Darek Braunecker had a dream . . . to become a big league baseball player. Sometimes things have a different way of turning out in life. But Braunecker isn't all that upset.

You see, his dream of playing major league baseball was short-lived but another dream took its place and now has become a big part of his life . . . the Miracle League.

Braunecker, a 1987 graduate of Effingham High School, headed off to college and then into Major League baseball. But a shoulder injury ended his baseball career and he again headed off, this time in another direction.

Braunecker became a player agent starting his own firm and from there he became involved in something far more important, the Miracle League.

"The Miracle League is an organization, a non-profit charity, that is an organized baseball league for children with disabilities and special needs," said Braunecker who now resides in Little Rock, Ark. "It's a national organization. We started the Arkansas chapter about two years ago.

"The Rotary Club of Little Rock generated funding for a baseball field. It's built especially for children of special needs. It's made of rubber with a diamond painted on it. It was a half million dollar building project. We've now had the Miracle League operational for the three years come this spring."

Braunecker who played baseball at EHS, went on to play for Vincennes University then transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He signed with the Montreal Expos in 1991 and played in the Expos system until 1993. Then he briefly played in the Cleveland Indians organization.

"I entered into the player agent business in 1997," said Braunecker. "My former coach at Little Rock was friends with some people that had a sports management company here in Little Rock, Stevens Sports Management. I came back and finished my degree after being released.

"I moved back to Effingham for a year and got a call from my former coach about the sports management, they had a small baseball practice and he gave them my name. He told me it was something I needed to consider.

"I was contemplating working in the front office of the Cleveland Indians at the time, but this was proposed to me so I started in January of 1997. I worked there for four years and built the baseball practice. We had about 10 clients when I started and when I left we had 45.

"I left there in 2001 and took my clients and started my own practice. I have operated independently with Braunecker Sports Counsel. Then a couple of years ago, I started another sports management company, Frontline Athlete Management, with two other agents on the West Coast and the East Coast. We currently represent about 50 baseball players, 21 of them are major league clients."

Some of Braunecker's clients include A.J. Burnett with the Toronto Blue Jays, Cliff Lee with the Cleveland Indians, Andrew Miller with the Florida Marlins, Jeff Francis with the Colorado Rockies, Mike Hampton with the Atlanta Braves and Ben Broussard with the Texas Rangers,

"I negotiate contracts for them," said Braunecker. "We handle all their business affairs. We negotiate their salaries."

After his business got off to a good start, Braunecker was approached about becoming involved in the Miracle League.

"I was approached by a couple of people here in little Rock once they had the funding in place for the field," said Braunecker. "Obviously I have some clients here locally. They came to me and asked if I could get a couple of my clients involved. I knew Cliff Lee would like to get involved and I told them I personally would like to get involved.

"I joined the board and from there it's kind of taken off. We started with 40 kids and we now have 120. We anticipate growing each and every season.

"What it does is provide every child with a disability or special need, an opportunity to play baseball. The most rewarding thing is seeing these kids just be kids for an hour and forget about their problems.

"We have a six week season in the spring and in the fall and we play every Saturday. The games last about an hour. There are no outs, everybody hits and everybody scores. We don't keep score and record outs.

"We went from the first weekend with 70 percent of the kids hitting off the tees and now, in our last fall game, we had only three hitting off the tees. Some of these kids have no motor skills. We hold the bats in their hands and allow them to hit. Never in their wildest dreams would they have thought they could play baseball.

"Probably the single most rewarding thing is seeing the parents just able to watch their children be children. They are the ones that have been devoid of seeing their children interact with other kids. When we're out on the field they are able to sit in the stands for an hour and just forget their issues.

"This past off-season we did our first fundraiser and we brought 12 of my major league clients into Little Rock. We had a camp for typical kids from 8 to 18 and then that evening we had a fundraiser at the minor league park. We had about 400 people come through and we raised $140,000 that night.

"This is the first time any fundraising has been done for this and we feel like we are creating a template for everyone. It's to raise awareness for special needs. We can build fields throughout Arkansas and eventually across the U.S.

"My adopted slogan is 'we're not trying to cure anything, we're just reacting to an opportunity.' This is something tangible, it's not going into science or research but just providing opportunities for the children here today.

"We are strictly volunteers. Often it's just to push a wheelchair. We have built the field at a current baseball facility so these kids are going at the ballpark just like typical kids. We bring typical children over from the other leagues and we have them buddy with the kids from special leagues. It allows interaction between the two and there's that natural inhibition if you haven't been around special needs kids. That breaks down the barrier.

"We have ages from 7- to 18-year-olds coming over and assisting. These kids develop friendships and it breaks down barriers. For that moment on the baseball diamond, they connect. It's built some really neat relationships. We have typical kids clamoring to come back and help out.

"We think it's a life lesson as well, for adults and kids. So you can see the various levels that affect people and it's a pretty neat deal. For me, it has become a passion. I'm fortunate that I have contacts and resources and we can incorporate all of this together."

Braunecker is the son of Russ and Brenda Braunecker of Effingham. He is married to wife Shelley and they have a three-year-old daughter, Ellie.

"Ellie goes to the park with me every Saturday," said Braunecker. "This is something you can see, touch and feel and it's so rewarding to those who participate and volunteer. Just to see the smiles on children's faces. That one hour every Saturday. It's the most fulfilling thing I've ever been involved in."

Millie Lange can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 123 or millie.lange@effinghamdailynews.com.

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