WAXAHACHIE — MT Patrick, Stevenson, Volentine, Robnett and Henry Curry fields may have bled the black and gray of Palmer, crimson and white of Red Oak, maroon and black of Ennis and the kelly green and white of Waxahachie, but there was one color every person attending the weekend’s memorial baseball tournament could agree on.
The color orange.
The five historic fields were painted in the colors of the Red Oak Crush, Slade Russo’s recreational baseball team, during the anniversary of the Play for Slade Russo baseball tournament Friday at Optimist Field, featuring a flurry of firsts for both the tournament and recently formed Miracle League baseball team.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year. In the beginning, I didn’t think I could make it a day. After what my family and I went through, some days it seemed like you couldn’t breathe. This community put its arms around us and helped us through it,” said Slade’s father Steve Russo about his desire to include the special needs community in the annual tournament.
The three-day tournament, sponsored by Johnson Baseball and USSSA, was held in honor of Slade Russo, a 13-year-old Waxahachie Youth Baseball Association player who died in a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle accident May 17, 2015.
The tournament’s orange shirt was a tribute to Slade’s recreational baseball team and head coach Matt Mayfield, who gave him his first start in the sport of baseball.
“Slade went on to play bigger baseball, and sometimes you lose touch with those people,” Steve continued. “What they did for Slade meant a lot to us. They’re our Crush family. That’s why we were drawn to the Miracle League. Slade loved kids. He’d have been right here in the middle of this helping and doing whatever he could. It didn’t matter if you were special needs or — for lack of a better term — normal.”
The Miracle League of Ellis County, captained by President Jim Markle, Vice President Stephanie Schaefer and Executive Director Jon McLaughlin, were contacted by Steve and Mike Davis, Slade’s coach and organizer of this year’s tournament, because they wanted a worthy cause to support, McLaughlin said.
The Miracle League, whose site can be found at miracleleagueec.com, is a special needs program designed to offer every child and adult in Ellis County a non-competitive environment where they and their families can come together and cultivate new friendships and experience the joy of play.
“The advantage of sport in the special needs community is that the kids can get out and see others with similar struggles,” he said. “Sometimes a lightbulb goes on, and they learn they can do something greater than they ever anticipated. The feeling of being part of something bigger than them is refreshing. It raised their desire to do something more and excited them from Monday to Friday, so much so they can’t wait for Saturday to come.”
McLaughlin noted activities like swimming, golf and baseball not only raise joy in the children who play the sports, they drastically and positively affect the nation’s childhood obesity levels for able-bodied and special needs children.
The league, which is an offshoot program from the Ellis County Angels, was birthed from the efforts of the United Way organization, a land donation from the YMCA, the Avenue Church and the City Credit Union and monetary support from Walgreen’s and Magnablend, which chose the Miracle League as its 2015 beneficiary.
“It’s something that’s near and dear to the board’s heart,” said Schaefer, a disc jockey for 95.5 The Ranch KFWR, with tears in her eyes. “We have three parents on the board who have special needs children. Jennifer Smolka, our program’s director, has a son with Mosaic Down syndrome. Jim Markle, the president, has a son with autism, and I have Chase.”
Her 4-year-old son Chase Schaefer died from congenital heart disease two weeks ago.
“His sister’s playing in his place today,” she continued. “We have a thing we say, #chaselife. She’s chasing life. We really want to continue this program and include parallel play for all special needs athletes. That’s why we have the ‘beep ball’ technology. We want to make sure that if they want to play, we’ll do everything possible to make that happen.”
The “beep ball,” a softball-sized target that pulsates a shrill beep, helped Maggie Witten, who despite being blind since birth, swims with the Ellis County Angels and golfs with the Ellis County Fireballers, both locate the ball for a hit and run to the base with the help of a buddy.
There was a silent auction selling items from an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball to antique Texas Rangers tickets, to a football signed by a Heisman Trophy winner, but the most important thing was youth baseball was back at Optimist Field for players like Waxahachie Rangers player Arthur Moore and Waxahachie Little Ponies third baseman Ziyah Pointer.
“I missed playing baseball and I’m glad its back,” Pointer said after her team beat the Waxahachie Rays 15-10 during the first day of the Play for Slade tournament. “It’s really fun and I love running hard and getting a hit. I’m glad we won and my mom got to see it.”
The joy felt by Moore, Pointer and all the children who fielded baseballs or hit “beep balls” is the reason the spirit of Slade Russo lives on and ties every person that crossed the threshold to his memory.
The outpouring of the community through Optimist Field and its purveyors, Chim Curry and Bryan Johnson, has been the savior the Russo family needed to move on and begin to heal, Steve said.
“I can’t begin to explain how it feels to have to lose a child. You think it won’t ever happen to you, but it does. It’s a terrible cross to have to bear,” Steve said. “The support from this community and the tournament don’t take the pain away, but it distracts me from it. This tournament is something my wife and I look forward to every year and we’ll hold it as long as the community lets us.”