Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
George Stone | Miracle League of the Gulf Beaches
George Stone can recall every one of the dozens and dozens of kids who have come through the Miracle League of the Gulf Beaches in its 14 seasons.
None more than Ali.
“Sixteen years old with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair all her life,” George recalls. “We saw her stand up, go to home plate and hit the ball. She said ‘I can’t play sitting down, I’ve got to stand up’ and she ran to first base.
“Ali now lives in Texas with her grandmother, she’s engaged to be married and never seen a wheelchair since,” he says beaming. “I get texts from her all the time.”
Stories such as this are why George, the league’s president, and other members of the Gulf Beaches Kiwanis Club, like his long-time friend Dave Romine, make sure the Miracle League plays 13 Saturdays in the spring and eight Saturdays in the fall. Its mission is to provide opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball, regardless of their abilities. Everyone involved is a volunteer.
“To see these kids grow up and see them laugh, their families laugh. That is worth every cent,” admits George, who will be 82 in July.
There is no dearth of inspirational sources at the league’s artificial field in St. Petersburg. Consider Matthew, who each week works on flattening his one-handed swing through the strike zone from the confines of his wheelchair. He has been with Miracle League since the beginning, sings the National Anthem before each game and is the league’s chief spokesman and marketer.
There is Jacob, also confined to a wheelchair. Says George: “When he started at Miracle League he never said a word. After a while, he started singing and telling jokes. Smiling and laughing. He opened up. All because of his ability to play ball. It shows what playing baseball can do for these kids mentally. To them, they don’t have a handicap. Their friends say to them, ‘You can’t play baseball’ and their answer is ‘Come on out and watch me.’”
For George, a member of the U.S. Army airborne during the Korean War (“My job was to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and blow up tunnels in Korea”), his inspiration comes from a source a little closer to home.
“My daughter, Becky, was involved in a car accident, 20 years ago when she was in her twenties,” remembers George. “She was sitting in the front passenger seat and her side of the car took on the most damage. She was partially paralyzed on her right side. Since then, she has had different parts of her body that have reacted differently to the paralysis.
“And yet, she is probably the most dynamic woman I have ever seen. Nothing bothers her. She drives a diesel pickup truck She partakes in all of her business as if nothing has happened. She looks at it as it’s just something that happened and she is going to cope with life.”
Indeed, she has. While convalescing, Becky met Brent. Today, they are married, have two have two children and raise cattle on their Colorado farm.
That,” says George,” is my inspiration.”
In his days following his military service, George ran an airport transportation service in New York catering to corporate and private customers to the four major airports in New York. But when his son took a job in Florida, he urged George to join him. The father followed the son and three days later he was offered the prestigious position of transportation manager at the St. Pete Pier.
Not long after, he joined the local Kiwanis Club, a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one child – one community at a time.
Watching television one night a segment on HBO Real Sports caught his eye. Some of his fellow Kiwanians saw it too. “It was all about Miracle League and what it has done for kids and families all around the country,” George explains.
The Kiwanians were moved by what they saw and acted quickly, even finding a very generous donor who paid for the construction of a rubber-tiled field. The special playing surface lasted 12 years under the Florida sun until it was replaced by a new, more advanced turf in 2018 through grants from the Respect 90 Foundation, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and Clearwater for Youth.
Next, the group went about finding players. By advertising in the local media and connecting with the nearby Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center, they welcomed 26 kids to their inaugural game on March 26, 2006.
“The Kiwanis Club jumped in and really got behind it,” says George. “The club loves doing it. The families of the club love doing it. The families of the kids love doing it. High school kids want to come out and help. This is something people are drawn to.”
But make no mistake, as Dave Romine says, “George Stone makes it all work.”
Jim Fitzpatrick says of his son, Justin, another Miracle Leaguer, “This is central to his world. None of these kids would ever have the opportunity to get out and open up their own view of the world. George opens these kids up like a flower. They all blossom around this.“
George and Dave and a host of volunteers are out early to make sure the field is prepared and the equipment in order when the players arrive at 9 a.m.
Proceeded by a round of instructional batting practice and Matthew’s own version of the Star Spangled Banner, each game lasts roughly three innings and every kid bats and runs the bases every inning.
The fun begins when George settles in at his table down the third base line and picks up his microphone. Music and merriment soon flow out of the field’s portable sound system.
“I am the Dewayne Staats of the Miracle League,” laughs George referring to the long-time television broadcaster of the hometown Tampa Bay Rays. “Every time I am on the microphone, I am always talking about the kids to the kids. ‘Hey look who’s up at bat, Mikey. Mikey loves to run the bases.’ I try and give the kids encouragement. Lord knows they have all kinds of problems, mentally and physically. I see them smiling, laughing and it helps. It helps them. It helps me. And I think of my daughter.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
For more information on the Miracle League of the Gulf Beaches, go to https://www.kiwanisgulfbeaches.com/
For more information on Miracle League at the national level go to http://www.themiracleleague.net/