Monday, December 12, 2005 • BILL STEWART
VANCOUVER — When the umpire someday yells “play ball” in Clark County, Art Liss expects to hear more than the crack of the bat hitting the ball. He will be listening for the sound of rolling wheelchairs and the click of special walkers.
He’s campaigning for a Miracle League baseball field — a playing surface designed for youngsters who have physical and mental challenges. The concept — using a flat, rubberized material designed not to snag wheelchairs, crutches or walkers — was born in Georgia in 1998 and is quickly gaining popularity across the nation.
Locally, his idea has caught the attention of state Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, who hopes to get state money for at least part of the project. She has contacted the chairman of the capital budget committee as well as the Interagency for Outdoor Recreation, a state office that awards grants for recreation projects.
“It is completely possible to see a field built, but I expect it will be 2007 instead of 2006,” Wallace said. “Such a perfect project needs public and private support.”
The Miracle League concept, which is open to anyone age 5 to 21, is similar to Little League’s “Challenger” division for disabled players except it uses the smoother playing surface and isn’t meant to be competitive.
“Safety of the kids is our primary goal,” said Liss, a vice president of Harmony Sports, a Little League group that owns and operates Harmony Sports Complex just east of Vancouver. Liss is organizing the first area Miracle League field, which would be at the Harmony site.
Improvements triggered by the Miracle League project there will include a new paved parking lot, wheelchair-accessible dugouts and upgrades to bring restrooms into compliance for the disabled.
Liss said the early stages, such as arranging for nonprofit charitable status and appointment of a board, have taken a year. Other tasks ahead will include where to place the field at the Harmony Sports complex.
As a daytime field, Liss figures the ballpark could handle a game — two 15-member teams — per day, five days a week. That would involve 150 players per week.
“But if we lighted the field,” he said, “I think we accommodate 30 teams. I think we can get at least 10 teams the first season.”
Unofficial estimates by the ARC of Clark County, which works with those with physical and mental challenges, is that about 6,000 people in the region have some degree of disability, but many are too young or too old for the Miracle League.
Liss’ research suggests the first field — and related projects — should cost about $700,000, but his goal is to raise $1 million.
“Any excess could be used as seed money to start other Miracle League fields in places like Battle Ground or near Vancouver Lake or the fairgrounds. There definitely is a need,” he said.
“I am hoping this project becomes a model for other cities,” he said.
Diane Alford, executive director of the national Miracle League in Conyers, Ga., just outside Atlanta, said the difference between Miracle League play and Challenger is that the Challenger games are somewhat competitive.
There are 108 Miracle League organizations but only 24 completed rubber fields, she said. The other communities are playing on dirt fields — some for as long as three years — until the money can be raised and the fields built.
“There are 60 fields under construction, and we will break ground on more than 30 fields in 2006,” she said. “Counting the communities still playing on dirt, we have approximately 10,000 kids playing now.”
The closest Miracle League rubber field is in Visalia, Calif., though a campaign for a field has been started in Monroe, Wash., northeast of Seattle. Most of the teams are east of the Mississippi River.
“We still have a few states where we have no teams,” Alford said, “but we lack any sort of budget to recruit communities.”
Bill Stewart: 360-896-5722 or 503-294-5900