LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A friendly rivalry between two players in a nonprofit Las Vegas baseball league for differently-abled athletes captured the imaginations of their teammates, friends, family, and a supportive community.
Baseball’s greatest individual rivalries are cemented throughout time. In 1961, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battled for the throne of the single-season home run king, at that time inhabited by Babe Ruth. Thirty-seven years later, that fight raged again as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire slugged their way to the title Maris had earned decades earlier.
While those epic rivalries litter the pages of history books, one more local battle has captured the imaginations of Las Vegas sports fans. That is the home run chase between Ray Wheatley Deforge and Eric Bowman.
The Miracle League organization gives adults and children with special needs a chance to play baseball in what organizers describe as “a safe and nurturing environment.” In its thirteenth year, the league focuses on giving players their first opportunity to be part of a team, complete with coaches, teammates, and uniforms, with competition not prioritized.
However, there is a score on this Saturday morning game between the Diamondbacks and the Twins. Diamondbacks slugger Ray “Ray Ray” Wheatley Deforge and the Twins hitter Eric “Chipmunk” Bowman know exactly where they stand. For five years, the two have battled for the home run title.
Ray Ray is one of the top hitters in the Miracle League, and he knows it.
“I have to defend my title,” he said.
Chipmunk likens the chase to sports entertainment. Like a WWE pro-wrestler, he sees himself as the “face,” the good guy, and Ray Ray as his counterpart.
“He’s a good character, too, but in my mind, he’s the rival,” said Chipmunk. “Like — the enemy. I gotta get this guy.”
Each player has won the Miracle League home run crown twice. Miracle League executive director Roxanne Loyed knows each player is tuned in to the chase.
“Don’t think for a minute they don’t know where they stand,” Loyed said.
Chipmunk and Ray Ray
Better known to his fans and teammates as Chipmunk, Bowman works as a dishwasher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has lived in a group home for 10 years.
“I used to live with my dad, but I moved out,” Chipmunk explained. “I need to make myself look good and do what’s best for my life.”
Chipmunk made his athletic prowess known on the field in the early days of his Miracle League career.
“When we first met Eric a few years ago, he would circle the bases, do a standing backflip, and land on the plate,” said Loyed. “We were just amazed.”
Chipmunk isn’t shy.
“I have confidence in myself and my other teammates,” he said.
Ray Wheatley Deforge, or Ray Ray, shows up early to set up the ballpark for a day full of Miracle League games. He practices with his teammates and stays late to help with other players with special needs.
“I don’t practice at all,” Ray Ray said. “I’m just that naturally talented.”
For Ray Ray, the Miracle League field is where he gets to be himself.
“He tested positive for drugs and alcohol at birth,” said Lenny Deforge, Ray Ray’s adoptive father.
“In the real world, outside of Miracle League, people see his disability and tend to point it out and take advantage of it,” Deforge said. “This is one place where Ray can be Ray.”
Ray Ray savors his opportunities to compete, counting the days until his next on-field appearance.
“He looks at a calendar each week and marks off the day,” said Jason Oceans, Ray Ray’s coach. “He’s excited about bringing home another championship.”
As the season began to wind down, the chase for the home run crown began to heat up. With two games left in Miracle League play, the Diamondbacks slugger had yet to get on the board. Still, Ray Ray was determined yet patient.
“Wait to see if I get the right pitch,” he said. “Get it over the fence.”
Finally, Ray Ray connected, hitting a long, deep drive over the left field wall to the roar of his teammates and fans.
Ultimately, Chipmunk had gone yard three times in the season, topping Ray Ray’s one four-bagger. Chipmunk took the crown this time. However, Ray Ray’s Diamondbacks won the championship.
“We lost today, but there’s always next year,” said Chipmunk.
Ray Ray and Chipmunk will have their rematch. As hope springs eternal at the start of the new season, Miracle League players will return to defy the odds and forge new friendships, and undoubtedly, two friendly rivals will challenge each other yet again for the home run crown.
The fall season starts on Sept. 23. More information on the Miracle League of Las Vegas is available on its website.