Miracle League gives kids with disabilities a chance to play, thanks to local attorney

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO ABOVE BY CYNTHIA PRICE AND  PHOTO COURTESY OF TONY COMDEN

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A loving father, a son diagnosed with brain cancer when he was two and a half, and the uniquely American sport of baseball: add them together and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thanks to this convergence in the life of Tony Comden, an attorney at Miller Johnson, there will be a Miracle League in Grand Rapids and a special field for all children with all types of disabilities to play in that league.
The Miracle League is a national movement to set up special needs children with “a league of their own,”  which started out in Rockdale County, Georgia, and is still headquartered there. After realizing how important such a league was, the founders designed a field that would work to eliminate various barriers. The first Miracle League field opened in April 2000, with 120 players.

There are now 250 Miracle Leagues across the U.S., including Puerto Rico, a couple in Canada and one in Australia. The Miracle Leagues serve over 200,000 young people with disabilities.

There is even a song called, “The Miracle League,” written by Eddie Kilgallon, keyboardist for the country duo Montgomery Gentry. (Visit the national website at www.miracleleague.com.)

Naturally, Tony Comden is not the only one to thank for pulling off such a huge project here in Grand Rapids, but without him, the story would not have even begun.

After Comden’s son Jed underwent an operation to remove the tumor in his brain, it was clear that he would have to start over learning to walk, talk, even feed himself. Comden had always dreamed of being a coach for his children, and has coached many teams for his daughter, now 12. Young Jed joined a T-ball team, despite using a walker, and this is Comden’s fourth year coaching it.

“It’s been so great. Other kids who might look at my son and just say what’s wrong with him, now see him playing, and are on the team, and say,  ‘This is Jed and he loves baseball and the Tigers, and he plays on my team.’  It helps kids question a lot of stereotypes about kids with disabilities,” Comden says.

But it has also presented challenges. “All my life I’ve really wanted to be able to share the joys of baseball with my kids,” Comden says, “but through Jed’s playing my eyes were opened: most kids with disabilities, and most families of those kids, are  just not going to play in a conventional league and have that opportunity as a family.”

Along the way, Comden heard about the Miracle League. With help from many others, including colleagues at Miller Johnson, he started the West Michigan Miracle League (WMML), registered it as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and “found board members who loved kids and loved baseball and were ready to roll up their sleeves.”

Comden is unstinting in his praise for Miller Johnson’s role in the project. “Miller Johnson’s been awesome in supporting my time that I’ve dedicated towards Miracle League. The partners and staff here have even given of their own time and money. For example,” he says, holding up a T-shirt, “I was

looking for someone to sponsor these when we had our groundbreaking last week. and Miller Johnson stepped up and did it.”

Comden, who has been practicing law since 1994, has been at Miller Johnson for less than three years.  He graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. and the University of Michigan Law School for his J.D.
He focuses on employer representation in employment and labor matters, including employment litigation, and recently has specialized in the health care field. “Best Lawyers in America®” listed Comden for Employment Law-Management, Labor Law-Management, and Litigation -Labor & Employment.

After consideration, Comden approached the West Michigan Sports Commission, knowing that they have  been planning a 12-field complex in the Rockford area, or as the WMML website (www.wmml.org) puts it, “a state-of-the-art baseball/softball complex.” They agreed to give WMML one field — provided he and others could raise the money to construct the field themselves.

One of the main barriers kids with disabilities encounter on a conventional ballfield is the natural elements that compose the diamond and outfield. Wheelchairs and walkers get stuck in the dirt or grass, and the uneven ground can cause falls.

Therefore, the original Miracle League designers found a rubberized surface to expedite safe play. Samples Comden has in his office indicate that the surface is not completely smooth but provides no impediment for wheeled devices or canes. Covering the field with them is a costly proposition.

WMML set a goal of $500,000, including the first two years’ operating expenses. Comden points out that even with the outsized generosity of the West Michigan philanthropic community, that was a daunting challenge.

Enter Nate Hurwitz.

Comden wanted to ask someone who actually had a physical disability to serve on the board. Hurwitz, who had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and was in a wheelchair, agreed to serve despite being only 16 years old.

“He was all that,” Comden says. “At his first board meeting — which turned out to be the only board meeting he ever made — he brought checks. He’d already started fund-raising! He was so excited and passionate about this.”

Sadly, Nate Hurwitz died in September last year. His family asked for WMML donations in his honor, and made a sizeable donation themselves, resulting in over $260,000 raised

The Nate Hurwitz Field of the West Michigan Miracle League broke ground on May 15.

At that event, Comden mentioned to speaker David Van Elslander that WMML would love to add an accessible playground, and his furniture company Art Van — already a substantial donor to the 12-field complex — gave Comden a check for $50,000.

There is still much work to be done. Comden says he has been so focused on getting the field built he has not had time to recruit players, but that is now underway. Each player with a disability is teamed up with a physically-abled buddy, and those will have to be recruited as well.

But for now Comden is one very happy man. “Baseball is the symbol of who we are as a country, very wholesome, very innocent, grandma and grandpa cheering you on, going out for ice cream afterwards as a team,” he says. “It broke my heart that kids with disabilities didn’t have that chance. But very soon we’re going to be changing that, making sure that all kids can play. It’s just been amazing.”