A line of children was forming around home plate on a little league diamond in Walnut Creek, just outside Austin, Texas. CTX Ability Sports was holding their first ever Legends for Youth Baseball Clinic, specifically catered for children with disabilities and their siblings. The kids had various disabilities. Some were in wheelchairs with their brother/sister behind them to help push, others with down syndrome and other learning disabilities. They were all there to run the bases. It was 60 feet to first base but it really just looked like freedom. Professional baseball players had come from the neighboring cities in uniform to cheer the kids on as they ran the bases one by one.
The kids didn’t have to hit a ball, nobody was keeping score. This was their moment. They stood at home plate waiting for the coach to yell Go! And they took off sprinting to first and second…and home.
There’s this small boy waiting in line to run the bases, not so much small as undersized. The boy was wearing a hat twice the size of his head, like an ant carrying a walnut. Under the ball cap were fresh scars, over 40 stitches, forming a hexagon shape across the top of his shiny scalp. His name is DJ Mojica. DJ takes off his helmet and subconsciously runs his tiny fingers along the grooves formed by the staples holding his fragile cranium together. DJ looks up and fixes his gaze on first base. He’s next in line. He digs in on the batters box just like the big leaguers do it. GO!
Hundreds of family and friends lining the bases cheered.
On May 29, 2011, DJ was taken to the ER for the first time. He was only 17 months old at the time. He’d been vomiting for days. Lots of swabs and blood tests revealed nothing. Frustration was beginning to set in. The doctor persisted, “I want to do a CT of his brain to rule anything further out.” Ashlei was pregnant with her second child Jaxen, so she couldn’t go in with DJ during the CT scan, but her husband Rocky went. The scan was fast. The doctor came out and told Ashlei, “Mrs. Mojica, your son has intercranial bleeding. He is being intubated now and is having emergency brain surgery.” Ashlei was confused and taken aback. She protested, “I’m sorry, but you have the wrong child. You can’t know that. We just left the scan room.” The doctor looked her straight in the eye and repeated himself. “Mrs. Mojica, your son’s brain is bleeding. They are placing a breathing tube. He will be having emergency brain surgery right now.”
And the world fell apart around them. DJ was rushed into surgery. The neurosurgeon removed a malignant tumor that took up 1/4 of DJ’s brain cavity. Two surgeries, 6 rounds of radiation, and 3 stem cell transplants later, DJ was cancer free. It’s the kind of physical battering that would kill most children. But he had fought through it and come out the other side clean.
Until two years later in November 2013, when the cancer returned. DJ had his 4th brain surgery just before his 4th birthday. He would have his 5th surgery again in February of this year when cancer was detected in the scar tissue.
And that is the Reader’s Digest version of how a 4 year-old kid weighing 30 lbs. beat cancer 3 times.
DJ loves two things: The Incredible Hulk and Ranger’s baseball. When I met DJ for the first time I asked him what he wanted more than anything else – insurance had covered all his medical bills. DJ thought for a moment and meekly whispered in my ear, “I want to play baseball.”
Twenty miles from Walnut Creek, 50 year-old John Lorek drives his old Dodge Intrepid by an empty plot of land a few blocks from his home in the small town of Hutto, Texas. John’s son, Ryne, has cerebral palsy. John had been driving past the empty plot for 3 years with an idea. The empty lot was rough, the topsoil only an inch deep – a dusty coverlet above a hard rock strata. John decided it was the best plot of land in Texas. You see, the small township had no facility for special needs children yet there were hundreds of disabled children in the area. The town simply didn’t have the money to pay for the kind of field that would be needed. But there was this plot of land. And John drove past it every day.
Reverend David McLain is a jovial young Pastor at the Bridge Church in Hutto. He’s well respected in the area, despite his love for the Oklahoma Sooners. The Church had purchased 70 acres near the water tower in Hutto. David’s phone rang one morning and there was an energetic voice on the other end of the line. It was John Lorek. John started telling they pastor all about how a baseball diamond would change so many young lives in the area, and he had been driving by this plot of land. David cut him off, “John, we don’t have much money, but I understand the importance of sports. You can have the plot of land.”
Just like that, there was hope. But there was no money. John was determined to get the field built even if he had to go door to door collecting $5 at a time. There were bake sales and golf tournaments; and he’d applied for over 200 grants from other non-profits, declined by all except for Smiles for Sammy. Over the years John had managed to cobble together $10,000. A noble effort, but a special-needs baseball diamond isn’t cheap. They needed expertise in that field, so to speak. John needed something big.
Cal Ripken, Sr. is a legend in baseball history. He worked with the Baltimore Orioles as a player, scout, manager, and coach throughout an impressive 37-year career. After he passed away in 1999, his sons wanted to create an organization that would carry on the memory of their father. Cal Sr. had used baseball as a platform to teach his boys about leadership, work ethic, responsibility, and healthy living. The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation was founded by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Bill Ripken in 2001 with those very principles in mind. The Foundation uses baseball as the bridge to reach at-risk and special needs youth.
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation doesn’t usually build fields in suburbia. Kevin Bingham, COO of the Ripken Foundation told me, “We won’t build fields in wealthy, suburban areas. We build fields where the need is greatest. Kids in the impoverished pockets of towns and cities deserve a chance to play our national pastime same as everybody else. So do kids with disabilities. Kevin smiled, “Oh, and we usually make the outfield fence only about 100 feet out. Because we think these kids should know what it’s like to hit one out of the ballpark.”
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation now impacts nearly one million children in 250 cities every year through baseball. Nobody knows how to build a field better than these guys. Just one last big piece: the money.
I sat at our local bar one evening with Brian Mercedes. He’s my brother-in-law and the executive director of Chive Charities. His father is from the Dominican Republic. Brian moved to the Dominican Republic in 2005 to volunteer and worked on the island for four years until 2009. In the impoverished parts of the DR (which is most of it), they say that the only way you’ll ever leave the island is if you go pro in baseball. The island has produced many MLB players including David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa.
The cost of the field would exceed $250,000 to do it right. Can we do this? Brian thought about it. “We have a chance here to change so many lives, not just DJ’s. It would be such a great thing for the community. We should go big with this – $200,000 and ask the Chivers to drive home the remaining $50,000. And so it goes…”
When we gave John the news he broke down. His search was over. We didn’t really want the credit for building the field – the Chivers don’t care about those things. But John insisted it be called KCCO Ability Field and he had his serious face on, so we agreed.
There’s more of this amazing story in the photos below, and you can donate RIGHT HERE!
UPDATE #1: We hit $15,000 the first time I refreshed the page. Here we go!
UPDATE #2: $20,000
UPDATE #3: $30,000!!!
UPDATE #4: $45,000 in less than an hour and donations coming in even faster now. If you’re new to theCHIVE and unfamiliar with what happens once the goal is hit, watch this…
UPDATE #5: $50,000 in just over an hour!!!
UPDATE #6: $65,000 five minutes after we hit the 50k goal.
UPDATE #7: $70,000
UPDATE #8: $80,000!!!
UPDATE #9: $90,000
UPDATE #10: $100,000 in less than 3 hours. Holy smokes!!!
UPDATE #11: We just blew by $120,000!!
UPDATE #12: $130,000 and no sign up stopping even at this late hour.
UPDATE #12: $140,000!!!
UPDATE #13: $150,000!!!!!!!!