‘This is His Favorite Place to Be:” Miracle League Makes Unforgettable Memories for Lake Orion Child with Special Needs and His Family

Jake Newby

| 5 min read

Bryan Whitford only had to step on the bright green turf of Miracle League Field in North Oakland once to understand how it got its name.
Bryan’s 12-year-old son, Sammy, is autistic and non-verbal. Sammy’s larger-than-life personality is unearthed every time his walk-up music hits and he gets a chance to dance his way into the batter’s box for a Miracle League game at-bat. The field – located at Friendship Park in the Whitfords hometown of Lake Orion – is a place Sammy can let loose and become the star of the show.
“My favorite moment with Sam was the first time they played the Disney song ‘Nothing Can Stop Us Now’ as he came out onto the field,” recalled Bryan, who volunteers with Miracle League. “He came out here and he was shaking his butt, dancing around. He was hyping up the crowd. The crowd was loving it, he was loving it. I couldn’t pitch to him until he was done with his song, and then he hit the ball. It was a lot of fun.”
Founded in 2004, Miracle League of Michigan is the state’s first adaptive baseball field. Unlike other baseball fields that use grass for their ballparks, the Miracle Leagues use turf, making it easier and safer for players in wheelchairs or crutches to maneuver around and play. But beyond just being a physical location, but Miracle League is a program that provides children with behavioral and/or physical challenges an opportunity to play together – and with their families – as team members of an organized league.
The games can be as competitive or non-competitive as the participants like. Bryan summarizes the experience well when he says that no kid leaves the field without having fun or without hitting the ball.
“Miracle League is an avenue for all children that have any special needs,” Bryan explained, of Miracle League’s all-inclusive nature. “We love to see new kids, new faces. We make it as game like as possible, but the level of competition out here doesn’t matter. It truly is a field for everyone.”
The program is managed by Easterseals MORC, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan partner that works to enhance quality of life and expand local access to health care, education, and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The nonprofit health care organization empowers people with disabilities, families and communities to be full and equal participants in society.
One of the taglines of Easterseals MORC Miracle League is, “every child deserves the chance to play baseball.” Through his connection to Miracle League, Sammy had the opportunity to participate in the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp for Kids last summer.
“This place here, Miracle League, has been such a blessing to be a part of,” Bryan added. “To be able to pitch to him and to the other kids is wonderful.”

The Whitford family forged a bond through baseball

‘Slammin’ Sammy as he’s nicknamed, is strong as an ox, according to his dad. He’s been non-verbal since birth, but his expressions speak volumes.
“His mother and I have been his voice for a long time,” Bryan said. “Thankfully his speech therapist has got him working with a new device that he’s attempting to use to communicate.”
Sammy is starting to use an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, which is a tablet or laptop that enables a person with unclear speech to express themselves in alternative ways.
“He’s healthy as can be. He’s very loving and he cares a lot about being here,” Bryan said, while curled up next to his son on a Miracle League bench. “This is his favorite place to be.”
Baseball holds a special place in Bryan’s heart. He played the catcher position for 13 years growing up. Passing his love for the sport onto Sammy has been incredibly rewarding for Bryan as a father.
“Sammy and I, we love watching sports together. Going to games, whether it be hockey, baseball,” he said. “And my oldest daughter played travel softball, so he stayed on the sidelines for many, many games watching. We never knew that Sam would be able to play himself. Coming out here the last three years now has been amazing. To see him hype up the crowd when he’s introduced out here. It’s been phenomenal.”
Miracle League – which plays a summer season and a fall season – has become a true family affair for the Whitfords in their three years of participation. Bryan’s daughters, Evalynn and Sophia, sing the National Anthem before some games. As a volunteer, Bryan loves to interact with Sammy and the other talented players. Bryan regularly pitches, cheers the kids on and helps Easterseals MORC with the logistics of the events with the league.
Bryan and Sammy are champing at the bit for the 2024 summer season to begin.
“It’s incredible. It’s a self-worth thing where Sammy can come out here and do things on his own and show others that he’s talented as well,” Bryan said. “This is his time to shine. He’s able to bond not only with his classmates, which are only six other children, but now he’s involved with 20 other kids out here and they’re all having fun. They’re all interacting with each other. He loves the spotlight.”
Bryan encourages other Michigan families of children with special needs to give Miracle League a shot.
“Anybody that feels that they’re not welcome in society, get out here,” he said. “Because you are welcome here. It is definitely a place that lights up your world and lights up your family, just as it has ours.”
Learn more about the Miracle League of Michigan, including how to become a volunteer or sponsor, by visiting their website. You can also visit the Miracle League of Michigan and Miracle League of North Oakland Facebook pages to learn about events, news and Miracle League happenings.
Photo credit: Easterseals MORC
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