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Playing ball: Miracle Leaguers take the field

Manny Hudnall got help while waiting at second base in his wheelchair from three players on the Woodbury Royals 10AA baseball team. The Royals were helping Hudnall's East Metro Miracle League team. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)1 / 2
Sam Blomquist watches his hit as he runs to first last week while playing in the East Metro Miracle League for youth with physical or cognitive disabilities. Harrison Hudnall, an assistant coach of Blomquist's team, cheers him on in the background. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)2 / 2

With parents and fellow players encouraging him, Sam Blomquist stands at home plate, eyes squinted because of the evening’s low sun but trained on the ball being lobbed his way.

After a few hard swings, Sam squares up, waits for the pitch and then connects for a bouncing grounder that heads toward right field.

Sam tosses his bat and hustles to first base as the parents and players cheer him on.

It almost seemed like a routine, Little League play, and that’s exactly the goal.

Blomquist, 11, and his 8-year-old sister, Lizzy, play for the Colby Lake Crush in the East Metro Miracle League, the adapted baseball organization for kids with cognitive and physical disabilities.

The East Metro Miracle League is winding down its second season, after the league was formed with the 2012 opening of the Jeff Hanson Memorial Miracle Field at Bielenberg Sports Center. Using the only such field in the eastern Twin Cities area, the league draws players from around Washington County and beyond. Prior to last year, kids with disabilities that precluded them from traditional youth baseball or softball leagues would have to travel around the Twin Cities to play in a miracle league -- or not play at all.

The pristine facility at Bielenberg includes a smaller, modified field made of a hard rubber surface, but otherwise has all the trappings of a typical ball field: a ball diamond, fenced-in team benches, an outfield wall with banners advertising local businesses.

“It’s just to let them know they’re not forgotten,” Nancy Blomquist, Sam and Lizzy’s mom, said of the Miracle League as she looked out over the field last week. “This is amazing.”

The Miracle League plays a modified version of baseball. The league fielded six teams this year, and teams play two-inning games once a week, with players taking the field on either Monday or Wednesday. Every player bats, and they all go around the bases so each team member can cross home plate. They use a soft baseball, and the size and style of the bat used depends on each player’s skill. They can hit from a tee or use a pitcher.

“It’s awesome,” said Harrison Hudnall, an assistant coach whose sons William, 9, and Manny, 3, wear the bright orange Colby Lake Crush team shirts. “It is just so cool. The kids just have a blast.”

Parents serve as coaches, but the Miracle Leaguers also get some help on the field from more than just their coaches.

Area youth sports teams and other kids’ groups are volunteering to assist at Miracle League games. They chat up the players, lend a hand with fielding and help the players who use wheelchairs to run the bases.

The volunteers are really helpful, Hudnall said, because many Miracle League players struggle with fielding.

The mood is kept light at Miracle League games.

“There aren’t any rules other than having fun,” Hudnall said.

High heat and humidity cancelled Miracle League games early last week, but the Colby Lake Crush still played some ball. The youth volunteer group for that evening was the Woodbury Royals 10AA baseball team.

The Royals played in the field and took turns pitching to Crush players.

Three-year-old Crush team member Manny Hudnall uses a wheelchair due to a disability. Still, got in the batter’s box, took a swing and knocked the ball off the batting tee and into the infield. He got a push to first base by Royals player Nick Peterson.

Manny was all smiles, and the Royals players were drawn to him throughout the evening, squatting to his level to ask him questions and talk with him.

Royals coach Justin McGough said he learned through East Metro Miracle League organizer Reed Smidt that there were volunteer opportunities with the league. McGough thought it would be a valuable experience for his players.

“It’s good for them to give back and help out,” said McGough, watching his Royals work with the Crush players last week. “They think it’s great. They’re loving it.”

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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