By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
During Opening Day ceremonies Sunday in Veterans Park, the Miracle League of Grand Island and WNY inducted the first three players into the Miracle League Hall of Fame.
The first three honorees were Ellie Podsiadlo, Antonio Tallarico, and David D'Angelis, all Miracle Leaguers who have passed away since the league was founded.
"They're just exactly what our league was designed for," R.J. Wynne, president of the Miracle League of Grand Island and WNY, said of the three. "They were just kids who loved to be outside and interact with their friends and family."
Wynne told a crowd of hundreds that the league's board wanted to "permanently recognize those players that have meant so much to our organization."
Family members of Podsiadlo, Tallarico, and D'Angelis hung signs with the players' names on the left field fence.
The Miracle League began in 2011 to allow players with disabilities to play baseball using an adaptive diamond in Veterans Park that features a rubberized surface that helps prevent injuries and allows use of wheelchairs and other assistive devices.
The league opens its 2016 season with more players, more teams, and more sponsors.
Wynne said this year's roster sizes set a league record.
"We've got more than 350 players registered and signed up to play ball," Wynne said, adding players from the Thursday-Sunday league and group home players.
"We as a board just look forward to the day that this field can be used every single day," Wynne said.
The Opening Day attendance of spectators was strong as well, he said.
"It's got to be our biggest crowd," Wynne said of Opening Day, noting that the weather Sunday afternoon wasn't even that great, and the Gus Macker Tournament going on at the same time might have held attendance down.
Sponsorship is up as well. In opening the season, Wynne thanked premier sponsors Wegmans "for helping to make the Miracle League more affordable for our players" and Upstate Milk Cooperative who "generously agreed to be our playground sponsor for the next three years."
The complex continues to improve. Since the league built an adaptive playground, with a similar rubberized surface used on the diamond, the special needs children can play with their friends who have no special needs. In addition to the diamond, playground and concession building, the complex was made safer with addition of concrete barriers in the parking lot to prevent cars from jumping the curb and rolling up to the field. The league in the offseason added 100,000 pounds of concrete planters, 25 barriers purchased in a joint venture by the Miracle League and the Town of Grand Island. Dan Robillard and his students at McKinley High School added flowering vinca plants into the barriers in May.
Lisa Valle, brought her daughter, Maya, 8, for her third season of Miracle League. Maya "loves coming and watching all the kids, and her friends are on her team," Lisa said. "And she loves hitting the ball and hearing everybody cheer for her."
The league has a motto that every child like Maya should have a chance to play baseball.
"It's something that we look forward to every week when she has a game," Valle said. "She couldn't play for the regular Little League on Grand Island, for sure. She uses a wheelchair and she's non-verbal, so without this field being here, she would not be playing on a baseball team. And there isn't a lot of opportunities for kids with special needs as far as recreation and play. This is something that's so special that's here in Western New York."
Games with "celebrity buddies" are a huge draw for Miracle League games, Valle said. Buddies assist the players in the field, at the plate, and on the base paths, and players look forward to taking the field with special teammates. An upcoming celebrity buddy game is Law Enforcement Day, with members of local police agencies serving as buddies on the field. The game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
"The kids all love the fireman day," Valle added, when members of the Grand Island Fire Co. visit the field in their trucks. "My daughter loves when the firemen come because they'll squirt the field and they'll have the hoses all running on the field after the game. The kids can all run through the water. It's really fun."