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Miracle League of Manasota proposes location for ballpark

BRADENTON — When Bob Mitchell saw the DVD from Bryant Gumbel’s interview with Frank Deford following Deford’s piece about the Miracle League on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the heart-warming sight hooked him into the organization.

Mitchell, an insurance agent by trade, said that’s when he knew he had to be a part of it.

Now, three years later, Mitchell is president of the Miracle League of Manasota. And the nonprofit organization has a location picked out for a proposed ballpark at Longwood Park in Sarasota, just across the street from University Park Country Club.

“We intend for children from both Manatee and Sarasota counties to play ball,” Mitchell said. “Since it was literally on the county line, it made it a very convenient location.”

The Miracle League of Manasota is an affiliate of the National Miracle League Association, which provides children with disabilities in more than 235 communities around the world the chance to play baseball, regardless of their abilities.

The field is just one step for Mitchell, who says there are 14,000 children with special needs in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The plan is to form a league and begin play in the spring of 2011 for 8-10 weeks in the spring and fall. He hopes to field at least 14 teams with 20 players per squad.

The project is estimated to cost $1.2 million, according to contractors’ bids.

Sarasota County approved $500,000 toward the park for the organization, Mitchell said. The organization also received $50,000 in funding from the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation in Sarasota.

He said the Manatee County government has not approved any funds, citing a tight budget year.

“Manatee County has not contributed anything yet. ... They’re claiming not to have any money,” Mitchell said. The 14,000 children, he added, are divided evenly between the two counties.

“That location is in Sarasota County,” Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes said Monday. “And we are having a very difficult time just meeting the obligations that we have made in the past, and also maintaining essential services. So essential services for the community of Manatee County have to come first.”

The park would be different than regular fields in that it would cater to children with special needs with cushioned, rubberized turf without barriers, Mitchell said.

This isn’t a totally new concept in the area, following the Challenger Division in Manatee County. That division has been a part of Little League locally for the past 20 years to serve children with disabilities, said Norma Lloyd, who spearheaded the Challenger Division here.

The difference is the Challengers play on a regular field.

“The regular field is just fine,” said Lloyd, the director of the Manatee Challengers in District 26. “And it makes the kids feel more like they are playing regular baseball.”

The Miracle League of Manasota heads to McKechnie Field from 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Friday for its official Launch Party Celebration, a fundraising event before the Bradenton Marauders’ home game.

Proceeds from each ticket ($1) go toward the Miracle League of Manasota.

Jason Dill, sports writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7017.

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