Byron Winsett is all about connections. The interest in bringing different groups together starts with his family-run business, Winsett-Simmonds, a cable company that boasts Time-Warner as one of its clients. But Winsett wanted to expand his business to include some fieldwork. Baseball fields, that is.
When Winsett's Rotary Club of Memphis East decided to join forces with the Memphis Boys Athletic Association (MBAA) -- a group sponsored by the University of Memphis to provide youth leagues for the area -- the idea was to build a group of fields for the MBAA's sole use. "The project started off as just the home complex for the MBAA," Winsett says. "They found some land in the Memphis park system and got the Memphis city government to give them that land for their home field." The land is near Quince and Ridgeway, in an area that includes the Lichterman Nature Center and a YMCA.
But a funny thing happened on the way to creating the $1.9 million complex of seven competitive and practice fields: the Miracle League. Started in 1998 in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, the Miracle League's main purpose is to help physically disabled children play baseball. The league plays a spring and fall season each year. Each season comprises six or seven games. The Rotary Club and the MBAA liked the idea of the league so much that they decided to build a special field for the Miracle League and rename the entire place the Miracle Complex.
"It's pretty simple rules," Winsett says. "Each challenged kid who needs it has a partner they call a buddy, who does not have a challenge. The games are two innings. Each child gets to bat, gets to make a hit, and then gets to cross home plate. It's more to let the kids out there and get them to play." Each player has a turn in the outfield as well. According to Winsett, the key idea is to pair children with physical disabilities with nondisabled kids to facilitate understanding on both sides.
"That's the central concept," Winsett says. "Part of the magic is that by bringing children together at this age, their prejudices and fears are not set. There is a level of unfamiliarity. They say, 'That kid's weird' or 'That kid's different.' If you just bring them together and put them on the field and let them interact, you tear those barriers down. And you have adult supervision. You educate the nonchallenged children beforehand and tell them what's going to happen and that they are going to find out that these children are just out there to play baseball. An extremely important part of this is to have the fields together and to have them both playing on Saturday."
In order for Memphis to land one of the Miracle League's official franchises, Winsett says the group needed a specialized facility. "[The field] is rubberized as opposed to grass and dirt. And all the things around it are specially designed, with handicapped bathrooms and dugouts that are accessible."
The cost of the field is $400,000 of the $1.9 million of the total tab. In order to raise funds, Winsett and his Rotary Club -- along with the MBAA -- have started several fund-raising campaigns. "Last Wednesday, we had a fund-raising luncheon at Folk's Folly," Winsett says. "That was really the beginning of our major fund-raising push. Right now we really don't have that much funding at all, but we are looking to all sources in the community that we can, from [corporate] donors to individuals." A memorial walkway leading to Miracle Field will have the names of sponsors inscribed on each brick.
Children in the league will range from 4 years old to 14. According to Winsett, the East Memphis Rotary Club and the MBAA will recruit kids from all over Memphis and especially from Georgia Avenue Elementary, which the club sponsors. The Miracle League will also recruit from the MBAA's pool of young athletes.
The league is slated to start with the completion of the Miracle Complex. Winsett and company are using all available connections to make this one happen. Anyone interested in helping can call (901)328-3195 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.