The children in Monty McLamb’s baseball league all get to hit the ball.
Whether they come to the plate in a wheelchair or on crutches, unable to see or fuzzy on the rules of the game, they all swing until they hit, and they run the bases until they score.
“It’s like bases loaded all the time,” says McLamb, 47. “Everyone gets a chance to run and hit and throw and hear the screams and cheers. When everyone on one team has hit the ball, we switch.”
The Miracle League that McLamb started four years ago for disabled Johnston County children has been a blessing to the players and their families. But the field where they play in Smithfield has been less than ideal. Designed for more typical athletes, the raised bases and uneven clay diamond can be hazardous.
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So McLamb set about building a baseball park designed especially for disabled athletes. Joining forces with another local group, he helped raise $800,000 during the past year to build the new field and a playground designed for disabled children, all on the site of Smithfield Community Park.
Construction is set to begin in a few weeks. In the meantime, the team started a new season Sept. 20, with a few dozen children hitting and running with the help of a field full of volunteers.
And McLamb will be at the center of it all, says Dana DeBuhr, whose 8-year-old daughter, Brogan, suffers from severe developmental delays and cherishes her Miracle League Saturdays.
DeBuhr says McLamb knows each child’s ailment and batting style and is the first to help them wield their bats. He has lined up business sponsors to cover uniform expenses and legions of volunteers, including the Campbell University baseball team. He has also taken his players to activities such as getting on the field before a Carolina Mudcats game.
“It’s really overwhelming to think of all the things he’s done behind the scenes for our children that us parents might not even know about,” DeBuhr says. “He worked his tail off to set all of this up and made all of our kids feel so special. This league and the new park are going to serve families for generations.”
He loves to play
Perhaps the most surprising thing about McLamb’s involvement with the Miracle League team is that he had virtually no experience with special-needs children before founding his team.
He grew up in Benson and manages a construction-supply business in Dunn, though he is no stranger to side projects.
He studied architecture at N.C. State before earning a business degree at Campbell, and he indulges his creative side as a general contractor who has built and remodeled several homes.
He also has a side business as a photographer, which started when he bought equipment to capture his sons’ sports games. He now specializes in taking sports portraits and senior pictures.
And, McLamb says, he has always loved sports, particularly in its most humble forms.
“I’d rather play it than watch it,” he says. “I’d just as soon be at a little league field as Yankee Stadium.”
He played baseball himself through middle school and moved on to golf and tennis. He coached both of his boys’ baseball teams through middle school, but each chose to play football in high school.
That left a hole in his Saturday mornings. McLamb wanted to keep coaching, but he disliked how competitive the games were, with some athletes and their parents viewing the sport a stepping stone to college scholarships or professional stardom.
So McLamb started looking for a league that was more focused on the pure fun, exercise and sportsmanship of baseball. He found the Miracle League, a group that had started outside Atlanta in 1998 and now includes 250 leagues nationwide and beyond.
When McLamb contacted the group, its leaders cited a huge need a league in fast-growing Johnston County, miles from the Triangle league based in Cary and accessible to the counties east of it.
He started it in 2010 with a dozen athletes. The next year there were 25 and 50 the year after that.
Dust angels are OK
Now his league has nearly 70 registered members, about half of whom will show up at any given game, where they get help from dozens of volunteers who shadow them and help whenever needed.
Many of those volunteers are young people themselves, including other members of other sports teams and McLamb’s own sons.
Instead of angling for the best positions, the players on his current team give him hugs and high fives before each game.
“If they hit the ball, they jump up and down with excitement before they even start running,” McLamb says.
For DeBuhr’s daughter, the attention from the cheering parents and the volunteers is part of the fun. She loves the games but also benefits from the loose rules.
“It’s so forgiving,” DeBuhr says. “If she only plays hard for 20 minutes and then decides to make dust angels behind second base, it’s OK.”
Some of the children have cystic fibrosis or spina bifida. One is blind. A growing number have autism spectrum disorders.
The games are also important for parents, who get to spend time together in the stands as they watch their children play.
Once the league was established, McLamb started trying to raise money for a new field. The custom baseball field designed for the Miracle League meets the needs of a wide variety of athletes, with a special rubberized surface and wide dugouts that accommodate wheelchairs.
McLamb was making his pitch to a local Rotary Club when he was approached by the Johnston County Partnership for Children, which was also looking to raise money for a special-needs playground. The two groups joined forces.
The town of Smithfield donated the land, near already existing soccer and football fields, and helped McLamb land a $350,000 matching grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.
Once that was established, other donors stepped in to help.
“The project itself was an easy sell,” McLamb says. “But it’s a big undertaking. People needed to know we could do it.”
The field should be open for the team’s spring season in May. Once it’s ready, McLamb hopes to organize slightly more competitive games among the more able players.
As the league grows, McLamb expects it will need to hire a paid director. But he plans to stay involved, whether as a coach, an announcer or just a volunteer out on the field.
McLamb says seeing all the people who stepped up to volunteer or donate to the fields has been nearly as gratifying as seeing his athletes play.
“It does my heart good to get out there and see that people are still good as gold,” he says.