When they say “play ball” at Owens Field Park, it soon will include those with disabilities. The park’s renovation plans include the area’s second Miracle League field, which gives disabled persons the opportunity to play baseball in a safe environment.
By Jamie Ussery
Nov. 13, 2015
By next summer, Owens Field Park may hold an answer for parents like Kyllan Hutchinson who want their special needs children to be physically active but worry about their safety.
Hutchinson remembers her two sons, who have autism, in an uproar about playing baseball.
“’I want to play baseball, I want to play baseball,’ they would tell me,” she said. “But how could I possibly do this when they would have to have a shadow with them all the time?”
Hutchinson, who lives near Fort Jackson, was very interested in getting James, 12 and Heath, 14, involved in physical activity in hopes it can be an outlet to improve their motor skills and behavior.
Then came word that Columbia is including a Miracle League field for special needs players in its plans to upgrade Owens Field Park. She told her sons, and the questions from James came flying.
“I would love to play baseball! When is baseball season? When will the field be done?” she said. Heath said he wanted to try it too.
The field, which will cost close to $800,000 and is part of the larger $3 million Owens Field Park project, would be the second in the Midlands, joining one in West Columbia.
The foundation run by Ray Tanner, USC’s athletics director and former baseball coach, is contributing $250,000. City officials expect the Miracle Field to open for games this summer.
Tanner’s involvement is based on his love for the game. “He wants everyone, even children who aren’t physically capable, to play and get from it that joy the way he did,” said Kristi Davis, USC’s assistant athletics director and Tanner’s administrative assistant.
A Miracle League diamond has a rubberized, flat surface to allow easier wheelchair access and prevent injuries. Dugouts are wheelchair accessible.
Miracle League began in 1998 when a baseball coach invited a 7-year-old boy in a wheelchair to play in Rockdale County, Ga. The first field was completed there two years later, and the organization says it now has 240 leagues around the country serving more than 200,000 children and adults.
The league uses a “buddy” system where able-bodied volunteers are paired with each player to help throughout the game. Hutchinson jokes about how this is great because her boys probably would not know which way to run.
The West Columbia field opened in 2008 and serves about 70 players in the spring season and around 35 in the fall, said Noelle Logue, commissioner for that league.
Eight-year-old Julia Palyok, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, plays there.
“It makes me happy and excited to play baseball, and my favorite part is getting to bat,” she said. Julia said it has made her more physically independent.
“This is the only outlet she has, to play baseball and be able to run the bases and bat on her own,” her mother, Juliana, said. “Watching her play and become more independent is the most important to me.”
Physical activity benefits all children, including those with special needs, but “pediatricians and parents may overestimate the risks or overlook the benefits,” according to a 2008 article in the academic journal Pediatrics.
Co-author Dr. Paul Carbone, a clinical professor at the University of Utah, has an autistic son who plays in a Miracle League.
“The successes they experience in these programs can lead to improved social competence, higher self-esteem, better daytime behavior and – most of all – a way to have fun and make friends,” he said.
Hutchinson’s hope that physical activity can help her sons is not misplaced, said Katie Wolfe, a USC assistant professor in special education who specializes in autism.
“Children with autism tend to engage in a lot of repetitive motor movements, and research has proven that physical activity can reduce some of those behaviors,” Wolfe said.
Juliana Palyok says she feels secure when her daughter is playing. Carbone takes joy in watching the kids get together to cheer for and high five one another.
“It’s absolutely heartwarming,” he said.
Hutchinson is excited her boys could get the chance to play in a fun, friendly and safe environment.
“They wouldn’t be able to do this in a traditional setting, and this league will allow them the opportunity that they didn’t have before,” she said.