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Matthew Bowen of the Miracle League Padres team hangs out with Cardiff’s Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young Award winner, after a game at San Dieguito County Park. Photo courtesy of Nick Brumbach
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Sports Talk: Miracle League’s return brings joy to players, volunteers

The Miracle League is back in all its glory, which brings smiles all across the diamond.

Although the man whose name graces the ballfield at San Dieguito County Park is fighting back tears.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else on a Saturday,” Dan Engel said. “This is my sanctuary.”

It’s because of Engel’s efforts beginning in 2005, when he was living in Carmel Valley, that more than 300 players with disabilities get to swing, throw and catch in North County. It’s their special place, too, where kids can be kids and play ball just like others their age.

But because of the pandemic, the Miracle League was on hiatus for nearly two years. That one day of the week the players cherished was snatched away, only to return recently and none too soon.

“It means more to me than you possibly know,” Engel said. “This is my family.”

The baseball being played is a community effort, with folks pitching in despite some never heaving a baseball.

North County’s Al Sherman, at 89 years young, was back at his customary third base coaching position. With a nickname of “Wave Them Home Al,” it’s clear the only stop sign his base runners see is at the park’s entrance.

“He still drives himself to the field and comes out every week,” Engel said, with a mixture of amazement and admiration.

Encinitas’ Joyce Harding settled in, too, helping to umpire like she has for so many years. She was joined by Luisa Gendron, another longtime local ump who doesn’t mind calling them as she sees them.

What’s on display is more than the national pastime and those who’ve been fortunate enough to attend a game know as much.

Avery Wheeler waits for the pitch from former MLB manager and player Brad Ausmus of Del Mar in a recent Miracle League game in Solana Beach. “That’s what it is all about, those kids having fun,” Ausmus said. Photo courtesy of Nick Brumbach

The high-scoring contests deliver a big dose of perspective of what’s really important in life, and that’s bringing joy to others.

That’s why on a recent Saturday a host of big leaguers were lending a hand. The Padres’ Joe Musgrove was chipping in at the league’s San Diego location with a host of former players getting their game on at the Solana Beach field.

“I think my earned run average is infinity,” Del Mar’s Brad Ausmus said. “I couldn’t get anyone out.”

Ausmus, a former big league catcher and manager, watched one player after another circle the bases with him on the mound. Ausmus wouldn’t have it any other way, warmed by the expressions of those picking on his pitching.

“That’s what it is all about,” he said, “those kids having fun.”

Rancho Santa Fe’s Mark Loretta, the ex-Padres second baseman, took his turn in getting shelled, too. He has a special connection with the league as his daughter was a longtime buddy to a player.

The Miracle League’s buddy system pairs a player with a volunteer, usually a teenager, who gets quite an education outside the classroom. Loretta and Engel said the bond between the buddies and participants is stronger and everlasting.

“These buddies become part of the player’s family,” Engel said. “I think that is one of the most important things we do.”

How so?

“I like to think of it as nurturing a philanthropic soul,” he said. “We’re teaching kids at a young age that it really feels good to give back and help others. If we can get them to do it early enough, then that becomes part of their DNA.”

You, too, can be part of this body of work that brings out the best in people. These stars between the lines could always use another encouraging voice, an appreciative round of applause or a financial contribution to get more involved.

Registration for the spring season is open at www.miracleleagueofsandiego.org and couldn’t we all use more tenderness and kindness in a world often turned upside down?

“It’s just all the hugs and smiles that you receive,” Engel said.

Somehow a wisp of dust reached Engel’s watery eyes again, even if that’s hard to believe on a synthetic turf field. Maybe it was just another Saturday miracle and really, they were abundant in every direction.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected]. Follow him @jparis_sports

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