Fittingly, it was Boca Raton’s Ethan Etter who was the final batter of the season. One of the original Miracle League of Palm Beach County players, joining in 2007, it would be his final swing in the league because his family is moving to Texas.
After several missed swings, a couple of balls fouled off, he went out to the pitcher’s mound and discussed with coach Steve Kubenez where he wanted the ball delivered. Etter also asked the crowd to get louder and requested the music to get pumped up before delivering a trademark home run over the right-centerfield fence.
The 21-year-old “ran the bases” and finished it off by grabbing his mother Cheryl’s hand and scored the final run of the game. He was already dragging buddy Olivia Robbins and Miracle League League founder Julia Kadel with him.
As his career with the Miracle League was being acknowledged, he asked for the microphone and spoke of what it meant to him, and recounted memories, which brought Kadel and other volunteers to tears.
“That was unreal,” said Kadel, of Delray Beach, who along with her husband, Jeff, founded the league in 2005 and started playing games in 2007. “You know the parents and your supporters know what your fundraising for. They understand the need for growth and expansion.
“But for one of our athletes with special needs to know and understand how we do it, why we do it … is simply amazing,” she said. “Ethan took true ownership and pride in his league. He reminds us all that there are no barriers and limits to what our special kids can do.”
The Delray Beach-based Miracle League of Palm Beach County plays two seasons a year at Anthony V. Pugliese V field at Miller Park and also in Palm Beach Gardens. The league gives special-needs athletes with mental or physical challenges the opportunity to play baseball.
In addition to the baseball teams, Kadel also has a cheerleading squad and league participants range in age from 5 to 29. The teams play a two-inning game and every player bats once each inning and scores a run before the inning is over — always via a home run. Since the league’s inception, nearly 5,000 home runs have been hit during the program’s existence.
“We will have some summer night games beginning later this month, but our fall league won’t start until late September,” Kadel said. “We are also looking forward to our annual Dinner on the Diamond fundraiser on Nov. 20, where Chris Nikic will be our guest speaker.”
In November, Nikic, 22, of Maitland, became the first athlete with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman race. In the past, the donations have gone toward the resurfacing of the field, playground, lights and a digital scoreboard where the athletes will be able to see themselves during the game.
“Since we are expanding, we want to continue to operate the league for free,” Kadel said. “This is gratifying, soul-satisfying…I know why I have been placed on this Earth. It is to continue to break barriers and share so much love and joy with these families and our athletes and show all of the other kids amongst the other ballfields that all these kids are the same.”
As Memphis Hammon, 7, of Wellington, gets wheeled around the bases after “hitting a home run” with dog Juliet in tow, the crowd erupts. Hammon was injured in a car accident last year that left her with a spinal cord injury.
“This is really cool,” said her mother Gayrene Meade. “This is her first year. She’s been able to meet other kids like her in a wheelchair and it has given her more confidence.
“First, she was nervous, but now she is excited to see the same kids each week and it has given her relationships,” she said. “I kind of came here with no expectations and this has exceeded anything I could have ever had for her.”
Gio Pillonato, 9, of West Palm Beach, got a helping hand from grandfather Milton Pinto who wheeled him around the bases after he hit a home run.
“This has really helped him blossom socially,” said Gio’s mother, Betsy Pinto, who has been bringing her son to the games since he was 3. “It has helped us get out and sometimes enjoy things that we are not able to. It’s a great crowd. They always have awesome resources around here.
“Gio is actually my first son and it was my first time being a mom and as a special needs mom, so it was awesome to be able to come here and have this extra support,” she said. “Everyone here is so helpful. It has really helped me blossom as a special-needs parent as well and it is really an awesome feeling knowing that he’s able to experience this.”
Boca Raton’s Paige Gelenski, 18, won the prestigious $1,500 Jack Judge Community Service Buddy Scholarship that goes to the top volunteer buddy in the program. Her brother Cody Gelenski, who has autism and epilepsy, has been in the league for two years.
“Being with Miracle League means so much to me because I love seeing the kids smile and have the best time out on the field,” said Gelenski, who is a senior at West Boca Raton High School.
“Even having a brother that has special needs and seeing him play means the world to me,” she said. “I love seeing the kids enjoy their day and seeing them happy playing baseball brings me all the joy in the world that I can’t trade for anything.”
When she learned he was the scholarship winner, she said a “wave of excitement came over her.”
“In my mind, I wanted to thank all the amazing kids that I see having fun because they are the ones that helped me understand and learn what it means to have fun,” Gelenski said. “It was an amazing feeling knowing that people saw the difference I was making when I come out to help these special kids.”
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One more high school teen, Danny Tozzi, said he is hoping to make a difference by starting a fundraising effort for his International Baccalaureate project at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach. It will benefit the Miracle League directly.
“It is a virtual fundraiser that will use social media to spread awareness,” said Tozzi, 14, of Delray Beach. “Anyone who wants to participate can record themselves running the bases at their local baseball field or make a baseball field in their own backyard if they wish.”
The Atlantic freshman said he has been with Miracle League for over a year now and especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people weren’t able to make it out.
“Really, anyone across the country can help and make sure we have this outreach that otherwise they may not have in any aspects,” Tozzi said. “I am hoping it goes viral and that would be really cool. What better cause than the Miracle League?”