ST. PETERSBURG — Until she and her Nana found the Miracle League, 16-year-old Alison Irwin didn't have a lot of fun playing baseball in her wheelchair.
"I would get stuck in the dirt and the coach had to come and pick me up out of the chair and move the chair out of the dirt,'' said Alison, a ninth-grader at Largo High School.
Alison, who has cerebral palsy, and other young players with disabilities can now play ball without impediment. At Violet's Field near Tyrone Square Mall, 15,000 square feet of octagonal rubber tiles have been used to create a safe, cushioned field. The bases and pitcher's mound are defined only with paint and volunteer guardians — "Angels in the Outfield'' — help each player participate in the All-American pastime.
The Miracle League started in Conyers, Ga., eight years ago.
Last Saturday, 8-year-old Daniel Mumma, who has cerebral palsy, determinedly navigated the bases with a four-prong cane in each hand.
"It's hard for him,'' said his father, David, who followed protectively and offered encouraging words when Daniel fell between bases.
"He's a bright little kid. He loves it,'' Dad said. "It's a big motivator for a lot of these kids.''
That's the reason Deanne Lorne makes the hourlong drive from Wesley Chapel. Lorne, a registered nurse who cares for foster children, makes the trip specifically for Tarell, 15, who is profoundly deaf, and Jonathan 9, who is mentally retarded.
"They don't have to compete with the other kids. They go at their own pace and have so much fun. The kids like that, that it's okay to be who I am and still get the cheers and encouragement.''
As an Angel in the Outfield, Rebeca Franca, 19, has been dispensing hugs and high-fives to the athletes since January.
"I love it,'' the Eckerd College freshman said.
"I don't really feel like an angel. …We're not exactly baseball players or anything. We're just there for the kids, to be friends with them and to make them feel comfortable.''
To Casey Malone, 19, another Eckerd College angel, the Miracle League's no-losers concept is "awesome.''
"These kids, they come out every Saturday morning and they get the chance to never strike out.''
Saturday morning, Kara Gilcreast, 7, smiled broadly as her mother, Lisa Gilcreast, pushed her wheelchair around the bases. Like many of the players, Kara's game was helped with a batting tee.
A student at Sexton Elementary School, Kara has played with the Miracle League for three years. "It gives her something to look forward to,'' her mother said.
Local teams play at the Azalea Little League Complex as part of an organization begun by the Kiwanis Club of Gulf Beaches. Members were inspired by an HBO program about the Miracle League.
"We saw that and the light bulb went on,'' said George Stone, president-elect of the civic club.
A Holiday couple, John and Debbie Porreca, heard of their efforts and gave $150,000 to the project.
"When I was a child, my mother used to see a lot of empty fields and parking lots and she used to say, it would be nice to turn them into baseball fields for kids,'' John Porreca said Monday.
Violet's Field, at 2900 75th St. N, is named in honor of his mother.
The first game at Azalea was spring 2006. Last weekend's games began with players in Marlins and Red Sox shirts playing first. Those wearing Rays and Cardinals shirts followed.
"There is no fee and there's no obligation that they have to show every week. The field is there for them to play when they can,'' said Stone, an ebullient man who knows every child by name.
"I treat them like my own kids. They are very loving kids. You can't help but get close to these kids,'' he said.
"They don't want to leave and their self-esteem has been increased immeasurably. That, I think, is the biggest by-product of this league for the kids.''
When the season ends on May 17, each child will receive a trophy. There are no winners and losers in the Miracle League. Each player gets to bat, all base runners are safe and every player scores a run before the inning is over.
Diane Alford, national executive director and co-founder of the league, spoke from Georgia this week about the league she started with her brother, Dean Alford. With the help of his Rotary Club, $1-million was raised for the first Miracle League field, she said. It was completed in April 2000.
"To me,'' said Alison, whose enjoyment of the game was once marred by an inaccessible playing field, "the Miracle League is the best, because a lot of kids like me are going through the same thing.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.