- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Baseball cap tugged low, Dudley Luckie looks every bit the ballplayer as he scoots around the bases, triumphantly crosses home plate and grabs a seat in the dugout.

Never mind that the 7-year-old gets around using crutches, the field is a miniaturized version of a Little League park, and the scoreboard is just for show.

The Miracle League doesn’t keep score, doesn’t have winners or losers and is more about the smile than the style.

“We just want to have fun,” Dudley said, “be like a real team.”

The Miracle League is the field of dreams for kids with mental or physical disabilities, with 17 rubberized fields around the country allowing kids in wheelchairs to race around the bases.

Nobody counts hits, outs or runs. Well, maybe the kids keep track.

“I hit a grand slam,” Dudley says, offering his career highlight.

“He was saying all the way over here, ‘I’m going to hit a home run,’ ” April Stroud says of her 9-year-old son, Michael, who is autistic.

The Miracle League, which five years ago began putting up fields using donations, is expanding rapidly. Parks went up in Montgomery and Mauldin, S.C., in recent weeks to push the total to 17 at sites ranging from Phoenix to Monroe, Wash.

The organization has another 20 groundbreaking ceremonies scheduled for the summer and early fall, and there are 61 fields in some phase of construction, said Diane Alford, who founded the organization in Conyers, Ga., and marvels at its rapid growth.

“I wake up at 4:30 every morning and scratch my head, like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Miss Alford said. Her goal is 500 fields serving 1.3 million children.

The league draws players with disabilities ranging from autism to spina bifida, Down syndrome to blindness.

Lauren Gunder, 15, has osteopetrosis, a rare genetic bone disease. She has had at least 20 broken bones and says she has broken every bone in both arms and legs. She also is legally blind and hearing impaired.

That’s no impediment in the Miracle League. From her wheelchair, she swings at a large yellow ball. If she doesn’t connect in five pitches, they put the ball on a tee. But her swing is pretty good and “95 percent of the time she hits a pitch,” her mother said.

“She’s a huge [baseball] fan and always wanted to play but couldn’t because of her disabilities,” Jennifer Gunder said. “When the opportunity came up, it changed everything.”

Lauren has been listening to Atlanta Braves games on the radio since she was 3, and her bedroom is filled with Braves memorabilia.

Five years ago, the Conyers teen got a league of her own to play in. It gives her the pleasure of “just being on a team and getting to play sports that people always told me I couldn’t do.”

The Miracle League is not just for kids.

Phil Meadows, 34, of Montgomery is among the adults who play once the kids are done with their Saturday afternoon games, which typically last about an hour.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Mr. Meadows, confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida. “It’s an absolute miracle, it really is. The smiles on parents’ faces are unbelievable, and the smiles on the kids’ faces are heartwarming.”

And a steady rain didn’t faze them on a recent Saturday at the Montgomery park, which is tucked amid Little League fields. Michael Stroud and his 4-year-old brother, Austin, who like his sibling is autistic, didn’t seek the shelter of the dugout as they awaited their turns at bat.

“To tell you how much they appreciate this, they’re scared to death of the rain,” Mrs. Stroud said. “And they’re out here in the rain. Any other time, they’d be screaming. The rain scares them to death, but they’re out here playing.”

Like many of the other kids, Michael can’t play sports in gym class at school because there’s nobody to assist him. Now, he and his little brother get to play ball every week.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him,” Mrs. Stroud said. “I think it’s the highlight of their lives, I really do. Because that’s all they talk about nonstop. It’s great.”

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