By Joshua Price/Sports Editor
Local baseball fans will have the rare opportunity to meet former big leaguers when Baseball Players Association, Alabama Xtreme Travelball and NextLvl Sports hosts a charity baseball tournament to benefit The Miracle League.
Former Major League players Steve Shields, Stacy Jones, Brian Doyle and Eddie Priest will meet with fans and interact with the players.
The tournament is slated for April 13, 14 and 15 and will be held at the Vivian Leigh Maddox Sports Complex in Rainbow City.
Baseball diamonds were not designed with wheelchairs and crutches in mind, and natural grass and crushed red brick become barriers for special needs children who wish to play baseball.
The Miracle League works to remove those barriers that keep these children off the baseball field by building custom-designed, rubberized playing fields that accommodates wheelchairs and other assertive devices while preventing injuries.
The Miracle League also promotes comaraderie among the children and players. A three-inning game on Saturday will feature Miracle League kids and the former pros pitting their hardball skills against tournament players.
“The Miracle League pairs each child with an able-bodied player on the field,” Miracle League Executive Director Diane Alford said. “The children bond with the players, breaking the exclusion barrier while building self-esteem.”
Shields pitched Hokes Bluff to Class 2A state championships in 1975, 1976 and 1977. The 6’5, 200-pound righty was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the tenth round of the 1977 amateur draft.
Shields pitched for five different major league teams during his professional career, from 1985 to 1989. He served as a reliever for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.
“Every kid should have the chance to play baseball, despite their disabilities,” Shields said. “I think this is a great opportunity for these kids to play ball and [Miracle League] is a great organization. That group is definitely working to help the right people.”
Jones was the star pitcher for the Etowah Blue Devils in the mid-late 1980’s. Jones earned a pitching scholarship to Auburn University, where he was a three-year starter.
Jones was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the third round of the 1988 amateur draft. The 6’6 hurler pitched for the Orioles and the Chicago White Sox from 1991 to 1996.
Jones said he is looking forward to the event and hopes that many more like it will develop in this community in the near future.
“I’m excited about this tournament,” Jones said. “We don’t get enough events like this for the special needs kids. I am glad that the guys are organizing this tournament and I hope that everyone in the community comes out and supports it. Hopefully people will donate a little because it is truly going to a great cause.”
Eddie Priest was the star pitcher for the Susan Moore Bulldogs in the early 1990’s. The 6’1 lefty was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1994.
Priest was tapped the starting pitcher against the San Francisco Giants on May 27, 1998, during which he struck out Barry Bonds looking in the top of the fourth inning. Bonds returned the favor in the top of the fifth, sending a 2-run home run to deep left field in the top of the sixth inning. The Reds scored the win, 7-5.
Doyle was drafted in the fourth round of the 1972 amateur draft by the Texas Rangers. The 5’10 second baseman bounced around the minors until the New York Yankees called him up in 1978.
Doyle has a unique claim to fame.
Doyle replaced starting second baseman Willie Randolph when the latter was injured in September 1978. The Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fall classic, during which Doyle batted .438. The Yankees won the World Series and Doyle was named Most Valuable Player of the series.
In recent years, Doyle served as a pastor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The former Yankee is still very active in baseball and is currently in charge of player development for Global Baseball, an international organization that develops young players.
“I am in charge of curriculum in player development for Global Baseball,” Doyle said. “One of my responsibilities is bringing a new level of baseball to communities around the world. I am currently prepping Israel’s national team for the [International] World Series.”
Doyle said in all his years of baseball, nothing compares to the experience he gained working with Miracle League.
“A few years ago I ran a very successful Hall of Fame fantasy camp in Ft. Myers, Florida. The camp featured many Cooperstown legends and we held a Miracle League game. After it was over, the clubhouse was a very emotional scene. Imagine all those famous baseball players showing that much emotion for those kids! The Miracle League experience is one of the best, true heart felt events I have ever been involved with.”
Doyle said the special needs kids are the true focus of the event.
“I look forward to coming to Rainbow City this spring for this event. When Miracle Kids are playing baseball, the baseball field really becomes a diamond.”
A home run derby will be held on Saturday to benefit the Foundation. People of all ages are encouraged to participate. $20 per person to enter and a trophy will be presented to the winner.
“We want people to come watch and enjoy great youth baseball,” B.P.A. Alabama president Scott Parrish said. “Hopefully everyone will make donations to the park, which will go to The Miracle League.”
The Miracle League currently serves over 200,000 children with physical disabilities across the nation including Canada and Puerto Rico. The first Miracle League field opened in Conyers, Georgia in April 2000.
NextLvl Sports director Kirk Doyle said the tournament in April is very important to the growth of the Miracle League and its ability to assist children in need. Kirk Doyle is the son of Yankee legend Brian Doyle.
“These tournaments are important because it continues to bring awareness the Miracle League and the children we help. Any annual event will help strengthen the programs and our vision of growth.”
Alford is confident the Miracle League will continue to grow all over the nation and hopefully very soon will come to Gadsden.
“We are committed to help and assist cities around the globe to bring baseball to all individuals with disabilities.”
“This will definitely be a unique opportunity for the community to interact with former Major League Baseball players from this area,” Kirk Doyle said. “The players will sign autographs and talk a little baseball with the fans.
“This tournament is geared for special needs kids,” Kirk Doyle said. “This is an unbelievable opportunity for our youth to share the field with special needs kids. The most important thing is that our kids’ perspective on life will change from this tournament and will be a great opportunity for them to reexamine their lives.”
For information on entering teams in the tournament, contact BPA Alabama at 256.295.2580 or NextLvl Sports at 256.557.5026.