by Larry Austin
Hundreds of spectators, volunteers and players turned out for the very first ball game played at the Sabres Miracle League Field in Veterans Park Tuesday.
The field, conceived and designed for disabled athletes was months in the making.
The fan support for the event surprised even the president of the organization that spearheaded to the creation of the field.
Teresa Hooper, president of the Miracle League of Grand Island and Western New York, said the first ball game went "better than I expected."
"This was my dream, but I didn't expect this many people," Hooper said.
The diamond is the home of the Miracle League of Grand Island and Western New York, a part of the national Miracle League. The adaptive synthetic diamond allows players with disabilities a safe playing surface.
Fundraising for the field began in July of 2010 and has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations of money, material and manpower. A groundbreaking took place in April.
Mary Serio of Cheektowaga saw her 10-year-old daughter Nicole play baseball for the first time on the field Tuesday. Her friend, Joe Fredricks of Grand Island, was one of the scores of volunteers who pitched in with the endeavor.
"It's very important," Serio said of the field's creation. "Otherwise they wouldn't have the opportunity to go out on a standard kind of field. This is a nice smooth surface they can maneuver around on."
Jeff Hocutt watched his son Daniel play baseball in a wheelchair.
"It's just great that the kids with all kinds of disabilities can play on this kind of a field," Hocutt said. Daniel "plays as many sports as he can," his father said. The field provides a venue for athletes with special needs that is available in few parts of the country.
On hand for the first game were members of the Buffalo Sabres hockey club. The Buffalo Sabres organization, through its foundation, and the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association donated $75,000 each toward the construction of the complex. Completion of the diamond was celebrated with a one-inning baseball game. Sabres alumni and current Sabres played alongside about 40 ballplayers.
"It's great for them to come out here and put smiles on all the kids' faces," Hocutt said of the many Sabres stars who attended the game. "It was a great time. They really did a good thing here."
"We are extremely thankful for the support from the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Sabres Alumni, not only for their donation but also for their involvement in our organization," said Hooper. "It means a lot to our players and volunteers to have their heroes cheer them on and show their support."
Current Sabres stars gladly took a back seat to the children and young adults on their new diamond.
"It's great to be a part of this," said Sabres right winger Drew Stafford. "I just like hanging out with the kids because you get to see them smile and have a great time. Where previously they weren't able to play baseball if they wanted to, now they have that chance. I'm just here hanging out enjoying their smiles and seeing them have a good time. It's good."
Islander and Sabres alumnus Larry Playfair was one of many first stars from the Sabres at the game who had logged considerable time out of the spotlight making the field take shape, according to Hooper.
"Our volunteers were excited to find Larry Playfair working on the mud and stone right along with us on a daily basis, as well as René Robert helping with construction and staining of the picnic tables," Hooper said.
"We're always looking to help worthwhile organizations that share the same beliefs about making our community a better place for everyone," said Playfair, the president of the Sabres Alumni Association. He said the Miracle League "will be making sports available to everyone, regardless of their ability, and we think that's very important. We're thrilled to be a part of this project."
The current generation of Sabres is likewise committed to the spirit of the Miracle Field.
"Something like this, I love getting out and helping out with the kids and seeing how excited they are," said Sabres center Nathan Gerbe. "I think it's pretty special."
"It means a lot to the community anytime (the Sabres) can help out. A lot of us are very fortunate to do what we're doing, and I think all of us know that and will do anything to help out anyone else," Gerbe said.
Hooper noted that the Miracle League printed 250 shirts for volunteers. All of the shirts were gone in short order, taken by volunteers from such groups as the Rotary and Lions
On Sept. 11, the Miracle League of GI and WNY will hold an open house and fundraiser. Still more work is ahead, Hooper said.
"We've got the playground to do, bathrooms, electrical, concession stand and storage rooms," she said. "We're far from done. The field is built, but we still need quite a bit of money."
The public is invited to attend the official opening of the Sabres Miracle League Field on Sept. 11 from 2 to 4 p.m.