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Jackson Hardin, 7, gives some love to Raleigh, an Airedale Terrier, on the turf at Warner Park before the start of the inaugural Miracle League ball game. Hardin's mother, Amanda Hardin, looks on. Raleigh is a service dog owned by Lynne Dorsey, of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

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Miracle League holds Opening Day; inspires children, parents and community

Jackson Hardin rolled down the third base line propelled by the rocketships on the wheels of his chair. The 1,500 or so people in the bleachers roared cheers as the public address announcer called out Jackson's name and he collected high fives from volunteers for scoring for the Rockies of the Miracle League.

"I stole every single base. I was going as fast as I can. It was like, 'Zoom!'" the 7-year-old said, moving his arm to show his speed.

The run wasn't tallied, outs weren't counted and foul lines had a funny way of expanding, but none of that mattered. This was baseball, and Jackson and his friends were having the time of their lives.

The Miracle League allows people with disabilities, mental or physical, to play organized sports, many for the first time.

Jackson, though, is a seasoned veteran. He started playing this year and joined the Dream League, a similar league for disabled children, this summer.

Saturday, he fielded the pitcher's mound while his friend Kaiden Tricoglou, 7, a fellow Dream League All-Star, played catcher. Jackson climbed out of his wheelchair and regularly dove for the ball, while Kaiden, the left-handed cleanup hitter, smacked one of the hardest hits of the day, a loud single deep to right field.

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Jackson and Kaiden quickly became friends earlier this summer and enjoy playing together.

"He's in a wheelchair, too," Jackson pointed out.

The duo played like the veterans they are, but even the first-timers all hit and scored multiple runs Saturday morning. In the Miracle League, everyone is an all-star.

One of those first-timers was 12-year-old Makayla Swafford. She's been practicing her swing all week.

"She's been anxious all week. She's been getting up every morning and swinging the bat all excited, squeezing her hands together," said her mother, Tane Levin. "She's loving this."

Miracle League was created just so children like Jackson, Makayla and Kaiden can have an opportunity to play organized sports. Each person is given a "buddy" who helps bat, field and run. Parents can relax and enjoy the day.

The league plays at a new multimillion-dollar facility next to the Chattanooga Zoo, with the ball field, a playground for all children and a multisport field.

It was built entirely through donations, led by local Rotary clubs.

"It's hard to imagine what to expect until you see the kids having the opportunity to play ball," Miracle League Chairman and Rotarian John Germ said. "Once you see that, you realize it's a fantastic day."

About 200 volunteers came from the YMCA for Opening Day. Others in the crowd were from companies that donated to the project or just wanted to help or cheer on the players.

"I didn't do one thing, but I am inspired by the groups, the individuals, the parents of these participants, and I've never seen so many volunteers," said Franklin McCallie, a local advocate, Rotararian and retired teacher.

"I'm just an audience member, and I am inspired by what they're doing, and by giving these kids a chance, my goodness, isn't that spectacular?"

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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