Danny Bass stood at first base, as he had done many times before. This time, though, it was different.
Danny really wanted to be on second, and he knew he could get there. On his own, he decided to steal the base.
With every ounce of strength he had, Danny moved his adaptive walker down the rubberized basepath to second, catching the crowd and other participants off guard.
“It put him on the same playing field as everyone else,” says his mother, Saundra Bass. “It was the most exciting time for me.”
In the previous two years of his baseball career, Danny never would have been able to achieve that feat. The clay ballfield he had played on didn’t give him the freedom of movement he now has on the Lake Placid field created specifically for players with physical and cognitive challenges.
The Miracle League for Highlands County has made baseball accessible to Danny and many others in central Florida.
“Danny has always loved baseball,” says Saundra, director of the Highlands County program. “It’s what got him started in the pacer. It gives him the motivation to stand up. It gives him a purpose and a goal.”
Movement has always been a struggle for Danny, who was born with cerebral palsy.
“He was not expected to live to 2,” Saundra says. “Now, he’s 42.”
Danny had never been able to walk and didn’t think he had a reason to try. But a middle school teacher working through Mobility Opportunity Via Education—a program to improve motor skills—put down some bases to inspire him and gave Danny a goal: to walk across the stage to accept his high school diploma.
Using a pacer—a four-wheeled walker that supports the upper body and hips—Danny did walk across the stage.
He received a standing ovation.
With no new goal, he put the pacer away. But baseball inspired him to get it back out.
Now, after two years of no baseball due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Danny is looking forward to the October 1 start of a new eight-game season, with baseball each Saturday through mid-November.
“He has worked so hard in physical therapy this year to build up his strength, so he is ready to play,” Saundra notes.
For Danny and as many as 80 other athletes, ages 3 to 68—each with their own story of overcoming—being able to play baseball is nothing short of a miracle.
It all started in 2007. Lake Placid Recreation Director John Komasa was looking into programs for people with disabilities. He invited Saundra, Todd Moore, John Varady, Dennis Orlos and Adela Casey to participate in discussions.
“They had a meeting, and I was hooked,” Todd says. His interest was spurred by his autistic brother-in-law, Troy, whom he describes as “a 6-foot-2-inch giant who needed to get out and move around.”
Troy endured more than 80 surgeries. He died several years ago but did play ball.
“I have no children in the league, but I have 60 children in the league,” Todd says.
The meetings with the city resulted in a seven-week baseball season for special needs players at the Lake June Ball Fields.
“The clay field was not good for wheelchairs,” Saundra says. “It was really disappointing for some of our athletes.”
Despite lots of trial and error, organizers were encouraged by the interest shown during that first season—which drew 42 children and adult participants—and the community and school district support.
That motivated them to dream bigger.
They looked to The Miracle League—a nonprofit organization that provides a model for building rubberized baseball fields and developing leagues worldwide.
The town was receptive to converting a Lake June field to a rubberized surface, but the price tag seemed daunting: $195,000.
Glades Electric Cooperative put up the first $50,000 for the project through the Glades Electric Charitable Trust, donating members’ Operation Round Up funds—the extra cents collected by rounding up electric bills to the nearest dollar. The town and many others also contributed.
“This is a group of individuals who have been overlooked for so long,” Saundra says of her son and others. “They deserve to have something built just for them.”
After a second season played on the clay field, organizers had the funds and put down the rubberized surface in sections, painting on the white lines and bases.
The first game on the new field was in 2009—the day Danny stole second base.
“It’s smooth and level, so walkers and wheelchairs can go,” Todd says of the field. “If someone falls, there are no foreign objects to hurt them.”
Miracle League baseball is special.Everybody bats, everybody scores and all games end in a tie. Games last two innings, and take 45 to 60 minutes.
Everything athletes need—gloves, uniforms, team photos and trophies—are provided at no cost to families. Their only expense is transportation to the field.
Athletes are paired with buddies, who assist with batting, fielding and rounding the bases, as needed.
“The goal is to respect athletes,” says occupational therapist Gayle Yeager, who helps physical therapist Frannie Gillilian with the buddies. “We want to let them do what they can. As therapists, we understand just how capable our athletes are.”
Frannie sees the younger athletes at school, which is a more formal setting.
“I put on a different hat on Saturdays,” she says. “I get to play with them. Families see that I am more human than they think. They see that we are there for the kids.”
The buddies ensure athletes’ safety but also get to know each other personally.
“It breaks down barriers,” Saundra says.
Lacey Bass, 14, enjoys pushing her Uncle Danny around the bases. Her sister, Madison, played in the league for a couple of years and enjoys the social aspect.
“It teaches compassion,” says the girls’ mom, Nikki. “They see the struggles the athletes go through to play.”
It also provides a support network for parents, who often feel like they are alone.
“It becomes your family,” Nikki says. “As a parent, you are solely advocating for your child. It’s nice to be able to relax and have a bond with other mothers. I love that.”
For the athletes, The Miracle League gives them a feeling of acceptance.
“It feels great to be able to play ball like everyone else, even if we do it a different way,” says Sara Canali, who is in her mid-30s and studying to be a graphic designer. “It gives me an ability to play baseball regardless of my disability. Every athlete has a unique ability.”
Community Support Is Crucial to Success
From the beginning, The Miracle League for Highlands County has relied on the generosity of its community partners.
The most recent example was construction of a cover for the bleachers at Lake June Ball Fields. That cost $48,000. Key contributors of materials and labor were Matt Suter, Brantley Construction of Lake Placid, Hickey Excavation of Sebring and W&W Lumber of Lake Placid. Glades Electric Charitable Trust donated $5,000.
Next on the organization’s wish list are accessible restrooms close to the field and an adaptive playground. Existing restrooms are a football field away. That is challenging for those with mobility issues.
More than anything, league officials hope community members will attend the games and support the athletes.
“We need people in the stands cheering them on,” Director Saundra Bass says.
Organizer Todd Moore believes it will be a positive experience for fans and players.
“When you get someone out to watch the game, they are hooked,” he says.