Park boss hopes city believes in miracles
Interim park director Tony Sailer is hoping for a miracle in Brainerd.
A Miracle League baseball field, that is.
Sailer was recently approached by Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers owner Joel Sutherland and Kevin Thoresen, founder of Miracle League of Minnesota, about building a Miracle League field in Brainerd.
The Miracle League, with about 140 leagues across the U.S. - including 11 in Minnesota - is a nonprofit organization that provides baseball opportunities for children ages 3 to 19 with physical and mental disabilities.
The fields are made of artificial turf to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and other handicapped accessibility issues.
The leagues are run under special rules. Every kid gets to bat every inning, every kid gets to score a run and every teams wins. Team members are assigned a volunteer "buddy" to assist them in hitting the ball and running the bases. Buddies can be players from other leagues, schoolmates, parents, college students, business leaders or anyone who wishes to volunteer.
Because such a program has been lacking in Brainerd, Sailer said he was on board immediately.
"I'm pumped about this idea, I really am," Sailer said Monday. "I think this would just be fantastic. I think sometimes, when you look at these kids with challenges, they're almost a forgotten group so I hope this flies, I really do. These kids deserve their time in the sun, too."
Thoresen said in a phone interview from the Twin Cities that the idea to approach Brainerd about an adaptive baseball field came from area people who expressed concerns about a lack of local programs for special needs youths.
Sailer said a few years ago the city had a T-ball program for children with special needs. Though there weren't enough kids signed up to keep it going, he said the ones who did participate loved it.
If the idea can come to fruition in Brainerd, Sailer said Bane Park would be the obvious choice to locate the field because it already hosts the city's other baseball leagues.
Thoresen said Bane Park is the perfect site because the Miracle League of Minnesota wants the kids to play in a baseball complex.
"We want them to be in the middle of the action," Thoresen said. "They deserve to be like any other kid."
Sailer said right off the bat he needed Thoresen and Sutherland to know one thing - the Brainerd Parks and Recreation Department had no money to contribute to the project, which will cost an estimated $250,000.
Instead, donations from organizations, groups and individuals will be sought to build the field.
"I wanted to make it clear, this isn't coming out of the city coffers. It's going to be a totally donation-driven thing," Sailer said. "We can provide the land, take care of the field and run the leagues but the rest is up to (Thoresen). He's got to get people behind it.
"Knowing this community, as long as I've worked at this department, when it comes to kids, this community is very generous. And I'm thinking the surrounding area is going to be just as generous. It's going to take a lot of people, a lot of donations. The facility's not cheap but it's going to be worth every penny of it. How do you put a price on making a physically or mentally challenged person happy?"
Thoresen said he intends to spend a lot of time in Brainerd to make the field a reality. He said about half the $250,000 cost would be in-kind donations, such as material and labor for the field. He noted the Minnesota Twins have made contributions to every Miracle League field built in the state and believed that organization would do so for Brainerd.
"It takes community involvement. We've got to reach out and find people, get connected with the adaptive and special education community in and around the Brainerd area," Thoresen said. "From 40 to 50 miles away, families will come to play (in Brainerd) because of a lack of programming. That's been true for all of the fields we've built. They will come."
Sailer said he's discussed the idea with the Brainerd Park Board, which is fully in support of the Miracle League and building a field. He will broach the topic at Monday's Brainerd City Council meeting during the park director's report.
Thoresen, who is offering his free services, said he plans on attending the Feb. 22 city council meeting to make his first pitch.
"What I've told Tony (Sailer) from the very beginning, my pledge to him and the people in Brainerd is you get me. I'll be up here to meet people, help organize and get the program off the ground and running," Thoresen said.
"I've done this in lot of places now and I kind of know what to do. That's the key, just having that experience. We can move fast. It's all about energy. You have to have the right energy behind this stuff or it isn't going to work. The key thing is the desire to get these kids out to play baseball. It's a pretty cool endeavor."
If everything works out, Sailer said Miracle League play would probably start in 2012. Anyone wanting more information about the league may contact the Brainerd Parks and Recreation Department at 828-2320 or visit the Miracle League of Minnesota's website at www.miracleleaguemn.com.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.