Eddie Gleeson smiled as he stood on the newly finished baseball field in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, Minn. on a windy, below-freezing November afternoon.
“It’s almost surreal,” he said. “To just see it finally finished and know that you are going to see thousands of children using this facility, it’s massive.”
In the spring, children and adults with special needs will flock to the field for the opportunity to play baseball in a safe environment. The recently completed field is part of the national Miracle League. It has a rubberized surface, which allows those in wheelchairs to participate. The traditional grass, dirt, bases and lines are simply painted on.
“It was an unused field for a long time,” said Kathy Bergen, the manager of Duluth Parks and Recreation. “A lot of volunteers got together to do fundraising and make it the first Miracle League field in Duluth.”
Gleeson, 54, was the man who led the volunteer effort. The cause hits close to home for Gleeson, because his 24-year-old son, Michael, has physical and developmental disabilities.
Gleeson lived the first 12 years of his life in Lincoln Park, just blocks away from the field. Eleven years ago, after spending 31 years in Illinois, he moved his family back to Duluth, where he owns Carmody Irish Pub.
Gleeson and his wife, Liz, were disappointed to learn that there were no baseball leagues in Duluth for children like Michael. So, along with Stan Kaitfors, Gleeson created “Buddy Baseball,” a league which originally included 14 children, at Irving Park in West Duluth.
Accessibility proved to be a major issue at Irving. The field and building, including the bathrooms, were not handicap accessible, frustrating everyone involved.
“As the first couple of seasons went on, by word of mouth, we kept growing and growing and growing, but (the field) was totally inadequate,” Gleeson said. “I could see that the parents were frustrated and I thought there was something we could do.”
Gleeson said he spent years trying to convince the city to build a field, but the process of garnering support was slow. He credits city facilities manager Mark McShane and former city architect Terry Groshong for helping spur interest in the project. But even with the city’s support, over $400,000 still had to be raised for the project.
“I went before every philanthropic group you can think of,” Gleeson said. “I was surprised at the lack of corporate contributions.”
Eventually, the city was able to acquire most of the money necessary through Americans with Disabilities Act funding. But Gleeson remained active in the fundraising process.
“Terry (Groshong) was able to pigeonhole a lot of that money and collect it,” Gleeson said. “It frustrated me, but he said, ‘This has to be in stages.’ At the same time, I was making promises to him that I couldn’t keep as far as doing matching funding.”
Working on the project, Gleeson teamed up with Kevin Thoresen, the founder and executive director of the Miracle League of Minnesota. The two were childhood friends, but hadn’t seen each other in 37 years.
“He called because he was running a program that was loose,” Thoresen said. “He wanted to make it part of the bigger national program.”
Construction of the field began in 2010 and wrapped up this October. The field is the tenth of its kind in the state and will see its first action in the spring. It will be named the Terry Matson Memorial Miracle League Field, in honor of a young Duluth Miracle League player who died in 2010. The YMCA recently came on-board to operate and schedule the league.
“Without Ed (Gleeson) and his involvement and pushing to get done, it never would have got done,” Thoresen said. “Eddie’s heart was always in the right place in giving kids in Duluth chance to play.”
The field is complete, but Gleeson plans to keep raising funds to sustain the field. In February, he will be hosting a second annual brewfest and concert fundraiser at Black Bear Casino and hopes to start a Wiffle ball league for college students at the field to raise revenue.
Gleeson also wants to keep looking for new Miracle League locations in the area. He said corporate partners in Superior have approached him and he plans to meet with city officials in February. Land in Cloquet has already been set aside for the construction of a field. He also hopes to see a field on the Iron Range soon.
“This is all wishful thinking,” he said. “But we’ve seeded it now. The people and the media have had a lot of focus on this.”
Gleeson understands that his son has outgrown the Miracle League, but he said Michael is looking forward to the field nonetheless.
“He’s so excited by this,” Gleeson said. “We’re probably going to make him a mascot for the league: Buddy Baseball.”