Kailey Lynn Watson (16) shows off her dance move with emcee, Jake Sapp. Extra Special People hosts its annual Big Hearts at Bat on Feb. 9, 2019 at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga. (Photo/Daniela Rico)

Contestants stepped up to the plate under sets of bright lights while a scoreboard towered behind them. They performed in front of a packed house of cheering fans.

Saturday’s events may sound like a baseball game, but it was actually the 12th annual Extra Special People Big Hearts pageant. The Big Hearts event serves as a major fundraiser for the Athens special needs support organization. The event consisted of a silent auction, a pageant and a banquet.

Baseball was the theme of the night. ESP outfitted The Classic Center theater stage with artificial turf, a baseball diamond and a scoreboard. The theme matched one of ESP’s fundraising initiatives: bringing a Miracle League team and complex to Athens.

Miracle League is an organization which makes baseball accessible to individuals with mental and physical disabilities through special fields and facilities. Even though the organization is based in Georgia, the closest Miracle League team is an hour away, Georgia baseball head coach Scott Stricklin said. Stricklin and the Georgia baseball team hosted ESP at Foley Field in August in an effort to announce a collaborated effort to bring Miracle League to Athens.

The pageant featured dozens of ESP members showing off their skills on stage, from ballet to basketball to boxing. The panel of judges consisted of multiple former Georgia baseball players, including Cincinnati Reds third baseman Kyle Farmer, as well as former Georgia Tech baseball player and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

“One of the best parts about being lieutenant governor is having the opportunity to find out about organizations like ESP and the huge impact they have on a community and the joys they bring to people’s lives,” Duncan said.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm assisted in MCing the event. Fromm served as an escort at last year’s pageant and returned for his second year, saying the organization is like a “fraternity.”

“It’s been fun,” Fromm said. “A lot of laughs and a lot of good times.”

The annual Big Hearts event started 12 years ago in the auditorium of Oconee County High School, ESP Director Laura Whitaker said. On Saturday, the event brought 2,112 attendees to the Classic Center, Whitaker said.

“Apparently there was quite the black market for tickets this year,” she said.

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