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Depew's 'miracle field' to offer baseball to children with disabilities

Perhaps no one watched over Depew's Dawson Field like Michael Kotz, who played Little League ball there in the late ‘50s.

Kotz, a retired Depew High School health teacher, recalled the halcyon years of Dawson. He lived them with his father, Adolf “Allie” Kotz, a longtime school custodian who pitched for the Buffalo Police Department's softball team against Alex "Puffball" Childs.

“I was always trying to get people to maintain it and keep it in good shape," said Kotz, 68, Depew's varsity baseball coach from 1974 to 2003. "My dad cared for it from ‘51 to ’78. When the village and the schools took it over, maintenance began to slip.”

Today the storied baseball diamond in the Village of Depew will once again become a field of dreams – and then some.

Planned construction of a “miracle field,” a custom-designed baseball diamond with wheelchair-accessible dugouts and rubberized turf, will provide accessibility for visually impaired or wheelchair-bound players on a parcel of land adjacent to Dawson.

Dawson is already receiving the attention of its new caretakers, who are sprucing up the grounds.

The tandem fields are part of a 10-year lease-to-own agreement between the Depew Union Free School District and the Lancaster Baseball Booster Club worth $140,000, said Bruce Stutz, chairman of the booster club.

“If we’re not including everyone, what are we doing?” said Stutz. “The town didn’t want it. It’s been there for years, and no one took an interest. Late last year, when we formed a chapter of the Miracle League, we were thinking Westwood Park, but with Dawson we could have the signature field plus a miracle field.”

The breakthrough followed years of uncertainty for the 93-year-old field on Columbia Avenue. The 6.37-acre parcel, located in the heart of a residential neighborhood, served as the former home of Depew High School’s football team and remained home for the high school’s baseball teams. It also hosted the American Legion Post 1528’s baseball team and decades of Little League teams.

The field was named after J. Emmett Dawson, who worked in the Depew school district for 42 years as a coach, athletic director and teacher.

The land was put up for sale by the Depew school district in May 2017 for between $160,000 to $170,000.

The contract was approved Aug. 20 during a regular meeting of the Depew Union Free School District board.

Detractors pointed to a lack of parking and $20,000 annual maintenance cost. Grass was cut sporadically. The backstop rusted. Neighbors gathered to share their concerns while developers envisioned residential rentals.

Kotz met with village and town officials, county legislators, the county parks commissioner – anyone who would listen.

“I was trying to think of the broadest approach. I documented benefits of keeping it as an open green space. The Scajaquada Creek runs close by Dawson,” Kotz noted.

Still, Kotz searched for a buyer.

Over at the Lancaster Baseball Booster Club, Stutz and other board members were scouting sites for a miracle field.

“Dawson Field has been on the radar for a long time,” said Stutz, 51. “We met Mike Kotz at the field in early spring, and he showed us around and gave us a folder with information of the history. Mike got the ball rolling.”

The booster club had received approval to form a Lancaster-Depew chapter of the Miracle League late in 2018. With that came the opportunity to construct a miracle field.

Demographics presented by Stutz and the booster club indicate more than 600 of the approximately 6,333 individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in Erie County live in Lancaster and Depew.

The Miracle League was conceived in metropolitan Atlanta during the late ‘90s to offer children with disabilities the opportunity to play organized baseball.

Locally, the Miracle League of Grand Island and WNY chapter was created in January 2011 as a nonprofit organization serving children ages 4 through 19. A multiyear construction project saw the installation of a field, pavilion, playground and parking lot at Veterans Park, 1717 Bedell Road on Grand Island.

“We toured the miracle field in Grand Island,” said Stutz. "It took them four years to build. We are targeting five years. The full complex cost $1 million.”

Recently, Dawson Field has come alive with members of the booster club led by Stutz mowing grass, weed wacking, painting bleachers and fixing fences. The tattered backstop was removed.

And Kotz is still watching.

“There were lots of people I talked to – friends and relatives, too,” Kotz recalled. “There was no winning and losing for me. It’s just an overwhelming feeling that a good thing is happening."

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