COVID-19: Volunteers at Camden County’s Miracle League Hope to Play Baseball Again Someday

(Courtesy Camden County NJ Miracle League)

For Camden County New Jersey’s Miracle League, players and volunteers still don’t know when they will be allowed to return to the baseball diamond.

The league, which organizes and hosts baseball games for individuals with disabilities, finished its last season of play in October 2019. 

“When we typically end a season of baseball there are mixed emotions,” Arthur Aston, who serves as general manager of the league, said. “A bit of sadness that we won’t be having our typical Saturday mornings at the field, mixed in with a little bit of relief and happiness that we will now get to sleep in on Saturday mornings for a few months.”

The Miracle League has now gone over a year without playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 spring and fall seasons were canceled, and it’s increasingly unlikely that play will resume this spring.

“The health and safety of everyone involved is our main priority,” Aston said.

Steve and Terry Hassett, a husband and wife duo who are in their 60s, have been volunteering with the Miracle League since the winter of 2014. They learned about the program after reading an article in the Cherry Hill Courier-Post.

“We both love kids and we both love sports,” Terry Hassett said. “It was like a perfect fit. It was something outdoors with kids.” 

Steve Hassett had coached his children in little league when they were younger, so he figured he’d take a crack at coaching again. He serves as the league’s pitcher for games, while Terry Hassett is paired up with one of the players on the field.

“We thought, ‘How difficult could it be?’” Terry Hassett said. “It’s baseball, we both know baseball.”

The league has operated out of South Jersey for the last six years, with games played every Saturday morning for eight weeks in the spring and eight weeks in the fall. Players are usually divided up by age across four teams.  

(Courtesy Camden County NJ Miracle League)

“Anyone can play in our baseball league with any type of disability diagnosed,” Aston said. “You just have to be age 5 or older. This includes children and adults.” 

The league grew out of a related nonprofit organization — Build Jake’s Place — which builds accessible play experiences, primarily inclusive playgrounds, for all children, regardless of disability. The goal of the organization is to help all children play alongside one another, without treating disability as a barrier.

Aston is also the executive director of the nonprofit, based in Pennsauken, New Jersey. He intends to reach out to families he has worked with and follow their lead on when to start the Miracle League again.

“I think that with the families we work with, having their input will help guide us and lead us to what is the best way forward,” he said.

When the Miracle League is in session, each player is matched with a volunteer who helps them individually during the game. 

“So, it is impossible to social distance players from the volunteers because the volunteers are needed to be close to the players on the field,” Aston said. “And when batting the ball. And when rounding the bases.”

Terry Hassett misses the joy she would get from being on first base and watching kids run down the baseline after they hit a ball.

“I miss it,” she said. “It’s almost like chicken soup for the soul, I just miss it. We started volunteering later in life and had we known what a joy it was, we would’ve started it earlier.”

Games also provided a chance for parents to meet one another and to take a break.

“The goal was to get the parents, so they kind of just kick back and relax and sit in the stands,” Steve Hassett said. “Enjoy each other’s company, get to know each other while their kids play baseball, and just have an hour of their day where they can relax a bit.” 

Aston wants to return when the timing is right and not make any rushed decisions, especially considering many of the players have underlying medical conditions.

“Getting the feedback from the players and the volunteers is how we’re all going to work on moving forward,” Aston said. 

Miracle League games were often a family affair for the Hassett family. Terry Hassett’s stepchildren occasionally volunteered and her parents, who are in their 80s, would pop up a chair and come out to spectate. Canceled seasons have meant one less activity bringing them together. 

“It’s just the whole social outing of the thing, and I think that’s what you get to with the pandemic,” Steve Hassett said. “It’s really tough on everybody. We really can’t get together and be touchy-feely and hugging and high-fiving.”

Without Miracle League games, Steve and Terry Hassett feel a piece of themselves is missing. They would often get to the field an hour ahead of time. They had a key to the shed and would unload all the equipment and get everything set up.

“It’s an extension of your family and I miss the kids terribly,” Terry Hassett said. “I miss the parents or the guardians terribly. I miss all of my volunteers. It’s really a big part of our life, and we really, really miss it.”

Even though both of them are now in their 60s, the Hassett’s wouldn’t miss the weekly Saturday outings for anything. 

“You truly miss all the relationships with the parents, everybody else in the Miracle League, all the kids,” Terry Hassett said. “They all have, like, a unique, special quality that you just love. Everybody’s got their thing.”

While there remains uncertainty about which families will come back to play when the league starts up again, Terry Hassett is confident that if she and her husband have to start building relationships from scratch, they’ll love the new kids just as much as they loved the seasoned veterans, she said.

“We’ll show up, and if there’s one or two players there, we’ve had games before where we had three kids show up and we played the game,” Steve Hassett said.

Not being able to manage the Miracle League has been tough for Aston. The community, activity, and time outside are all things everyone needs, he said. 

“We’re all going to figure out how to bring everyone back out safely and effectively because it is necessary for this activity to continue, and to get the players and everybody back on the field and just enjoying some activity again,” Aston said.

Whenever the Miracle League season starts again, Steve Hassett will be there. 

“If we’re there, we’re gonna play, one way or another,” he said. 

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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