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Starkey: Incredible morning for Pirates

| Sunday, July 24, 2011

Suddenly, the question of whether the Pirates will add a bat to their lineup didn't seem so important.

Neither, quite frankly, did the ongoing series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

"This is bigger than any game," said closer Joel Hanrahan, surveying the scene Saturday morning at Pirates Charities Miracle League Field in Cranberry. "Do you see the smiles on these kids' faces?"

Veteran pitcher Paul Maholm was coming off a rough outing Friday night. But, like Hanrahan, second baseman Neil Walker, pitcher Chris Resop, catchers Chris Snyder and Mike McKenry, manager Clint Hurdle, bench coach Jeff Banister, team president Frank Coonelly and owner Bob Nutting, he made his way to the aptly named field by 9:30 a.m.

Sweltering heat greeted the men.

So did a bunch of miracles.

One of them was Ryan Silverman, 11, who has Down syndrome but was so psyched for the event that he eschewed a pair of shorts in favor of his new baseball pants. Another was Kelsi Weaver, 10, who was one-hopping pitches to Maholm, a fellow lefty, from her wheelchair.

"You think it's the end of the world if you have a bad night," Maholm said. "But you come out here, and these kids just want to play ball."

Kelsi has cerebral palsy. She weighed two pounds at birth. But with a pony tail jutting out the back of her Pirates cap, she moved happily from station to station at the two-hour fantasy camp, along with 39 other special-needs children.

How did she feel about playing ball with the big leaguers?

"Excited," she said, softly. "I like watching the Pirates."

Kelsi's grandmother, Donna Weaver, stood 10 feet away snapping pictures. She won't soon forget the hour's drive from Martin's Ferry, Ohio.

"Kelsi's been talking about this all week," Donna said. "She was back there in her seat jumping around and singing."

Josiah Weeks was singing, too, which is always a good thing.

"If he's singing, he's having a wonderful day," said his mother, Barb.

Josiah, 9, has autism and severe allergies, including one to grass. But there he was, standing on a base on the rubber field and relaying a throw from Hurdle's wife, Karla, to another base. The manager shouted encouragement.

"I might be able to use you in the bullpen!" Hurdle said.

The Hurdles' 8-year-old daughter, Madison, has Prader-Willi syndrome. As described on the PWS Association website, PWS is a complex genetic disorder that typically causes low muscle tone, short stature, cognitive disabilities and a chronic feeling of hunger that can lead to weight issues.

The previous night's loss was a distant memory by the time Hurdle arrived at Miracle League Field, which hosted children from the four regional Miracle Leagues.

"We all need perspective," Hurdle said. "(His family) lives with perspective 24 hours a day. To see the joy on the faces, wearing these uniforms, it's priceless."

The event was sponsored by Pirates Charities — which presented a $10,000 check to the Miracle League program — and Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids, which Hurdle helped launch when he was managing the Colorado Rockies.

It wasn't just the children who inspired. No presence was more powerful than that of the event's emcee, Chaz Kellem, the Pirates' 28-year-old manager of diversity initiatives.

Born and raised in the Hill District, Kellem is a chatty, personable sort. He also is confined to a wheelchair on account of osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly referred to as brittle-bone disease. He has sustained 43 broken bones.

Kellem does not see himself as a victim. Far from it, as he works toward a master's degree in organizational leadership at Robert Morris University and performs his duties with every bit the energy Hurdle displays in managing the team.

"I'm blessed; I just can't walk," Kellem said. "I'm focused on my abilities, not my disabilities. I look at myself as having the opportunity to impact other people's lives. My goal is to laugh a lot and leave a legacy.

"I believe in the unbelievable."

You would, too, if you'd been at Miracle Field yesterday.

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