Alexander DiPaola, 7, of Minneapolis got ready to grab a bat and take some swings at a clinic for Miracle League players put on by the Century College baseball team in their gym in White Bear Lake last Saturday.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Blount: A nice way to touch them all

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Star Tribune
  • April 3, 2012 - 12:03 PM

Like so many other kids their ages, Josh and Tyler Lindgren can't wait for one of their favorite signs of spring: baseball season.

"Every morning before school, their grandpa comes over 15 minutes before the bus comes so they can practice hitting and catching,'' said their mom, Dawn Lindgren. "It means everything to them.''

Saturday morning, it meant just as much to their mom to see Josh, 9, and Tyler, 6, hustling around the bases in the gym at Century College in White Bear Lake. The brothers have hypotonia, a condition that can affect physical and cognitive development. But with their Miracle League season just weeks away, they were eager to sharpen their skills at a clinic hosted by Century's fledgling baseball team.

The Wood Ducks, in their second season, are 21-7 and ranked eighth in the nation among Division III junior colleges. Saturday's clinic paired each of the 26 players with a child or teen preparing to play in the Miracle League, which allows 1,500 disabled kids in Minnesota to feel the exhilaration of smacking a single or scoring a run.

Former Twins infielder and manager Frank Quilici was there, too. The Miracle League was a favorite cause of his late friend, Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. As he waved the players and their Century buddies around third base, Quilici never stopped smiling -- an inevitable side effect on a day that made baseball feel truly inclusive.

"This is why Harmon became so passionate about this,'' said Quilici, a member of the Harmon Killebrew Foundation board of directors. "When he was almost on his deathbed, he went to a game and stayed until the last kid made the turn around the bases, and he congratulated all of them.

"He really, really wanted to get as many of these fields as possible built. I hope to keep up his legacy. To participate in this wonderful day, I feel just as passionate about it.''

That seems to be a common sentiment about the Miracle League, now in its sixth season in Minnesota. Its new facility in Woodbury, plus others in Blaine, Lakeville and Minnetonka, give a baseball home to players age 4 through 19 with a wide range of disabilities. Dwight Kotila, Century's baseball coach and athletic director, thought a clinic would be a good way for his players to connect with their community and deepen their appreciation for the game.

The 26 available spots were quickly filled by players ranging in age from 3 to 17. Each was partnered up with a buddy, as Miracle League players are in their games, and worked on hitting, throwing and fielding before playing a game.

The buddies -- all Century College players -- gave some pointers, but they also gave in to the boundless excitement of kids experiencing the game's most basic joys. One boy was so tickled after hitting a single that he stepped on first base and then ran back toward home, so he could high-five everyone he had passed. Others stayed late to continue playing catch with college athletes who instantly seemed like big brothers.

Catcher Jake Lindmeier, Josh Lindgren's buddy, said the players felt like they were "reliving their childhood.'' First baseman Jack Bordewick -- whose buddy Mackenzie Groth, 3, sported a black-and-pink glove -- found that baseball provided a natural bond with kids whose lives were far different from his own.

Kotila hoped that would happen, and he knew it had when he observed his players pushing their buddies' wheelchairs and holding their hands.

"We wanted to help get the word out about the Miracle League, for people to realize there are special-needs youth that need these facilities,'' he said. "And it makes our players realize they can play a role in someone's life without doing too much. Even just by playing catch.''

Kevin Thoresen, executive director of the Miracle League of Minnesota, said it is growing rapidly. It is planning to build two more fields -- which have accessible dugouts, flat bases and a crushed-rubber surface to accommodate kids with wheelchairs or walkers -- in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Killebrew Foundation and Twins Community Fund continue to raise money for Miracle League fields, while youth baseball programs supply hundreds of buddies eager to share the game.

The Lindgren boys already have some measure of fame, having thrown out the first pitch at a Twins game last season. The early spring has them itching to try out the new Woodbury field, particularly after Saturday's game in a raucous gym stuffed full of parents, grandparents and 26 new friends.

"There aren't a lot of things for them to do,'' Dawn Lindgren said. "Their self-esteem and independence have really blossomed since they started playing. They just love baseball.''

Rachel Blount •

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