WHEELING - Winter weather almost surely will have more to say before giving way to baseball season, but Austin McCardle and his Miracle League teammates have one thing on their minds: Opening Day.
And after five long years, they and their families finally have a date on their calendar to circle - May 18. That's when the team will play for the first time at it's new home, a brand-new Miracle Field at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex off Interstate 470 in Elm Grove.
"We're excited," said Lorraine McCardle, who several years ago founded the local Miracle League team as a way for local children with special needs to play baseball safely. "We're ready."
Miracle League of the Ohio Valley founder Lorraine McCardle, left, and Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center President and CEO Lorie Untch discuss finishing touches for the Miracle Field in Wheeling over lunch.
An all-day celebration is planned with members of the Pittsburgh Pirates expected to be on hand for the festivities. Pirates Charities, the philanthropic arm of the Major League Baseball club, has contributed a total of more than $500,000 to various Miracle Field projects, including Wheeling's.
McCardle said a Miracle League game is an unforgettable experience for all in attendance who get to witness the joy of children who finally get to enjoy the spotlight, perhaps after watching from the sidelines at a sibling's games. Although there's no true scorekeeping in the Miracle League, there is a scoreboard at the field designed to highlight players' individual accomplishments and provide the most authentic experience possible.
The facility also features handicapped-accessible restrooms and concession stands with windows at wheelchair height.
"That's what this is about - giving these players independence to the extent their safety allows," McCardle said.
It all started on Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. While watching the New York Giants upset the heavily-favored New England Patriots, Austin, now 12 - who suffers from a nervous system ailment known as Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease that forces him to use a walker or leg braces to get around - told his mother he wanted to play football.
Given Austin's physical challenges, McCardle knew that likely wouldn't be possible. After some research, however, she decided baseball - specifically, the Miracle League - might be the perfect outlet for her son's athletic desires, so she started a local team which now has about 60 members from all over the Upper Ohio Valley.
But the nearest Miracle Fields were in Pittsburgh, Morgantown or Zanesville. So Lorraine McCardle found a willing partner in the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center, where Austin regularly receives therapy, to raise money for the Wheeling field.
Five years and about $1 million in fundraising later, Lorraine McCardle's dream for her son and other area children with disabilities is within sight.
There's one more item on the Miracle Leaguers' wish list, however: a smooth, paved parking area near the field that those in wheelchairs can traverse safely. A "very generous person" who wishes to remain anonymous has pledged $50,000 toward the paving project, provided the Miracle League can raise an equal match, said Easter Seals President and CEO Lorie Untch.
Time is of the essence, and the team hopes to have the money raised by the beginning of April so they can schedule the work with a local contractor.
"The paving needs to be done before Opening Day, or the grant goes away," Untch said. "No gift is too small."
Untch said the team is seeking additional volunteers to serve as "buddies" and coaches, as well as more players. Registration for players is $25, but there are scholarship opportunities available.
"Regardless of your ability to pay ... no child will be turned away from playing ball on our team," said Untch.