By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The baseball game between the Royals and the Rangers on Tuesday night was, at first glance, just like any night at a Midwestern ballpark.
Spectators in the stands sipped slushies, fanned themselves with programs and shielded their eyes against the setting sun. Players in spotless white pants practiced swinging their bats outside their dugouts. Coaches gave last-minute instructions.
Then 9-year-old Camryn Ledford, a third-grader at Stapleton Elementary School in Joplin, rolled up to bat in a wheelchair. Spectators on both sides of the field cheered wildly when the youngster, who was born with a form of spina bifida, tapped a gentle line drive to shortstop and made it to first base.
Soon after, 6-year-old Tatum Ashford, a kindergartner at McKinley Elementary in Joplin, stepped up to bat on one leg — the only one she was born with — using a walker decorated by her grandmother. This time, the crowd didn’t wait for a hit to begin cheering wildly.
It was not any night at a Midwestern ballpark. Not by a long shot.
“For most of us here, this is the first time we’ve ever gotten to see our kids play ball like anyone else,” said Tatum’s mother, Amber Ashford, of Joplin, from the stands at Will Norton Miracle Field. “It brings a lot of joy to our life to know she has something normal to look forward to.”
Her daughter also was born without a right hip, with no right kidney and with severe scoliosis.
“She’s gotten to go watch her sister play soccer, and it’s hard to have to explain to her why she has to get off the field, why she can’t play ball like everybody else,” said Tatum’s grandmother, Donna Ashford, as she choked back tears. “To have this blessing means a lot.”
The construction of the field, named after Joplin High School graduate and 2011 tornado victim Will Norton, was coordinated by the Rotary Clubs of Joplin in conjunction with the Keller Williams Foundation, said Jenny Hocker, chairwoman of the project’s task force.
It was made possible by $370,000 in donations from Rotary Clubs around the world, the Keller Williams Foundation and numerous personal donations, she said.
Games are played on a custom field with a flat, rubberized surface. Every player bats once each inning, all players are safe on the bases, and every player scores a run. Those ages 5 to 20 with disabilities are eligible to play, and the inaugural season drew a field of 47 youths from across the Four-State Area, divided into four teams.
Ean Stone, 7, came with his family from Columbus, Kan., to play. His mother, Rebeccah Stone, was all smiles when he stepped up to bat for the first time. She steadied her camera as Ean, who had a brain injury after birth that led to a stroke, took several swings at the ball on the batting tee.
“It’s his chance to be like every other kid,” she said.
He kept missing, and eventually abandoned swinging altogether and ran toward right field. Each player was assisted in the game by a “buddy,” and Ean’s took him back to home plate to try again.
“That’s OK, Ean,” shouted his sister, Jesse Stone, 9.
Rebeccah Stone steadied her camera again.
“It’s a hit!” yelled announcer Eric Secker, who also serves on the board of directors for the project. Ean’s mother wiped away tears as her son headed toward the pitcher’s mound instead of first base. She wasn’t upset — she was proud, she said.
“That’s awesome, Ean!” she yelled. “Great job!”
Will Norton’s sister, Sara Oserowsky, and her husband, Grant Oserowsky, who was Norton’s doubles partner in tennis in high school, also did their fair share of cheering and clapping Tuesday night. They served as buddies for the game.
“Will would have loved this,” his sister said with a smile as she looked at the stands and players. “He always wanted everyone to fit in and feel comfortable. I remember during a game we were playing in, Red Rover or something, that he noticed some kids kind of watching from the sidelines, and he brought them into the game so they could be a part of things. I feel like this is kind of him still being here with us.”
As Secker wrapped up the Royals-Rangers game, declaring it a tie at 21-21, he said it was a success for both teams.
“It was a great night for baseball, a great night for kids,” he said.
The Cardinals-Dodgers game followed. It, too, was a tie.
THE MIRACLE LEAGUE OF JOPLIN plays games at 9 and 10:15 a.m. every Saturday through June 1 at the field, located in the Joplin Athletic Complex. Admission is free. The field will be dedicated at 10:15 a.m. June 1 as part of Family Fun Day.