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Miracle League players Raven Thuman, left, and J.P. Conwall with Executive Director Scott McManigle.
Miracle League players Raven Thuman, left, and J.P. Conwall with Executive Director Scott McManigle.

Miracle League begins another season of making dreams, play, possible for youth

Sat, Jun 8th 2024 09:55 am

Guest Editorial & Photos by Michael J. Billoni

Senior Contributing Writer

Russell J. Salvatore has donated more than $12 million to local charities, organizations and causes in Western New York throughout his long and distinguished career as a preeminent restaurateur. Of all those donations and dollars, none mean as much to him as his involvement with the Miracle League of WNY.

Under steady rain, which would have postponed most league openers, the Miracle League participants did not feel a drop last Sunday, as they were excited to finally be back on their special field inside Grand Island’s Veteran’s Park. With players in wheelchairs, walkers, or standing along each baseline, Board President Dan Zimmer of Delaware North Companies introduced internationally acclaimed vocalist Charlie Ciotta to open the ceremonies by singing the national anthem.

Then it was time for Salvatore to step to the mound for his annual first pitch, which was right down the middle for a strike as the kids cheered. As Salvatore walked toward the dugout, several of the children said to him, “I watch you on TV.” “Your commercials are funny,” or “Russell’s, of course!” which is his tagline.

Wiping tears of joy from his eyes, Salvatore said softly, “I feel so good about being here. I always look forward to throwing out the first pitch to start their season and being with these wonderful children. This is one of the nicest organizations and I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Asked how it feels to talk with these children and have them recognize him, Salvatore responded, “I feel like a million dollars.

“I would like to thank all our customers who have helped make these donations possible. Without them coming into the restaurant for dinner, I could never have done this.”

Mark Jerge, general manager of Russell’s Steaks Chops & More and Salvatore’s Grand Hotel, a trustee of the Russell J. Salvatore Foundation and a Miracle League board member, said, “Because Russell has been able to see the impact he is making on these very special children and their families, his initial gift has become an annual legacy gift.

“Both Russ and I have been so impressed with Scott McManigle (the Miracle League’s executive director) and the Miracle League’s board of directors because, over the years, we have seen firsthand the efforts they have put into creating such a wonderful opportunity for these children. Russ is extremely happy playing a small role to ensure their happiness of being out on this field each summer.”

“The Miracle League is a perfect name because we see miracles every time these children step onto the field,” Jerge added.

The Miracle League is a national organization, but this is the only field between here and Rochester, McManigle said. The Miracle League removes the barriers that keep children with mental and physical disabilities off the baseball field and lets them experience the joy of America’s national pastime. Since the main barriers for these adults arise from the natural grass fields used in conventional leagues, Miracle League teams play on a custom-designed, rubberized turf field that accommodates wheelchairs and other assertive devices while helping to prevent injuries.

From when the first game here was played in September of 2011, the league is much more than just playing a game. It is about making new friends, building their self-esteem, and being treated just like other athletes. It is also about congregating under the covered pavilion afterward and enjoying refreshments or playing in the adjacent handicapped-accessible playground.

What makes the Miracle League so special is its “buddy” system of pairing each player with an able-bodied peer who helps them at the plate and around the bases. As most buddies say, “a bond is formed that cannot be described.”

The participants are children and adults who suffer from any physical or mental disability, which, sadly, causes them to be excluded from conventional baseball leagues. The first Miracle League field opened in Conyers, Georgia, in April 2000. Word spread and, by 2002, fields opened in South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois and California. There are presently 350-plus Miracle League organizations across the country, including Puerto Rico and Canada, while serving 450,000-plus children and adults.

Zimmer, vice president of the office of the chairman of Delaware North, proudly calls the Miracle League of WNY “a great organization.”

“This is not a hard group to love,” he said. “What Scott and his team are doing is just incredible because they are making such a difference in these families’ lives. I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Zimmer has been impressed with the Miracle League’s “openness of allowing everyone who wants to be a kid to come out and play baseball. Some of our players just do not get the same opportunity as others in life. This is one way for them to be happy and to be with others they love while playing baseball on this amazing field.”

McManigle, who has been involved with the Miracle League of WNY since its inception through the Buffalo Sabres Alumni, has been its executive director since 2013.

“I tell everyone that our players and their families do more for me than I do for them,” he said while dodging rain drops on opening day. “This is my blood pressure medication. This is reality. When I come to this field, this is my safe place.”

“For me, this is what makes the world go round,” explained McManigle, who said after opening day the field is used during the day and evenings through the summer by many local agencies such as People Inc. and Autism Services.

“This is where our players get to define the word ‘normal,’ ” he explained. “We are their guests.

“Miracle,” he added, “is such a tough definition because most believe miracles are out of the realm of the unknown – something special. This is normal for these players, but most people do not get to see this part of it unless it is your family.

“If you come out here and watch a game, it is just our players having fun. There is no drama. No advertising on the outfield fence. Just kids playing a game they have watched and seen others playing, and now they can do it – regardless of their condition.”

Russell J. Salvatore, left, and Mark Jerge of Russell’s Steaks Chops & More.


What also makes the Miracle League so special for the participants is public address announcer Eric Volk, who not only enthusiastically introduces each player, but then launches into a play-by-play description of each at bat. He truly helps make it a special experience for these players.

McManigle said he is excited about this year because the league is finally getting the opportunity to spend a $1.1 million grant from Erie County through its former legislator, Kevin Hardwick.

“We fought hard to get this money and, through the hard work of (Town Supervisor) Pete Marston and (Town Assistant Civil Engineer) Lynn Dingey, we have it and we are now positioned to make much-needed improvements,” he said.

The highlight of the expenditure will be a video scoreboard they hope to have operating by the end of the summer. In addition to showing the players at bat and in the field, it will be used for movie nights. Grand Island youth baseball teams will be invited to watch movies and interact with the Miracle League players. They also plan to finally resurface the unique field and playground surfaces.

Also on the drawing board is a splash pad beyond the left field fence but, because of recent vandalism on the field, playground and signs, McManigle said funds must be spent soon on installing 12-foot-high netting around the entire field to prevent anyone from jumping onto the field. They will also invest in security cameras so they can catch these inconsiderate vandals. He said this is at least the third act of vandalism in the past few years.

Who in their right mind would stoop so low as to vandalize the Miracle League’s field and complex? It is unconscionable and, if these vandals have a heart, maybe would think about what they did and visit the Miracle League website at https://www.miracleleaguewny.org and make an anonymous donation so the league can start building the highly anticipated splash pad.

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