The seed of a miracle is taking root in Chattanooga. And when it sprouts this summer, local folks will harvest popcorn and peanuts, cracking bats and fly balls and, best of all, smiling faces.
Site work started this month at Warner Park for Tennessee's second Miracle Field, a diamond-shaped home for the Miracle League, a baseball organization for people with physical and mental disabilities.
"We started site preparations last week," said Mike McGauley with Fidelity Trust Co., the man serving as the Miracle Field overall project manager. "It's taken a couple of years to get to this point."
A Miracle Field opened in Murfreesboro — Tennessee's first — earlier this month.
Officials broke ground on the project at Chattanooga's Warner Park last May en route to a facility with three components tailored to Miracle League athletes. It will be the newest addition to the softball complex next to the Chattanooga Zoo that already features six fields.
McGauley said the completed project will include a ballfield, multipurpose field and a playground, all specially designed for wheelchair access with special rubberized, flat surfaces to make traveling easy and safe. There will also be water fountains and a family restroom in the wide, accessible dugout area for use by athletes who need help from both parents, he said.
As the site work continues, others are springing to action with just four months left till the Miracle Field's opening day on Sept. 30.
"Behind the scenes we've begun to kind of assemble the nuts and bolts of what opening day will look like," YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga marketing director Cara Standifer said Wednesday.
The YMCA hasn't started actively marketing yet, but recruiting efforts will start soon, Standifer said. The Downtown YMCA branch will run the Miracle League program, she said.
Marketing efforts initially will seek people who want to participate — ages 4 and up — or who want to volunteer as a "buddy" to help Miracle League athletes with hitting.
"It's evolving daily," she said.
A Miracle Field is specialized for its competitors. The bases are spaced 50 feet apart rather than the 90-foot standard for high school baseball. And the center field fence is just 120 feet away, making more home runs possible for players.
Miracle League baseball got its start in Conyers, Ga., in 1998 when the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association invited children with special needs to play on a typical baseball field made of grass and dirt where 140 players came out to play baseball.
Now, there are almost 300 Miracle Fields across North America designed for those with disabilities, wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Miracle League teams are named for Major League Baseball franchises, creating the classic atmosphere of America's Favorite Pastime.
A Miracle Field is already a success in nearby Dalton, Ga., where the facility was completed in 2012 and boasts dozens of players who have played on the field since it opened.
Cindy Sharrock, mother of Patrick Sharrock, has nothing but praise for the facility in Whitfield County.
"Patrick began playing baseball at the Miracle League of Whitfield County during their 'Dream Night' event. I cannot put into words just how much that day meant to me," Cindy Sharrock said.
"My son, who is in a wheelchair, was batting and 'running' bases. He was playing baseball," she said. "It was really a miracle. I never thought I would see my son play a sport or be a part of a team."
The field in Chattanooga is funded through donations by Chattanooga area Rotary clubs, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Miller Industries, Berkshire Hathaway Realty Center and local residents. The Rotary Club, BlueCross, Miller Industries and Berkshire Hathaway each donated $250,000 while other foundations, corporations and private donors made up the rest, including significant in-kind contributions by the construction partners involved in the project.
"The city of Chattanooga is providing the land for the project," McGauley said.
Officials said the new facilities also provide a site for Miracle athletes to participate in other sports and practice for events in the Special Olympics.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.