Dan Engel and his wife were watching an episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that profiled The Miracle League organization, which provides a space and resources for children with mental and physical challenges to play baseball. In that episode, there was an interview with a young player who was legally blind and had brittle bone disease.
“Her description of Miracle League baseball as a place where she could live her dream of playing baseball and as a place where she didn’t have a disability was so moving and touching,” Engel says. “We felt that if we had had children with special needs, we would want them to have this opportunity.”
It wasn’t long after that the couple founded The Miracle League of San Diego, starting their first season in 2007. Today, they have around 250 players, 300 volunteers who are paired with each player to assist them, 60 coaches and hundreds more volunteers to help out each season at Engel Family Field at San Dieguito County Park in Del Mar and Solana Beach.
Engel, 56, and his wife, Robin, have four adult children, and he serves as treasurer of the organization. While getting the San Diego branch off the ground, he was also fighting stage IV melanoma and has since written a book about his journey and also started a website, PatientTrueTalk.com, that matches cancer patients with survivors to share information and support. He took some time to talk about The Miracle League, his book and his website.
Q: Tell us about the Miracle League of San Diego.
A: We provide children with special needs with the opportunity to play baseball in an organized league. We play on a rubberized field that accommodates wheelchairs, walkers and the sight-impaired. Every player is paired with a buddy who provides encouragement and helps them on and off the field, as needed. Our first season was in the spring of 2007… and in 2015, we added an independent division for children who no longer needed a buddy, and wanted to learn more skills and play by the rules. We play at two locations — at San Dieguito Park in Solana Beach and our new location at Bell Middle School in San Diego, which is set to open Sept. 15. Our mission is to ensure that every participant — whether a player, buddy, coach, parent or volunteer — walks away saying they had a great day.
Q: There aren’t any practices, only games. What’s the reason for this?
A: Because we rely on volunteers (with the exception of our program director) and because we don’t control access to our fields, it is extremely difficult to coordinate all the resources necessary to facilitate practices. However, this past season, our program director added practices for our independent division, and the progress these athletes have made has been remarkable.
Q: What is the purpose of the buddies?
A: Buddies are there to assist players as per their individual needs, and to ensure safe play. About 20 percent of our players are in wheelchairs or walkers, so managing traffic flow on the field can get tricky, especially on larger teams (they can have up to 15 players). Another more intangible purpose is to give buddies experience in volunteering and making a real difference in the lives of others.
Q: What kind of impact have you seen these player-buddy relationships have on the people involved?
A: The impacts on both participants is enormous. New buddies rapidly develop tremendous self-esteem and empathy that can only be gained through the connections they make with their players. It’s been very gratifying to me to see so many of our buddies who have decided to pursue careers in special education, occupational therapy and related fields because of their involvement in The Miracle League. For the players, they develop bonds that often extend beyond the one hour at the field each Saturday. The friendships last well past involvement in the league. I would describe the relationships more as family than as friendships.
Q: You started the league while dealing with a stage IV diagnosis of melanoma? Why take on this kind of project while dealing with such a severe health issue?
A: During the two years it took to start the league, I was essentially on leave from work as I went from surgery to surgery, clinical trial to clinical trial. Starting The Miracle League gave me something to work on and look forward to between treatments. I needed the intellectual stimulation as well as a purpose, and Miracle League provided that. I was originally diagnosed with stage III melanoma in November 1999. Six years later, after spending five years on a clinical trial to prevent recurrence, I had my first recurrence.
Q: You’ve been deemed cancer-free for the past two years and you’ve written a book and started a website, both of them about cancer and for cancer patients. Tell us about them.
A: “Thriving Through Cancer” chronicles my journey in sometimes excruciating detail, providing the reader with lessons I learned while navigating the intersection of medical, personal and professional lives. It was very cathartic for me to write the book, but also quite painful to relive my experiences. I decided to publish the book in conjunction with the launch of my website, PatientTrueTalk.com.
I created the site to solve one of the pressing issues patients and their caregivers face in the cancer world: a means to connect to other patients, especially when considering and deliberating over treatment options. The site is a patient-to-patient registry where patients and/or their caregivers can search for others with their same diagnosis, or who have followed treatment protocols being recommended to them. They can then send secure messages directly to those who they believe represent the closest match. Once a connection is made, the two parties can speak offline and form a friendship. We are actively recruiting a critical mass of survivors and patient advocates to make the site a useful resource for the newly diagnosed.
Q: What’s been rewarding about your work with The Miracle League?
A: I can confidently say that I received way more from my involvement in Miracle League than I’ve ever given. I feel blessed to have gotten to know so many wonderful families and individuals. It’s so rewarding to see our youth learning to give back with their time, finding how good it feels and coming back week after week. The players themselves inspire me to keep pursuing my dreams. All of our players and their families face struggles far greater than anything I’ve had to endure yet they come out with a smile and hug for everyone they see.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: This is a very difficult question as I’m 56 and have received lots of advice in my life. However, within the past four years I was told: “You are who you hang with — choose wisely.” I value this piece of advice so much because it’s easily explainable and understood by people of all ages. It’s also so valuable because the consequences of not following this advice are demonstrable and can be devastating.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: In college, you could find me at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in West Hollywood almost every weekend.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: My ideal San Diego weekend starts with Friday evening hanging out at Amici Dog Park in Little Italy with my friends, followed by drinks and dinner in the neighborhood. Saturday morning starts with shopping at the Little Italy farmers’ market, followed by coaching and watching The Miracle League. My absolute favorite Saturday night activity is a show at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay. Sunday morning would be more leisurely, reading the paper and drinking coffee after a dog walk. Sunday afternoon is shopping or exploring, and Sunday night is an early dinner or barbecue with family and friends.
What I love about Solana Beach …
The Belly Up, Naked Café, The Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club, and of course, The Miracle League of San Diego.
--Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune