Real Detroit Tigers, real joy at fantasy camp for kids
Miracle League of Michigan hosted a baseball clinic as Detroit Tigers players James McCann, Blaine Hardy, and Andrew Romine were on hand for the Southfield event.
If you were going to give out an MVP award for the Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids Saturday, the winner might well have been a former special education teacher from Texas who’s in Detroit because that’s where her husband plays baseball.
The trophy might have gone to one of the three Detroit Tigers who showed up smiling at the Easterseals Miracle League of Michigan ballpark in Southfield, spent 90 minutes or so with 50 special needs ballplayers, and left smiling even wider.
It might have gone to June Wilgus of Madison Heights, a 96-year-old volunteer who danced as she pushed a player in a wheelchair.
Or maybe this was a case where a participation trophy was a splendid thing, and everyone on the premises truly earned one.
To introduce the key players, the Miracle League is a baseball program that provides a literal level playing field for people with physical or mental challenges that would otherwise keep them on the bench. It started with 40 children in 2004 and now has 400 people on the roster, some of whom have never left and are now adults, cavorting on a special cushioned synthetic diamond that looks like the real thing.
Fantasy Camp for Kids is a national program overseen by a guy from Denver who runs a company that makes fruit processing equipment. Everyone likes fruit, but heavy machinery doesn’t make children giddy the way a personalized Tigers uniform does.
“There’s a connection with baseball and special needs kids,” said Jeremy Flug, who came up with the idea at a fantasy camp for grownups and now has 12 major league teams involved.
With baseball, he said, everything is obvious and orderly: The kids know they need to hit the ball, and the basepaths tell them where to run, walk or roll. In the field, if a ball comes along, they know to pick it up.
Skill levels Saturday were as varied as the ailments, disorders and modes of transportation: wheelchair, walker, gym shoes. Some of the players were Miracle Leaguers and some were from outstate.
Some of them knew they were cavorting with actual major leaguers — catcher James McCann, pitcher Blaine Hardy and jack-of-all-positions Andrew Romine. Others just knew there were blue and orange balloons, a boistrous crowd and Paws the mascot, which was good enough.
Gavin Lumetta of Clarkston, looking authentic in a personalized Tigers uniform like all of the campers, doesn’t speak fluent baseball. But he told his dad on the way to the event that he was going to belt a home run, and he even knew what he was going to say: “It’s outta here!”
Gavin, 12, has a genetic disease so rare than only 25 other people on the planet are known to share it. He has cognitive issues, says Matt Lumetta, 43, along with epilepsy. He didn’t quite notch his home run, but with McCann lobbing pitches underhand, he hit a hard grounder toward the second baseman and that was also good enough.
Up the right field line, Kristin Wilson was helping a young man figure out which hand to put his glove on. She taught special ed in Texas before three children and the nomadic career of her husband, pitcher Alex Wilson, took her out of the classroom.
Wilson and Hardy were helping campers play catch. Along the left field line, Romine had another cluster rolling cushioned baseballs to one another.
“The first thing you gotta do is get your feet set,” Romine said. “If you’re sitting down, you’re already taken care of.”
Romine was back for his third camp. “Watching these kids reminds us of when we were kids,” he said, back when the game was a passion and the major leagues were a dream.
The camp was the sixth to be run and bankrolled by the Detroit Tigers Foundation. For Sam Abrams, the Tigers’ manager of youth and sports programs and player relations, “it’s the best day I have all year.”
Abrams’ 11-year-old, Zoie, has Down syndrome. She played in the Miracle League and he coached for a few years before Zoie sharpened her focus to dance and swimming.
“It’s all about the cognitive level,” he said. He once had a first baseman who turned an unassisted double play and was irate because the runners, with the league’s T-ball-inspired rules, were allowed to advance anyway. Less skilled but no less joyous, a player Saturday who couldn’t stop bobbing from the waist chanted “Ball! Ball!” as he tried to lob throws into the immobile glove of a girl in a wheelchair.
After the final batter Saturday whiffed on McCann’s first two pitches, help came from the bullpen. Romine stepped in, and the 6-foot-2 Hardy leaned over young Dakota Tomac and put a hand on the barrel of the bat.
With Hardy’s assistance, Dakota hit a bouncer to the left side and began to circle the bases. He fell two-thirds of the way to first, and McCann hoisted him to his feet. He fell again rounding third and then, feet splayed, within sliding distance of home plate.
McCann picked him up again. Dakota toppled once more, landing on his side. McCann hefted him upright and guided him toward home, easing off just enough for Dakota to touch the base on his own. Paws lifted him high in celebration, and Dakota punched a triumphant fist into the air.
The crowd roared, Dakota beamed — and eveybody won.