DETROIT — The Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Comerica Bank have taken time throughout July to recognize incredible Game Changers in the community who are dedicating their lives to helping people with disabilities.
The final Game Changers honoree for Disability Pride Month is Stephen Peck, the founder and director of the Easterseals Miracle League of Michigan, for his tireless commitment to providing an accessible baseball league to hundreds of children with disabilities throughout the state.
The origins of the Miracle League of Michigan date back to July 2001, when Peck, who coached his able-bodied son’s baseball team in Birmingham, Mich., saw a segment of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about a baseball league in Georgia where children with cognitive or physical challenges could be part of a team in an organized league.
The field was designed with a custom synthetic turf to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and other assisting devices, along with wheelchair-accessible dugouts, restrooms and drinking fountains.
Peck was inspired by the segment and decided to create a league of his own in his home state.
“It blew me away,” Peck said about the HBO segment. “We do everything for our able-bodied kids, and I said, ‘Why can’t they play, too?’”
So Peck contacted the founders of the Miracle League and received their blessing to use the name, logo and field specifications in Michigan, and he got to work.
Peck quit his job of 18 years to dedicate his full attention to this project. He enlisted the services of Anthony Filippis Sr., who co-founded the medical supply company, Wright & Filippis.
Filippis, who dedicated his life to helping people with disabilities to live sustainable lives, donated $30,000 to help Peck get the league off the ground.
Peck acquired land from the city of Southfield, raised $800,000 from corporate and individual sponsorships and began building the first field for the Miracle League of Michigan, which was completed in six months and ready for play in 2004.
On the field, the bases are built into the synthetic rubber surface, the balls are made of rubber and the bats are plastic. The players are assigned “buddies” who are paired with individual children as an able-bodied friend to assist them on and off the field.
During games, every child gets a chance to hit, run the bases and score a run. The games last two innings with no balls or strikes called, and no scores are kept.
“I’ve always called it a win, win, win.” Peck said. “It’s a win for these kids because we dress them up in Major League jerseys, hats and baseball pants so they look like any other ballplayer. They’re ecstatic that they can come out and do something they wanted to, but couldn’t.
“The other wins are the families. Most of our dreams come true, most of us played little league sports, but for this segment of the population, their dream went away. Well, their dream is back now. The dads can be coaches. The parents are in the stands, just like any other typical family being very proud of their kids.”
The third win, according to Peck, is by the “buddies” because they get an opportunity to change children’s lives by helping them feel like they are part of a team.
Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown said Peck embodies what the Game Changers program is about, dedicating his time and resources to his cause and getting hundreds of members of the community involved as well.
“This month’s Game Changers are championing access and opportunity for thousands of disabled Michiganders, and Stephen Peck is helping lead the way for those who want to play baseball,” Brown said. “Through the Easterseals Miracle League of Michigan, Stephen has dedicated nearly 20 years to growing the game by delivering a Major League experience for children with physical or cognitive disabilities.”
Peck said the Miracle League is all about inclusion, making everyone feel welcome and ensuring everyone has fun.
“We put these fields where other fields are, so we’re not isolating them. So it’s totally an inclusive situation,” Peck said. “They’re playing their ballgame while a typical team is playing ball on another field. They’re meeting friends, they feel like a ballplayer. We’re introducing segments of the population like the volunteers to educate them and teach them more. So it’s definitely a win for everyone involved.”
Peck said he’s honored to be recognized by the Red Wings, Tigers and Comerica Bank as a Game Changer in the community, but he said there are so many people involved in the league working behind the scenes that deserve credit as well.
“I’ve always felt that this program was so much bigger and powerful than any one person,” he said. “I was the worker bee, I helped make it happen, but the credit goes to a higher power. Of course it’s an honor to be recognized for doing good things, and I love that. But what it really turns out to be is building community and building self-esteem and confidence in these kids.”
Since its inception, which included one field and 40 players in 2004, the organization has become an Easterseals Michigan program and it has grown to serve more than 400 players on two fields and now includes a competitive league as well.
And Peck said he doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon because he’s committed to growing the organization even more. He’s recently added dancing and bowling programs and he wants to impact as many children and families that he can.
“We want to create more opportunities, more things to do, because it’s really the No. 1 thing families with disabilities want is opportunities for the children,” Peck said. “We want to continue to make dreams come true for Michigan families and the hundreds of volunteers by helping our players and being enriched in the process.”