Ten years after Sean Casey took on the project, and six years after the Miracle League field at Boyce Mayview Park opened, the grip it has on his heart hasn’t loosened.
If anything, Casey—an MLB Network analyst, former major-league baseball All-Star and an Upper St. Clair resident—is even more emotionally involved with the South Hills branch of the national organization that brings baseball to children and young adults regardless of the challenges they face. “Sometimes it’s tough to put in words,” Casey says.
Let us give it a shot. Inclusive. Inspirational. Fun. Safe. Successful. That would be a short list of adjectives to describe The Miracle League of the South Hills.
“It’s a community of people engaged in supporting our kids,” says Lisa Silverman, Pueblo Drive, a board member of the nonprofit organization. Her son, Ryan, 17, who has Down Syndrome, plays.
With spring and fall seasons, the Miracle League holds games on a flat, cushioned, rubberized field and uses guidelines that separate players only by age and whether they are better served by the non-competitive or competitive divisions. Particularly in the non-competitive games, most players are paired with a teen-aged or adult volunteer “buddy” to help them.
On a game day Saturdays (there are also a limited number of Thursday evening games), approach the field tucked into the recreation area of the park on Mayview Road, and you’ll be welcomed into a supportive, upbeat community. Take a seat in the bleachers or stand along the fences and be prepared to smile, cheer, laugh, maybe even cry.
Here are kids being hams, perhaps raising a bat as if to call a home run. Kids mugging for extra cheers. Kids being silly. Kids taking a serious approach to batting and fielding. Even obvious disabilities are hard to see at the Miracle Field. You just notice kids enjoying baseball.
Occasionally, the name of the field and organization become very real. One day last spring, South Hills Executive Director Tim Gebhart got an intriguing tip from an adult buddy that a miracle was going to happen during a game. Gebhart couldn’t pry any other details out of the buddy. At one point during the game, the buddy alerted Gebhart that the big moment was imminent. He shot a video that ended up going viral.
Kody Conley, 15, plays baseball in a motorized wheelchair. Born with a rare seizure disorder called HME, Kody has undergone countless operations and therapy sessions. He had been working hard with doctors to be able to take steps with a special walker. He wanted his first steps outdoors to be at the Miracle Field.
Gebhart didn’t get the video going in time to see Kody hit the ball, but he got the important moments, when Kody stood, got strapped to his walker and headed for first base and beyond. Kody’s mother, Kim, said it was exhausting for him. Even so, Kody didn’t want just a base hit. With a huge smile and amid cheers from both teams and everyone else watching, he made his way all the way around for a home run.
You can watch the video here (might want to have a tissue nearby) or just do an internet search for “Kody Rise Up.” The video is set to the song “Rise Up,” with permission from Eddie Vedder because the lead singer of Pearl Jam is a friend of Casey’s.
The Casey family are regulars at the field. Wife Mandi joined Sean’s effort to raise more than $1 million to get the field built. Sons Andrew and Jake volunteer as buddies. Daughter Carli will be 12 this spring season and finally old enough to be a buddy, but she has regularly raised $200 for the organization making and selling treats and lemonade. “Anyone can make an impact here, and every dollar matters,” Casey says. “This is where my wife and I want to be (on game days). Who doesn’t want to be here?”
One Mt. Lebanon family would definitely agree. Dorene Ciletti and her husband, Jamie Don, James Place, got their daughter, Sabrina Filipek-Don, involved in the Bethel Park Challenger League that preceded and was absorbed by the Miracle League. The parents now co-coach a team that includes Sabrina, 23, who has high-functioning autism and plays in the adult competitive division.
Of the adult competitive level, Ciletti says, “This is something that, if they have an interest in sports, I’ll call a typical community activity they can do, a typical American pastime. We’ve seen so much of a social element evolving here.”
Adam Shrum, 20, an outgoing type, is one of Sabrina’s long-time teammates. Both enjoy going to Pirates games, but they love playing even more. “The first thing that occurs to me is, what would Adam be doing if he wasn’t doing this?” Margi Shrum, Orchard Drive, says of her son, who has autism. “Opportunities for people with special needs to be out in the community can be kind of limited. I’m just really grateful for this, that he’s able to do this. When you watch the kids play, the absolute joy they have being out and being social and being active is so evident. I think they get a real sense of accomplishment from it.”
There’s always a buzz on game days at the field, a warm atmosphere created by families and volunteers and anyone else who wants to stop by. “The Miracle League creates a community where all individuals thrive, whether it’s the coaches, the teammates, the buddies, folks in the stands or the volunteers that help make the league a success,” says Silverman.
With his fleet of more than 300 volunteers, Gebhart is the only paid employee you’ll see at the field—if you can track him down. He’s in constant motion, coordinating anything that needs coordination. He used to live in Baltimore and worked for former major leaguers Cal and Bill Ripken, who introduced him to Casey. Gebhart started making a trek to Pittsburgh to help run Casey’s fundraising baseball camp, and Casey eventually talked him into relocating in summer 2016 to become the full-time executive director.
He lives in Castle Shannon very near where it meets Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park. “I claim all three,” he says.
Gebhart is not just busy during the season. There are a lot of activities year-round, including a home run derby and social events such as a Halloween party for the players, and fundraisers such as Casey’s annual golf outing.
Gebhart finds the Miracle League rewarding in several ways.
“One, for the players,” he says. “You just see pure happiness. I’ve heard so many stories. One dad came up to me at our golf outing. He said Miracle League Saturdays are the best days of his daughter’s life. She wakes up and literally runs and wakes them up and says, ‘It’s Padres Day! It’s Padres Day!’
“From the buddy side of things, I had a dad of a buddy come up to me and say, ‘We got into this because we thought we wanted to help change someone’s life, help the players, but really it’s been so beneficial to my children to help them develop and show empathy and see what it means to give back.’
“And for the parents, I just love being able to see them sit in the stands and watch and enjoy and kind of just take a breath. Their child, their player is out on the field having a great time. They don’t have to worry about anything. They just get to sit there, be a cheerleader, be a parent, watch their child just have a great time for that hour.”
Will Joseph, a junior at Mt. Lebanon High School and a baseball player, did some umpiring in the past but was looking for a more enjoyable way to be more connected to the sport. So, for last year’s fall season, he became a buddy, paired with a boy named Jack on the Royals team. “It’s a great experience,” says Joseph, of Cedar Boulevard. “And it’s a great opportunity for me to branch out and do other things.”
In the non-competitive division where buddies are prevalent, the volunteers might help a player with his or her batting stance, direct them where to run or keep them occupied while in the field with a game of catch—whatever each player needs.
Siblings Jake and Janie Schraven, Vernon Drive, donned the identifying bright yellow T-shirts and volunteered as buddies last spring—Jake was 11, a year younger than the usual minimum, but was accepted because Janie, who was 13, was joining.
“It was really fun, a good experience,” says Janie, who assisted a young girl named Lily. She adds that the best part was “seeing the faces of the kids when they get on base. Lily, she was running home and she jumped up. She was really excited and happy, and it feels so good that I helped her do that.”
They hope to be buddies again this spring because the experience was so rewarding.
Jake, who worked with a young boy named Jackson, said he particularly enjoyed “just hanging out with the kids. I don’t really see them as special-needs kids. They’re just kids that want to have fun.”
Non-competitive games call for every player to hit and run the bases. All games end in ties. They can hit from a T if they need to, and bats and balls are safer versions than hardballs and aluminum or wooden bats. Competitive level games more closely follow standard rules, although a softer ball is used. Innings end when there are three outs or five runs scored, whichever comes first. The score is kept, so there are winning and losing teams. Coaches pitch to the players, most of whom use aluminum bats.
You don’t have to be a player or a buddy to get involved. Want to be a PA announcer? Set up a crafts table? Play live music or sing the national anthem (although often players do that)? Bring your company out for a fun way of giving back? This is the place.
Teams often stop by and join in the festive atmosphere, whether it’s the Pitt softball team or, on very special occasions, members of the Pirates. There might be a balloon guy making hats and animals. Or it might be Star Wars day with life-size cutouts ready to pose for pictures.
“My wife and I wanted this to be a community-builder. It’s been a community-builder times 50—Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township, Washington County, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park,” Casey says. “Sometimes you do things in life that you’re excited about. I was excited about this… and it’s blown away my expectations. It’s 100 times, a million times better than I ever thought it would be. So many people are involved. So many people are impacted. This is one of those places that there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get choked up here out of joy.”
Registration for the May-June spring season began in mid-March. Players, teams and buddies can sign up at www.miracleleaguesouthhills.org. That’s also the place to go to see the schedule, to learn about volunteering or to donate.
Or head to the field to experience the Miracle League in person. You’ll be more than welcome.