When an athlete stepped up to the plate Wednesday at Jeffers Park, the crowd began chanting his name. He turned toward the stands, a determined smirk on his face and raised the fist that didn’t hold a bat. The crowd cheered even louder.
The youth’s first swing was a miss, but his second swing made solid contact with the ball. It soared over the second baseman and into center field. In a blur of motion, the player made his way to first base, where he wiggled his body in celebration.
The All-Star games acted as a finale for the Chippewa Valley Miracle League’s baseball season. Four teams played one short game each and then partook in a potluck picnic under the nearby pavilion. In total, 72 athletes participated in the closing festivities.
Porzondek’s joyfulness was a theme of the night, appearing in the wide smiles and warm hugs shared between the athletes and their friends and families.
The Miracle League gives 4- to 19-year-old children with physical or cognitive disabilities the opportunity to play baseball. A branch of Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin, the nonprofit is the only league of its kind in this part of Wisconsin.
“Eau Claire is such a huge baseball community,” said Tim Wavrunek, the vice chairman of Miracle League’s steering committee, “that we were leaving a big portion of that community out, and they weren’t able to take part and be included in it. What’s important is making sure that everybody has the opportunity.”
Accessibility and inclusion are two major aspects of the league: Every player bats, and every player scores. Each player is paired with a “buddy” who accompanies them on the field for the duration of the two-month season. Family members often serve as volunteers, umpires and coaches.
“Baseball is the tool here — it’s not the final outcome,” Wavrunek said. “Our final outcome is building relationships between our players and our buddies; buddies and families; families and families — and making those connections and the community.”
Instead of gravel and grass, the Miracle League field is made of green and tan rubber. The nontraditional surface allowsplayers with wheelchairs and walking devices to successfully navigatethe game. Athletes can swing at a slow pitch or hit a ball off tees, one of which is wheelchair-accessible.
Shannon Spaulding cheered for each child by name as she leaned against the fence near third base. She’s gotten to know the kids who’ve played ball with her son, Ryan. She said Miracle League greatly improved her son’s self-confidence.
“It’s allowed him to play among his peers and feel proud,” Spaulding said. “It always touching — watching the kids; watching the parents.”
This summer the league saw significant growth: Player numbers increased from 75 to 109, thanks to improved outreach. Wavrunek said games average about 100 spectators. Participants and their families aren’t all locals — some traveled from as far as Ladysmith, Neillsville and Black River Falls.
“I think people saw how special this is,” Wavrunek said. “When we first started, there was nothing like this in the area — this region — and we had a lot of people come out and watch.”
Wavrunek said the league could always use more volunteers and encourages community members to come check out the excitement.
Twelve-year-old Jakob Pieper’s first season of baseball came to a bittersweet end last night. He said baseball is a way for him to meet friends, and he’s sad the season ended. But he has great memories from the summer.
“I like hitting the ball way over the fence,” Pieper said.
Indeed, the athlete had ended the season his favorite way: a pair of hits deep into the outfield.