Baseball has long been played at Volentine Field on the historic grounds of The Optimist Park in Waxahachie. It's one part of a five-part baseball oasis that helped countless current movers and shakers in the Waxahachie and surrounding Ellis Counties communities fall in love with America's pastime.
Saturday, however, is not just any ol' baseball game. The time has come for about 50 county athletes with special needs to take the field — their new home field — just as their peers have done for decades.
The project to bring an all-inclusive and barrier-free field to the more than 3,000 students in Ellis County with special needs began in early 2016. There was even a groundbreaking held on a field behind the Waxahachie YMCA that was once planned to be the location of the first-of-its-kind field in the area. When the realization that the initial plan would prove too costly, Johnson Baseball LLC and board members of The Optimist Park stepped up to the plate, ultimately designating Volentine Field to serve as the new home for the Miracle League of Ellis County.
The field was formally dedicated as the new site for the Miracle League on the opening day of the annual I Play for Slade Tournament, hosted by the Slade Russo Memorial Foundation, on May 18, 2018.
It then took a little less than one year for the dream field to come to fruition. Members of the community, the Miracle League and donors will gather Saturday afternoon for an evening of baseball, activities, meet-and-greets with former Texas Rangers and, most importantly, the first-ever true home game for the Miracle League athletes.
The project truly began to take shape and head for home this past summer. The Miracle League received several large donations toward the new all-inclusive playing surface, culminating in a $10,000 gift from Baylor Scott and White Medical Center — Waxahachie that pushed the project over its $158,000 fundraising goal.
The Waxahachie Lions Club, United Way of West Ellis County, Knights of Columbus Council 8417, the Slade Russo Foundation, Walgreens, Citizens National Bank, Rotary Club of Waxahachie and Johnson Baseball Group were among the others to donate during the final push toward the goal.
Dave McFadden, president of the Miracle League of Ellis County, previously told the Daily Light the outpouring of financial and emotional support was a "demonstration of the heart of this community."
Pro Turf Inc headed the project that made the playing surface on Volentine Field both ADA accessible and still compatible for tee-ball leagues sanctioned by the Waxahachie Youth Baseball Association.
The playing surface now features turf that is cooperative with wheelchairs, powerchairs, walkers and supports, and can easily transition from the t-ball needs of the WYBA to those of the Miracle League.
As for the Miracle League's opening day, events begin at 4:30 p.m. Saturday with check-in and jersey pickup for the athletes. The players and their buddies will then line up on the field at 5 p.m. with team and player introductions taking place at 5:10 p.m.
Maggie Witten will sing the National Anthem at 5:20 p.m., announcements and "thank you's" will follow at 5:25 p.m. and then four former Texas Rangers — Jerry Browne, Warren Newson, Ellis Valentine and Bump Willis — will throw out the ceremonial first pitches at 5:30 p.m.
After three years of eager planning, the Miracle League athletes will then take the field to begin play at 5:40 p.m.
The teams will rotate between hitting, fielding, team pictures and skills stations. There will also be snow cones on sale by MyTee Sweet Snow Cones, a dunk tank fundraiser with a chance to "Dunk Donny" Richmond and an opportunity to meet the former big leaguers.
And, truth be told: It’s very likely most of Saturday’s athletes, if any, will know that Browne was nicknamed "The Governor" and collected 866 hits over his 10-year career with the Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics and Florida Marlins. They likely don't recall Newson playing the final three seasons of his eight-year career with the Rangers or that he appeared in 91 games for the ball club when Texas won its first American League West championship in 1996.
They almost certainly won’t be able to recall Valentine appearing in just 11 games for the Rangers in 1987 to close out his big league career that began in 1975 with the since-relocated Montreal Expos or that he too had over 800 hits (881). It's also not very likely that Bump Willis is a name that many of Saturday's athletes have heard, despite his five-year stint with the Rangers from 1977-81. He also played one final season with the Chicago Cubs in 1982 at the age of 29 and retired with 807 hits in his 831 games played.
In fact, I’d be remiss to declare that I didn’t find all of those statistics on BaseballReference.com. Newson is the only one of the bunch that this 29-year-old recalls playing for the Rangers. There is a baseball card tucked safely inside a clear sleeve somewhere to prove it.
But whether the kids on the newly-resurfaced Volentine Field know who the four guys in the Texas Rangers caps are is not the point of Saturday. The fact that the four will be there in support of baseball in its purest form is of far greater significance than any stat will ever show.
What matters most is that they, the athletes in the Miracle League of Ellis County, are finally home. They are home to enjoy this nation’s pastime just as Browne, Newson, Valentine, Willis and the community members cheering from the stands have had the privilege to do before — without judgment or exclusive barriers.
And we can all tip a cap to that.
*In case of inclement weather, the opening day festivities will take place next Saturday, April, 16.