MONROE — Austin Cover and his family now live more than 1,000 miles away, but there’s no way they were going to miss this celebration.
Cover and his parents, who moved to Arizona one-and-a-half years ago, traveled all the way back to their old hometown of Monroe to be part of Saturday’s Miracle League baseball celebration at Rotary Field in Skykomish River Park.
The Monroe-based adaptive baseball league for special-needs individuals was celebrating both its 20th season of existence and the 10-year anniversary of the all-turf Rotary Field, which was specifically designed to host Miracle League games and accomodate the wide-ranging physical and mental disabilities of its participants.
“This is just where his heart is,” said Julieanne Cover, Austin’s mother. “He’s lived Miracle League for 20 years. It’s what he’s all about. It kind of defines him.”
Austin, 29, suffered a stroke during infancy and has undergone approximately 30 surgeries over the course of his life, including seven open-heart procedures. However, he never let his physical challenges keep him from playing baseball.
Austin was one of the seven original players who participated in Miracle League’s inaugural 2000 season in Monroe. He played every season from then until his family moved to Arizona, missing roughly just five games over that span of 18-plus years. He’s since joined a Miracle League in Arizona.
“It’s changed his life completely,” Julieanne said. “It’s the same for all these kids. They just want to be part of something bigger than themselves and get cheered on and feel that team camaraderie, and he loves that.”
Miracle League, a not-for-profit organization that’s grown to more than 240 leagues across the country, began two decades ago in Georgia as a baseball league for individuals with disabilities.
Ric Carlson, then the Monroe Rotary Club’s incoming president, read about Miracle League shortly after its inception and was inspired by the idea. After discovering there were no such adaptive sports programs in the area at the time for special-needs individuals, Carlson and the Rotary Club started their own Miracle League in 2000. It was the first Miracle League in the state.
Over the past two decades, the Monroe-based league has provided countless special-needs individuals from all over the region — many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to play in traditional sports leagues — a place to experience the joy of playing a sport and being part of a team.
“They just want to be normal,” said Don Purvis, who’s in his ninth season volunteering with Monroe’s Miracle League. “This organization gets a whole group of kids that may not feel as included in other organizations, and we provide an atmosphere of inclusion and fun.”
Saturday marked the season-finale tripleheader of Monroe’s Miracle League, which runs from late April to mid-June. Each Saturday during the seven-week season, approximately 50 children, teenagers and adults with physical or mental disabilities come to Rotary Field to play in one of three two-inning games.
Players such as Dane Wheeler and Ian Locke look forward to those gamedays with great anticipation, according to their mothers.
Dane’s mother, Carol, said her 24-year-old son frequently asks “how many more sleeps” are left until his Miracle League game on Saturday. Ian’s mother, Deanna, said her 21-year-old son often wakes up at 5 a.m. on gameday mornings brimming with excitement.
“They live for it,” Dustin Cover, Austin’s father, said of Miracle League’s players. “They live for that Saturday to be able to come out and play ball. It’s an incredible experience for them.”
In Miracle League baseball, everyone hits and everyone scores. Teams bat through the order every inning, and many players follow their hits by rounding the bases for a home run. The games have a fun-filled atmosphere, complete with an announcer, nicknames, individual walk-up songs and plenty of high-fives.
“For a moment, they seem to forget about their challenges they might be experiencing and they’re just out there having the time of their lives playing ball,” said Monroe/Sky Valley YMCA adaptive coordintor Nicole Hudson, who organizes the league. “It’s just incredible to see the joy and the impact that it brings to them and their families.”
Each player is paired with a volunteer partner who assists them during games. Depending on the individual, that could include pushing the player in a wheelchair, helping them swing the bat, protecting them from batted balls or simply cheering for them as they round the bases.
The volunteers often include people from sports teams, churches, businesses, school clubs or other groups. On Saturday, many of the volunteers came from the local fire and police departments.
“The volunteers have just got a special, unique way of supporting the kids to make them feel comfortable to be able to step up to the plate and hit the ball,” Deanna Locke said.
Yet as longtime volunteer Purvis described, players certainly aren’t the only ones who benefit from Miracle League.
“(Volunteers) walk away way better and with the biggest smile on their face when they come away from this organization,” Purvis said. “(They get a) full-on appreciation for life.”
Saturday’s festivities included a surprise ceremony that honored some of the league’s key leaders and volunteers over the years. That included Carlson, who was presented a special Miracle League T-shirt with the name “Godfather” on the back.
Carlson not only led the charge in founding Monroe’s Miracle League, but also helped spearhead the seven-year process of securing funds and building the $1.2 million Rotary Field, a fully disability-accessible ballpark that provided a massive upgrade from the dirt fields the league previously played on.
“The community that came together to build this field was amazing,” said Joyce Wheeler, the mother of former longtime Miracle League player Kayla Wheeler. “It was really heartwarming to see how many people came together to make it happen, and what a difference it makes for these kids.
“There’s not many places where you can go where your disability doesn’t matter, where you can just forget about it for a while,” she added. “And this is a place they can do that. … They’re all just here to have fun. There’s no pressure — just love. And that’s what it’s about.
“Watch a game, and you can see the miracles happen. That’s why it’s called Miracle League.”
Monroe’s Miracle League also helped pave the way for more adaptive sports programs in Snohomish County.
After the YMCA of Snohomish County adopted the Miracle League baseball program in 2007, it added other activities for special-needs individuals, such as basketball, bowling, karate and a summer camp.
“It’s honestly just truly heartwarming to see the players thrive and grow and build confidence, build relationships (and) build character through this experience,” Hudson said. “It’s an incredible thing to experience.”