Once in a lifetimeYankees provide hope, joy to Beautiful People
Sitting comfortably in a luxury box outside of the Lou Gehrig suite as part of his first visit to Yankee Stadium, Joshua was enjoying a Thursday afternoon tilt between the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. It was the top of the third inning and the Yankees were trailing 2-0 thanks to Miguel Cabrera's two-run rocket into the right-center field bleachers off starting pitcher Phil Hughes. Joshua's favorite player is Mark Teixeira and he's primarily a first baseman on his own ball team.
Yes, Joshua's skill at the game has defied Spina bifida or anything else that dares challenge him. His team is part of the Beautiful People, an organized league allowing kids with a difficulty or a disability a chance to play sports. This season Josh has become quite versatile, spending time at second and third base. Looking ahead to what was to be a game on Yankee Stadium's field paired with Yankees players and coaches, Joshua promised he would show these pros a few tricks. He wasn't kidding either. Just ask Javier Vazquez.
"He showed me how to stand here ... like this?" said Vazquez. It was 10 minutes after the game, 120-plus minutes after the Yankees rallied to destroy the Tigers 11-5. Vazquez makes his living on a pitching rubber and not 45 or so feet between first and second base, so Joshua had to remind him to keep his glove and hand on the dirt to be prepared for when a ground ball comes his way.
There is something Vazquez, a father of three, has in common with Joshua's parents, Chris and Joan. His daughter, Kamila, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of two. Vazquez founded K's for Kids while in Chicago to benefit diabetes research. He holds an annual K's for Kids Gala to raise funds for diabetes prevention, treatment and research, and is wholly aware of challenges different parents and families can face.
"To lend a hand is something special," Vazquez said. "God creates different people and that's just the way it is. We can live with whatever we have and the most important thing is to try and live it to the fullest."
The Yankees honored children and supporters of Beautiful People by inviting 18 kids to Yankee Stadium for what they thought would be simply watching a ball game. At 11:30 Thursday morning, Teixeira announced that these kids would participate in a game with Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Lance Berkman, Vazquez, Boone Logan and Austin Kearns, along with Yankees coaches Dave Eiland, Mick Kelleher, Rob Thomson and former Yankee David Cone. The word had spread quickly. NBC's "The Today Show" was on location to film the happenings, as was the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore for what was to be a live shot of the events while providing New York City weather.
All this was because Peter Ladka, a self-employed owner of a software development company, had an epiphany. Ladka lives in Orange County, N.Y., and is a father of five healthy children. One day in 2006 he was playing T-ball with his daughter Brooke when it hit him: There are other children who aren't so lucky, ones with special needs who are left to ask why they cannot take part in activities with kids their own age. The following year, Beautiful People was launched with a spring season and has grown into a fall league with 80-100 kids.
"This is why I named the organization 'Beautiful People,'" Ladka said. "The name comes from the idea that as a community we want to say to these families, to these children, you're beautiful people to us. You're not some kid who should be in a corner because you're more difficult to deal with or has a challenge. You're a part of our community and we want to be a part of our lives, and we want you to be a part of ours. These are beautiful human beings and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Every kid got a chance to play in the three-inning game. Their names and faces were in full color on Yankee Stadium's HD screen above the Casio advertisement in right-center. And what's a game at Yankee Stadium without the support of the Bleacher Creatures? When word got to the group on what the Yankees had in store, they asked the team if they can stay after the game to watch Beautiful People play, and the Yankees took up on their offer. The only fans seated in a building with a capacity of 50,086, the creatures serenaded each kid with their roll call and chants when each took their turn at bat.
"The Bleacher Creatures were willing to help out however we can," said "Bald" Vinny Milano. "You kidding me? This is about as cool as it gets for us."
A.J. Burnett gestures while sharing a moment with Rebecca Tomczak. (AP)
"Back up punk!"
Lance Berkman had no choice. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Tomczak meant business when she felt that Berkman was intruding on her time with A.J. Burnett - "My A.J." Tomczak confirmed the story with a devious grin. She has Down Syndrome, but carries a lot of healthy spunk, and it's very contagious.
"I thought that was absolutely hysterical. She was very possessive of him," Berkman said. "And just watching the excitement that these kids have to get out here and play a little baseball. They never get a chance to be out on a Major League field. Seeing that was neat. They were almost beside themselves."
So was Burnett, within earshot of Rebecca while engaging in horseplay with other children, when Rebecca said Derek Jeter was her favorite player - and motioning in Burnett's direction "all of the guys except him." Her father, John, was returning from a vacation in Virginia when he received a call from Beautiful People director Jan Brunkhorst with the news that his daughter was going to Yankee Stadium. It was Rebecca's first year in the baseball program after she played soccer. Kids playing baseball the longest were given an invite, but since not all of them could attend, other names were placed in a hat. Rebecca's was one picked
"She couldn't stop talking about it for weeks when she heard she was coming," said John, also a father of two healthy younger boys. "The organization itself, Beautiful People, if you can go to them games they have for their kids, and just see their faces when they hit the ball and run to first base, or in the outfield when they catch that ball, you can't explain the joy it puts on their faces."
Joy spread around a crowd of 48,143 during the bottom of the fourth inning of the Tigers-Yankees game when a voice different from public address announcer Paul Olden read off the names of each Yankee stepping up to the plate. It was 16-year-old Daniel Fratto, one with immune deficiency syndrome and needing a 10-pound oxygen tank to live daily. Daniel isn't physically capable of playing baseball, but he found his niche, Beautiful People's P.A. man, so there he was with headsets on high above home plate, ready to announce Jeter to lead off the inning.
Since coming up to the Majors in 1995, only one man has ever announced Jeter at the plate at Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard, and that's continued via an audio recording after Sheppard stepped down in September 2007 and passed away last month. Olden and senior director of scoreboard and broadcasting Michael Bonner were about to run with the recording, until Bonner decided it was a special occasion and Jeter would understand. When Fratto read aloud, "Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, shortstop Derek Jeter, No. 2," the fans erupted and YES cameras caught Jeter wearing a big grin.
"That was probably the biggest thrill he had to announce a future Hall of Famer like that," Olden said. "He was very cool, very calm. He had a general idea of what he was supposed to do. We've had guest PA announcers before who were really intimidated when sitting there. When we opened the microphone they'd kind of whisper. I told him sit down, speak fully and forcefully, and give an enthusiastic feeling to it. He took to it right away."
Daniel Fratto, 16, one of "The Beautiful People," calls the plays during an on-field baseball game. (AP)
"I think the crowd picked up on the fact every time he said a Yankees' name something good would happen," Olden said with a laugh.
Berkman spent 11 years in Houston and heard stories about the occasional supernatural occurrences that took place at the old Yankee Stadium and have apparently relocated next door. He's been a Yankee for barely a month, but sensed immediately that there are a lot more to certain events than meet the eye. "This organization has a unique platform and a tremendous capacity for doing good things in the community, and this is one of the things I'm sure they're very proud of and they should be," he said. From his first day on earth, Joshua Decker's been a platform for living a life just like any other kid, and neither Spina bifida nor anything has a chance of stopping him.
"He's very ambitions, always wants job to do," said Chris Decker. "He always wants to cut wood and do everything I want to do. He wants to be a normal kid. Every once in a while he'll say, 'I can't do it I have Spina bifida,' but that's the rare occasion. Normally he just doesn't think there's anything holding him back. He can hammer nails. He can do everything else just like everyone else can."
The kid has a plan and the life he wants to lead will never be denied. His hope is everlasting. Just ask the Yankees and Beautiful People.
Visit Beautiful-People.us for more information on this great organization.