WHEELING - Though an overcast sky loomed above and spectators stood with umbrellas ready, there was nothing but sunshine in the eyes of the Miracle Leaguers who watched Monday as their field of dreams took a giant leap toward completion.
The rain held off long enough for a crowd of about 150 to take in the groundbreaking ceremony for the future Miracle Field of the Ohio Valley at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex off Interstate 470 in Elm Grove, where children with special needs soon will be able to play baseball on a synthetic, rubberized field designed just for them.
Construction on the new field could begin as early as next week, according to Lori Untch, president and chief executive officer of the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Wheeling, which has led the effort to raise funds for the facility.
Although that effort is not yet complete - about $100,000 more must be raised to provide for handicapped-accessible restrooms, a concession stand and pavilion at the site - Untch said organizers are "taking a leap of faith" in getting things under way now.
"It's our goal to be playing ball here by next June," said Untch, noting funds in hand are sufficient to complete the field itself.
Warwood resident Loretta Garbark began the ceremony by singing the national anthem, and a performance by the Wheeling Park High School steel drum band contributed to the celebratory atmosphere.
Photos by Scott McCloskey
Participating in the Miracle League of the Ohio Valley groundbreaking ceremony at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex in Wheeling Monday are, front from left, 10-year-old Austin McCardle and his mother, Lorraine McCardle, founder of the Miracle League of the Ohio Valley, and Courtney Bugala, 12, of Flushing.
Prior to plunging shovels into the ground and releasing hundreds of blue, purple and yellow balloons into the air, attendees heard from several of those instrumental in moving the project forward.
Easter Seals Chairwoman Debbie Joseph thanked the many people and entities responsible for Monday's celebration, including the J.B. Chambers Foundation and city of Wheeling; Pirates Charities, which is the philanthropic arm of the Pittsburgh Pirates; the Ogden Newspapers; as well as many anonymous donors. She pointed out the words of the late New York Yankee star Lou Gehrig, who described baseball as "our national pastime and a game for all."
"With the completion of this field, the J.B. Chambers Sports Complex will bring children of all ability levels together, without discrimination because of physical limitation," Joseph said.
At the Miracle League's future home, located at the east end of the complex, Lorraine McCardle always has seen not a weed-grown, empty plot of land but instead her vision for a place that will improve the lives of hundreds of children throughout the Ohio Valley.
The Wheeling resident founded the local Miracle League initiative after her son Austin, now 10, expressed a desire to play sports. Austin, who has consistently been the face of the effort to build the Wheeling field, is afflicted with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, a central nervous system ailment.
"You don't know what this is like, what this feels like to get this field started for all these kids," said McCardle. "It's been four years, four long years, but ... we've learned so much through this process."
McCardle, who fought back tears as she addressed the crowd, said after the ceremony she can't imagine how satisfying it will feel when the Miracle League of the Ohio Valley plays its first true home game.
"I don't know if I'll even be able to speak because I know for sure I will really be (crying) my eyes out," she said.
Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron recalled early conversations with McCardle as they sat down to form a strategy and settled on the I-470 complex as the perfect site for the Miracle Field. He added city officials were pleased to receive a $100,000 federal Land and Water Conservation Grant for the effort, as National Park Service officials expressed their admiration for Wheeling's commitment to caring for those with special needs.
"I look for great things from our Miracle League team. ... We'll see you at the ribbon-cutting," said Herron.
Robert Nutting, president and chief executive officer of Ogden Newspapers Inc. and chairman of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pirates Charities, lauded the work of all involved in the project, particularly that of McCardle.
"I'm not sure I've seen anyone more dedicated, more focused, from the heart, and it just has made such a difference to the lives of the kids," he said of McCardle.
Pirates Charities has contributed more than $500,000 to five Miracle Field projects in various stages of completion, including the one in Wheeling and the region's first completed field in Cranberry, Pa. Nutting said the project's true impact will be felt when the Miracle Leaguers take the field here for the first time.
"Every kid who's playing is smiling, and every adult who's watching is teary-eyed," Nutting said. "These are kids who have been told their whole lives, 'You can't play.'"
Pittsburgh Pirates President Frank Coonelly also attended Monday's festivities. Members of the Wheeling Park High School baseball team and Hi-Y service organization, Bridgeport High School cheerleaders and representatives from the Knights of Columbus and West Liberty University also were on hand.
WKKX's Steve Novotney served as master of ceremonies for the event.