Seal Beach Pony Baseball teams up with new nonprofit Serving Athletes with Special Needs

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Home runs and humanity.

You’re likely to witness both on the baseball fields at McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach this little league season.

The Seal Beach PONY Baseball League, which serves roughly 250 kids ages three to 12, is gearing up for its season that starts Feb. 12. And there’s something new in 2022.

The youth baseball league is teaming up with Beach Cities Miracle League, a new nonprofit organization serving local athletes with special needs ages four and older.

Starting next month, in addition to playing in their PONY league games, players will have the option of also participating in “buddy program” games with Miracle League athletes.

During the two-inning non-competitive games, PONY League athletes play alongside Miracle League players. All Miracle League players get a chance to bat and field during the game.

According to its website, Beach Cities Miracle League “serves children and adults who suffer from any physical or mental disabilities, which causes them to be excluded, whether intentionally or not,” from conventional sports leagues.

PONY League President Matt Rhoads said he and his wife have always wanted to help players of all abilities experience the joy of baseball.

“Ashley and I are passionate about having a community that is for everyone,” Rhoads wrote in an email message. The couple has two elementary school-age sons who have loved playing PONY baseball for years. Rhoads acknowledges that hasn’t been the case for all children.

“There is a community of kids in Seal Beach that don’t get the same opportunities as other kids,” he said. “I felt that bringing a program like Beach Cities Miracle League to Seal Beach would hopefully help fill that void and give all kids a chance to experience the fun of baseball, the joys of making new friends, and of course, the reason most kids come on Saturdays…the snack shack.”

While Rhoads had always planned on creating an opportunity for players with special needs within Seal Beach PONY league, this partnership came together by chance. It all started after Rhoads talked with the parent of a player in the Beach Cities Miracle League.

“My good friend Levi Maldonado … mentioned that they didn’t have a place to play this season,” Rhoads explained. Rhoads ended up connecting with the founders of Beach Cities Miracle League and, with his fellow volunteers on the PONY league board, worked out a plan to let them use the McGaugh fields.

“We’re feeling the love,” Susan Graham said of the collaboration with Seal Beach PONY league.

Graham and Cynthia Brannon co-founded the Beach Cities Miracle League. They previously formed a Challenger League in Long Beach around six years ago which Graham’s 11-year-old son played in.

After the last two seasons were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Graham and Brannon were looking for a fresh start. They wanted to build a program that allowed players of all ages to participate, that could offer other sports and the opportunity to construct new facilities.

They discovered the national Miracle League and started to build their local league.

In its first year, Beach Cities Miracle League already has nearly 40 players signed up from Orange County, Long Beach and beyond, according to Graham.

Staci Arbogast of Lakewood signed up her 13-year-old daughter Gwen to play. She described Gwen’s experience playing in the Long Beach Challenger League as “life-changing.”

“Her confidence is through the roof,” Arbogast said in a recent phone interview.

Playing baseball was not what doctors predicted for Gwen when she was born. “We were told she would never walk,” Arbogast explained. Now Gwen runs the bases, bats and throws left and right handed and cheers for her teammates. “She’s doing it just like any other kid.”

Arbogast said she is excited for Gwen to join Beach Cities Miracle League this season. Her message to other families: “Come out and check us out and support these kids.”

The aim is for all athletes to learn valuable lessons from the experience.

“Our kids amazingly do learn these skills,” Graham said. “Almost every game some of us are crying happy tears.”

“It’s a pretty beautiful thing to watch,” Brannon said. “The level of humanity that comes out of these kids… I think it’s really important exposure.”

Rhoads has many hopes for the season including that it spurs kids’ social and emotional growth and builds a sense of community.

“I hope kids who participate in this program see these kids at school and they say, ‘hi’ and ask them to play at recess. I hope all players see that these kids are just like them and can do anything they want to do,” Rhoads said and added, “I hope this league teaches people that baseball is a game to be enjoyed by everyone.”

While PONY league registration has ended, players can register for Beach Cities Miracle League until Feb. 5 by visiting BeachCitiesMiracleLeague.org.

Volunteers interested in participating in the “Buddy program” can email volunteer@sbpony.com.

Seal Beach Pony Baseball teams up with new nonprofit Serving Athletes with Special Needs