gaby Sanchez also donated their time coaching at Saturday’s kick-off.

The league opener hosted 22 players who were divided into two teams, Marlins Black coached by Dawson and Marlins Red coached by Lowell, and were each given two chances to bat and field.

But in this league there are no strikes, no outs and every player scores.

“It was an awesome feeling seeing him do something that all the other kids get to do,” said Maite Argote, who’s son Alejandro, 3, is the leagues youngest member. “This is really important to promote their self esteem and independence. It’s a blessing to be a part of.”

Each player is partnered up with a trained ‘baseball buddy’ to help them bat, run and field. On Saturday over 60 people volunteered.

“I thought it was a great thing I could do to help,” said Taylor Burrough, 12, Alejandro’s Miracle League baseball buddy. “It was fun and inspiring. If I get to play baseball then they should get to play baseball too.

The Miracle League will host its next game in January but games won’t be the only time this community gets together.

The league will host picnics, family events and parties to keep everyone involved throughout the year.

The league will continue to hold fundraisers to help raise money to build their ‘field of dreams’ complex in hopes to begin construction by next spring.