Del Mar couple helping hundreds of special needs kids through the miracle of baseball
By Arthur Lightbourn
For Dan Engel, former Wall Street investment banker, the Miracle League of San Diego, was aptly named — in more ways than one.
Dan and his wife, Suzie, co-founded the nonprofit organized baseball league for handicapped kids five years ago and for the past three years Dan has served as its president.
Partnering with the County Parks and Recreation Department and with the support of the San Diego Padres, the Engels converted a weed-infested field in San Dieguito Park into the first “Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible” ball field of its kind in Southern California — complete with a rubberized playing surface for the kids’ safety and their ease of running bases with a wheelchair or walker, an electronic scoreboard, a state-of-the-art PA (public address) system, bleacher-seating and a snack bar that serves hot dogs.
At its core, it gives boys and girls with physical or mental disabilities the miracle experience of playing baseball as part of a team in an organized league on Saturdays, bringing together hundreds of players, parents, coaches, buddies, volunteers and fans.
But, for Dan Engel, it’s also been a “spiritual” journey and a contributing factor in the medical “miracle” that has saved his life.
We interviewed the Engels at the Stratford Court Café in Del Mar. They had just moved into their new home in Del Mar after living many years in Carmel Valley.
Engel, 50, and bald after undergoing numerous variations of chemo, more than 10 surgeries and participating in a clinical trial of an experimental drug for combating melanoma, is a cancer survivor. He was first diagnosed 12 years ago.
“I had Stage 4 melanoma while we were getting the field built,” he said, “and I’ve been in remission essentially since we opened [in 2007]. So it’s been a very spiritual place for me.”
“Dan, with all his health issues,’ his wife Suzie said, “had a great attitude and we’re convinced that his attitude and Miracle [League] really gave him the boosts, mentally and physically, to keep him alive.”
Dan credits Suzie, the varsity tennis coach at Westview High School, with coming up with the idea of creating a Miracle League here in San Diego after they watched a story on HBO’s Real Sports about the Miracle League organization, which was first formed in Georgia in 2000 and has since grown to 240 leagues nationwide.
The Miracle League of San Diego was formed as a nonprofit in 2005 and the field was opened in May 2007, attracting 170 to 190 players annually.
The concept behind Miracle League, Dan said, is: “Every child deserves a chance to play baseball. It’s as simple as that.”
Dan was born in Los Angeles. Suzie was born in Worchester, Mass., and was raised in San Diego. Both of their fathers were CPAs. They met in New York City where Dan was working with investment banker Salomon Bros. and Suzie was visiting from Los Angeles where she was employed as a financial assistant at Fox Broadcasting.
Dan had a B.A. in economics from UCLA, and a joint M.B.A. in real estate and a law degree from UC Berkeley. Suzie (nee Schuman) had a B.A. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.
They married in 1991 after Dan was transferred by Salomon Bros. to Los Angeles, where he became senior vice president of the Goodtab Corporation (working as an investment banker specializing in real estate).
He continued in the deal business with Onyx Partners and Gateway Partners until he was recruited by Applied Underwriters, Inc., of Omaha, in 2002 where he served as senior vice president of strategic planning and corporate development, helping to grow the company 500 percent over four years until it was purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2006.
Dan subsequently opened a financial consultancy in San Diego and is currently the CFO for a private client. Since 2008, he served as chairman of the board of the California Oncology Research Institute in Santa Monica.
“I found a clinical trial for a drug that finally helped bring me into remission,” he said, “and, in March [of this year], it was the first drug approved for melanoma in 15 years and the only one proven to extend life.”
While raising their two children, Suzie got more involved in sports, initially as an assistant athletics manager at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach, as assistant tennis coach at Torrey Pines High School, and, since 2008, as varsity tennis coach at Westview High School in Rancho Peñasquitos. She served as president of the Miracle League of San Diego for two years.
For Suzie, a moving moment she recalls was when, after the opening week of the first season, several parents came up them and said their kids were so excited they had worn their baseball hats and shirts to bed for a week in anticipation of next game on Saturday. “That was it for me,” she said.
For Dan, one of the most moving moments was a day at the Engel Family Field, a Little Padres Park, during the second season, when 4-year-old Kyle Wyeborney, who, because of a medical condition, was unable to walk without a walker, told his parents he wanted to walk on his own because of baseball.
“On the very last day of the season,” Dan said, “Kyle got up to bat and it looked like he was struggling with his walker, but what really happened was his buddy removed the walker and Kyle started to walk.
“I knew what was coming because his mom told me he was going to try it. He was struggling. It was hard. But he made his way down to first, made his way to second, and made his way to third.
“At this point, everybody is on their feet, with tears in their eyes; then Kyle comes toward home to the biggest standing ovation you’ve ever seen….and I don’t know whether he tried to slide or just fell from exhaustion, but he landed face-first on home plate. There was not a dry eye anywhere.
“It was just an incredible thing to witness.”
Kyle is now 9 and still playing and walking. “He likes to play short-stop, and he says he wants to play in the Major Leagues,” Dan said.
“We’ve now made a commitment to open a second field in South Bay, some time within a year and a half, if possible,” Dan revealed. “There is a huge need in San Diego. There are more than 35,000 with special needs in the county.”
Dan looks at it this way: “Things don’t come easy. If you work hard and persevere and you treat people with respect, good things happen in return.”
For more information, visit the Miracle League of San Diego Website:
The 2012 spring eight-week season will begin in March. Registration is available online.
Dan and Suzie Engel
Dan and Suzie Engel are the co-founders of the Miracle League of San Diego, a nonprofit baseball league for children with physical and mental disabilities in the spring and fall. Now in its fifth year, it just completed its tenth season.
B.A. in economics from UCLA, 1983, and a joint M.B.A. in real estate and a law degree from UC Berkeley, 1986-87.
B.A. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, 1986.
Married “20-plus” years, they have two children, son, Sam, 17, and daughter, Jordan, 14, both students at Canyon Crest Academy.
“The Unincorporated Woman,” a science fiction novel, by Dani and Eytan Kollin.
“Stumbling on Happiness,” by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.
“White Collar” and “Suits”
“Breaking Bad” and “Sons of Anarchy”
“North by Northwest”
“Defending Your Life,” starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep.
“My ringtone: the Bobby McFerrin song: ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ Another part of my philosophy really is you have to work hard for things. Things don’t come easy. If you work hard and persevere and you treat people with respect, good things happen in return.”
“He’s a ‘glass half full’ guy. We complement each other.”