08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Emotions run high as the Yankees and the Pirates go at it on a new baseball field in Conyers, Ga. "Hit a grand slam, Amanda!" a parent cries. "Okay, Big Bad John is coming up to bat, and he can hit!" bellows another. But oddly enough, nobody seems to care who's winning. And when Bryan Hall whacks a ball into the outfield, both sides cheer wildly. "Bryan, buddy, you hit that ball all the way to the fence?" a coach exalts. "That was amazing!"
Amazing indeed, since Bryan, Big Bad John, both 7, and their teammates all have crippling disabilities. Many are in wheelchairs and can't move or speak, much less catch a ball or grip a bat. But their shining eyes clearly reflect how it feels to play ball on a balmy summer evening. "These are the kids who never got to wear a team jersey or cap," says Gary Garner, whose daughter Lindsay, 12, has muscular dystrophy. "They were left watching from the sidelines when their brothers and sisters played."
No more. Thanks to Garner, 43, they not only have a league of their own but play on a sparkling new $750,000 field—the first in America designed for disabled youngsters. "Our kids' diagnoses are different, but their challenges are similar," says Garner's wife, Susie. "And," her husband adds, "they all love to play."
The idea was born in March 1998. Garner was coaching his son Zack, now 15, who is not disabled and was a member of Rockdale Youth Baseball, when a friend with a disabled child mused about how nice it would be for their sidelined kids to be on a team. Garner took it from there. "We gathered the next week and improvised a game," he says. "That week we had six children. The next we had 20, then 35. The need was there. All it took was word of mouth."
Eighty-five kids suited up when baseball season began the following year, and the Miracle League was born. This year the league boasts more than 150 5-to 18-year-olds hailing from six Georgia counties. "We don't let anything—not even a wedding—get in the way of a game," says Angela Andrews, whose son Bryan Hall has cerebral palsy. Buni Dunn, whose four children include Adrianne, 8, who has brittle-bone disease, agrees. "Before this, the only thing Adrianne ever saw us all turn out for were her trips to the hospital," she says. "When she found out that she could play ball and the whole family would be there to cheer, she just blossomed."
Each team member plays with an able-bodied buddy who may help swing a bat or whiz an athlete in a wheelchair to base. "Getting buddies was the easiest part," says Garner, one of the coaches. "The kids playing in the regular league wanted to get involved." But the original playing field, he adds, "was a nightmare. It was terrible getting the kids in and out of the dugouts, and the wheelchairs couldn't roll over the bases."
Garner, who owns a small electrical contracting business, has long been active in Conyers, a town of 8,000 residents 35 miles from Atlanta. A former wrestler at the local high school, he later married drill-team member Susie, 44, whom he had known since childhood. For fund-raising help, Garner turned to longtime pal Dean Alford, a former state senator and president of the Rockdale County Rotary Club. "No one had ever built a sports complex for disabled children," says Alford, who asked friend and architect Homer Lewis to design the field. Then Alford hit up the Rotarians, who raised $50,000. The parents—most of them far from wealthy—came up with $10,000. Corporations, including Atlanta's Ronald McDonald House, made up the rest.
In April, the "field of dreams" became a reality. Adjacent to three new Rockdale Youth Baseball fields, the diamond has synthetic turf and a flat pitching mound and bases, as well as an accessible dugout and stadium lights for night games. "It is," Alford says proudly, "the Cadillac of fields."
And it exists for all the right reasons. "It's not about winning," says Garner, as his daughter whooshes to first base. "It's about getting to play."
Gail Cameron Wescott in Conyers