League allows youth to enjoy “America’s pastime”

Keith Bernetzke, Freedom, completed his second year in the Miracle League of Fox Valley. – Submitted photo

Ryan Ziegler (on right) was presented a commemorative picture frame from his buddy Jennifer Torres at the end of the season. – Submitted photo

By Sara Tischauser

Playing baseball is something many youth aspire to do, but for some youth playing baseball may have only seemed a dream. However, the Miracle League is helping those youth who may have thought they couldn’t play baseball achieve that dream.
The Miracle League of Fox Valley is for any youth from ages 4-19 years old who have a cognitive or physical disability. The league holds games at the John Wollner Fox Cities Miracle Field in Memorial Park in Appleton.
Diana Ziegler of Seymour said her son Ryan has played in the Miracle League of Fox Valley since it started nine years ago. This year was Ryan’s last year as he “aged out” of the league. However, Diana said Ryan was fortunate to have been in the league.
Each player in the league has a “buddy” that helps the player from batting, to running the bases, to being in the outfield. Diana said Ryan was lucky that he had the same buddy Jennifer Torres for all nine years. In addition to having the same buddy, Ryan got to know many of the returning players.
“Our experience with league in Fox Valley is to keep same kids together year after year,” Diana said. “[Ryan] knew some of the people he would see each year. It’s kind of a bit of reunion every summer for them. It’s kind of cool.”
Torres said when she started volunteering on the league nine years ago, she didn’t realize how much she would gain from the experience. She started volunteering when she was in high school and she saw it as a way to become more involved in the community. Since she had previously worked with children with special needs, Torres thought this would be a good way to do more.
“It sounds cliché, but Miracle League has changed my life,” Torres said. “I have gained so much, some of which I probably do not realize. Most importantly, I have gained a friendship with Ryan and his family.”
Jamie Bernetzke, of Freedom, said her son Keith just finished his second season in the Miracle League and she is happy he has been able to play baseball with the help of volunteers. She said from not knowing Keith’s buddies prior to the first game, these buddies have now become an important part of her life.
“We had never met his buddies until game day,” Bernetzke said. “Some buddies are family and some are just amazing community members who volunteer their time. For some of us, we are trusting a stranger to help our child and before you know it those strangers become family.”
Ryan’s father David Ziegler said that the volunteers in the Miracle League really make sure all the youth can participate and play baseball and have fun. He said the volunteers adapt to whatever needs the youth have and help each youth find a way to play baseball.
David said not only are the buddies helping the youth play baseball, but they are also doing so much more.
“The relationship with the buddies is phenomenal,” David said. “It’s a great quality of life condition beyond simply playing baseball.”
The benefits of the Miracle League extend not only to the players and volunteers but also to the families.
“The best experience for us has been to be able to watch Keith play a game he absolutely loves with some pretty amazing people,” Bernetzke said. “This is something we never imagined would happen for Keith.”
Bernetzke said the Miracle League really allows children to participate in baseball in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. She said the joy she gets from watching her son be able to play a sport he loves is amazing.
“We knew Keith loved to play the game but we also knew he wouldn’t be able to play the game at a normal pace,” Bernetzke said. “He doesn’t have most of the motor plans to play at a normal to fast pace game. This allows him to be himself and have fun while playing.”
In addition to the benefit of seeing their sons, daughters and other youth play baseball, families also gain a support network.
“You meet families and get to know them,” Diana said about other Miracle League participants and their families. “Every parent has experience with child with a disability. Parents know it’s difficult. We help guide and collaborate with each other.”
The Miracle League puts smiles on the faces of all involved and is meaningful for many of the youth who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to play America’s pastime.
“For many of these children, Miracle League is their only opportunity to play on an organized sport’s team,” Torres said. “The Miracle League gives every player, regardless of their abilities, the opportunity to play baseball. It sounds so simple-playing baseball. However, when you talk to the families of the players or when you see the faces of the players when they hit the ball or cross home plate, you realize how much the Miracle League truly means to them.”
The public can even come watch the games and maybe gain from the experience of watching the game.
“It’s a terrific experience,” David said. “Very connected interaction with the public.”