Archive for the ‘Sports Profiles & Stories’ Category

The Miracle of Baseball

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On the morning of May 18, 2010, Adam Stafford was in a car on his way to school in Central, Louisiana, with his friend Loyd and Loyd’s older sister, Hailey. Adam was a pitcher on the Central Private baseball team, even though he was only a freshman. Hailey, who had just graduated the Friday before, was a standout basketball player.

But before they could get to school, they were involved in a head-on collision with another car. Both Loyd and Hailey suffered severe injuries, as did the driver of the other car, a young woman named Brittany.

But Adam got the worst of it. His head injuries were so serious that he had to have immediate surgery to reduce the swelling around his brain. He was then put in a medically-induced coma.

He didn’t come out of the coma for over a year.


Although he dabbled in basketball and football, the game that meant the most to Adam Stafford was baseball.

“Baseball was his life, it was everything to him,” Adam’s mom, Haylie Dufour, said.

A left-handed pitcher, Adam not only made his high school team as a freshman, he was one of their starters. One summer he played on three different travel teams. He was a last-minute fill-in on one of those and proceeded to help the team get to the championship.

A week before the accident, Adam was where he usually was when the weather was good: out on the baseball field.

But a lot can change in seven days.

“The doctors told me [at one point] to take him off the ventilator,” Haylie said. “We had funeral arrangements made and were going to sign organ donor forms.”

But then a funny thing happened. Knowing how much Adam liked baseball, one day the doctors decided to put a ball in his hand to see if something might happen.

And, it did.

Although technically still in a coma, Adam cocked his arm back like he was on the mound about to deliver the ball to the plate.

It was that kind of thing that kept hope alive for Haylie and the rest of the family. To further see if baseball would help, and because the doctors told her familiar smells could help wake him up, Haylie put Adam’s mitt on his face.

The glove didn’t have the same effect as the ball, yet Haylie knew her son was still in there somewhere.

And, he was.

Now, over two years later, and after numerous surgeries and procedures, Adam has come a remarkably long way. Although standing can still be difficult and he can’t yet speak (though he is able to communicate with head nods), Haylie says he is much more aware of things going on around him.

“He knows everybody, he knows everything.”

And she and her family have gotten a ton of support from their community. To help with expenses, bracelets with the phrase “Stafford Strong” were created and sold around Central shortly after the accident. Many people bought them, including a group Adam knew well: the LSU baseball team, who wore them during their SEC tournament.

But the town didn’t stop there. The Stafford Strong Baseball Tournament was started to provide additional support for Adam. The first one raised enough money to have an addition put on their home to aid in his rehabilitation. Hundreds of volunteers came out to help build it.

But the community wasn’t finished. The Stafford Strong tournament has now become an annual event. In 2011, the proceeds allowed Adam to travel to New Orleans to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment, something that was not covered by insurance, but has really helped, his mom said.

The 3rd annual Stafford Strong Baseball Tournament occurred recently, and again many generous people donated money for Adam’s treatments.

Not long after the accident, Adam’s aunt, Elliot Coates, began a website through Caring Bridge to help keep people informed of Adam’s progress, and it’s also a place to lend support or donate money. The site has had over 240,000 visitors.

Elliot calls Adam’s recovery a miracle.

Even if he can no longer play baseball, Adam still likes watching it. He’s often taken to see the Central Private team play, as well as to the games of his little brother Rush who is following in big brother’s footsteps.

And for Adam, the fact that he can still do that – watch and enjoy the game he loves – might just be the biggest miracle.

Dirk Hayhurst Reflects on His Early Sports Years

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Dirk Hayhurst is an interesting fellow. A star pitcher in high school and at Kent State, a long career in the major leagues appeared quite probable. But, as it seems to happen for all but a select few, things didn’t pan out just as he’d hoped.

Drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2003, Hayhurst spent six years in the minors before finally getting a brief call up to the big leagues in 2008. He then played for the Toronto Blue Jays for a season and then after a long stint on the Disabled List, for a Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Currently out of baseball, Hayhurst has turned his attention to another passion: writing. In the last couple of years he has written two books about his life playing ball and they have both gone on to become acclaimed New York Times best-sellers. Never one to mince words, Hayhurst reflected on his often fun but at times frustrating experiences playing youth sports.

For the Hayhurst clan, baseball is kind of a family tradition, and Dirk began playing because his father played as well as his grandfather.

“I think I started playing before I really understood what it meant to our society.” Hayhurst says. “Back then, it was just a fun reason to run around like an idiot and consume heavily sugared drinks.”

His earliest baseball memories are from the age of around six.

“I can remember playing third base in a T-ball league,” he says. “I can also remember stepping up to the plate and being asked what side I hit from and telling the coach I didn’t know. My dad shouted from the stands, ‘He’s a lefty.’ The coach had to show me where that was.”

Hayhurst says that although he did attempt to play other sports, he learned early on that baseball was really the only one he was good at.

“I tried to play basketball and got cut. I tried to wrestle and got cut. I tried to play football and got my arm broken. The pitcher’s mound was the safest place for me to be since I was essentially a non-athlete in every other sense of the word. I did, however, dominate at speech and debate!”

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the gregarious Hayhurst loved being the center of attention when he played.

“My family would gush over how well I was doing. My grandparents would be so proud. I’d get taken to pizza (my favorite food at the time) places a lot. It was motivation to do well. When we lost, my mom would say, ‘it’s okay, you did your best.’ But, when we won, she’d get me treats. I think as you grow older, life still provides incentives like that…just replace treats with cards, or contracts, or big screen televisions.”

Growing up, Hayhurst watched and respected the pros who played his position.

“I’ve always been a big Trevor Hoffman fan. I admired Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz —they were an invincible trio of pitching mastery. In later years I would come to greatly admire Roy Halladay for his incredible work ethic, and Jamie Moyer for reinventing himself and hanging on as long as he has.”

Hayhurst says that he first really started thinking about pursuing a pro career when he was in high school.

“I was doing really well and scouts were showing up to games. There was lots of hype. Of course, I didn’t realize what the hype meant so I thought, at any moment, I was going to get offered a bazillion dollars to pitch in the big leagues. I had no idea I’d spend six years kicking around the minors after spending four in college.”

Hayhurst considers his greatest achievement from those days not an award or any championship he won, but something much more valuable.

“Learning to fail with grace. Life is about overcoming little obstacles both big and small. You have to summon the fortitude to face a challenge, commit to beating it, and then, should you fail, be strong enough to start the process over again for the next challenge. You fail a lot in sports, and that’s perfectly okay as long as you don’t think of yourself as a failure.”

Over the years Hayhurst learned another important lesson that “baseball is an accessory to life, not life [itself]. I really wanted to become a pro. So bad in fact, that when I failed on the field, I thought of myself as a failure at life. That wasn’t true, but I wanted baseball so badly I couldn’t even think of my life as meaningful with out it. I was very wrong about that. Life is much bigger than baseball.”

And if he could go back to that Little League diamond, walk up to his younger self on the mound and tell him something, it would be this: “Enjoy it while it lasts. Soon, your world will be full of big expectations from you and others. You’ll have responsibilities and obligations that will try to distract you. Right now everything is new, fresh, unique. It’s a gift, one you won’t realize until you’re older, but it is. Cherish it. Oh, and stop crying when you strike out.”

Although things haven’t gone exactly as he would have liked, Dirk Hayhurst certainly seems to be content with where he is right now. Those early years of triumphs and failures taught him a lot, and as he transitions into his new career, those lessons will continue to serve him well.

Matt Antonelli Fondly Recalls His Youth Sports Experience

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When you talk to Matt Antonelli, the first thing that comes across is his enthusiasm. You get the feeling that whatever he had chosen to do with his life, he would have jumped in with both feet and tried his absolute best. He just happened to pick baseball. And although his career has yet to really take off, Antonelli always seems upbeat and positive.

Drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2006, Antonelli excelled through the minors and got a call up to the big leagues at the end of the 2008 season. His first career hit came in his first at-bat against future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Since then Antonelli has spent time in the organizations of the Nationals and Orioles and is now with the Yankees.

He began playing sports “before [he] can even remember. As a kid I always had a ball or puck with me throughout the day and was always outside involved in some type of sporting event,” he says.

In addition to baseball, Antonelli somehow found the time to play hockey, soccer, and basketball. In high school he swapped soccer for football.

“I’ve just always loved playing sports. I can remember a lot of days as a kid where I would go from a baseball practice to a hockey game and would have to change uniforms while riding in the car.”

Like many youngsters, Antonelli got started playing because of his father. “My dad was a big sports fan. He played all kinds of sports growing up…so I guess it just rubbed off on me.”

In fact, Antonelli’s dad was also his Little League coach which accounted for many memorable moments. “I’m sure the numerous ejections and argued balls and strikes may have something to do with it, but it was a lot of fun playing with all your friends and having your dad as the coach.”

Antonelli recalls that time very affectionately.

“Some of my fondest memories are from my Little League days. I actually can still remember exact at-bats from when I was 12-years-old. When I think back it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was out there playing. My friends from back home still argue about whose teams were better. It’s funny that we don’t fight much about our high school or college teams, but Little League is what causes all the arguments.”

Over the years, Antonelli was fortunate enough to play on many good teams.

“I played on a lot of great teams as a kid where we did a lot of winning, as well as learning. We won the Little League Championship twice which may not seem like a big deal, but Little League was something I took a lot of pride in. I was lucky enough to win a State Championship in high school baseball, and played in the State Championship for our high school football team.”

Although a naturally gifted athlete, Antonelli never took that for granted and always strived to get better.

“I think I’ve tried to continue to learn and improve myself as a player ever since I was a little kid. Sports were something that I always did to have fun and be with friends, but it was also something that I took very serious and [I] always had dreams of being a professional player. I think that is the biggest reason why I have had the opportunity to play sports as a career. I’ve always taken pride in practicing hard and improving my abilities, even at a young age.”

Antonelli has now turned that work ethic into something he hopes will help future baseball stars. He’s created a YouTube page that features videos of players demonstrating different aspects of the game that he says has gotten a lot of good feedback.

In addition to participating, growing up, Antonelli watched a lot of sports (and that hasn’t changed; he says it’s still his biggest hobby), and he particularly admired his fellow shortstops.

“I was a huge Alex Rodriguez fan when he played in Seattle and Texas, but being a diehard Red Sox fan as a kid that all changed once he arrived in New York. (Funny that I am now with the Yankees organization). The player that I admired the most was probably Nomar Garciaparra. Like I said, the Red Sox was my favorite team and shortstop was my position, so choosing a favorite player was pretty easy. Nomar was such an impressive player, both offensively and defensively. His ability to put the bat on the ball was something I always marveled at. And he always played the game hard and the right way.”

It was around his junior year in high school when Antonelli began entertaining the notion of becoming a pro.

“I started receiving a lot of attention from college teams and started to speak with professional scouts around that time. Once I was drafted after my senior year of high school I knew that if I wanted I could begin my professional career at that time. I instead decided to attend Wake Forest University and delay my career as a professional baseball player for three years.”

Antonelli often thinks about his time playing youth sports and there’s one thing from that time that he cherishes more than anything else.

“Probably the best part of playing sports is the relationships you establish and the friendships you make. I’ve made so many friends that I still keep in touch with today.”

It’s obvious that Matt Antonelli loved playing youth sports and that he obtained a lot of his skill and ability during that time. And even now as he competes against high-caliber athletes in games that aren’t just for fun anymore, those days never seem to be too far from his mind.

“I really enjoyed those years,” he says, summing things up nicely.

Early Season Chills

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About an hour before the Beavers are set to play the Fresno Grizzlies in the second game of the season, I peer out into centerfield. Through a steady stream of rain I see the temperature on the electronic board: 46 degrees. Frankly I’m surprised it’s that warm. Isn’t baseball supposed to be played in warm weather under sunny skies? Aren’t you supposed to take in a game wearing shorts and drinking a cold beer, instead of a parka and hot chocolate?

Out of the cold and into the nice warm clubhouse I talk to manager Randy Ready. Ready’s new to Portland and when I ask him about dealing with inclement weather, he has an optimistic view.

“We got a great [field] surface with the new surface put down this winter and so far it looks like it’s holding up. The scoreboard’s going to dictate how we’re going to play the game so I don’t think the weather is really a factor.”

Wondering how many rainouts it’ll take before Ready becomes as irritated at the rain as most out-of-towners, I delve deeper into the clubhouse. I find relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst digging into a bowl of Raisin Bran. Hayhurst played for the Beavers last season but not until later in the year. How does he feel about playing in less than ideal weather?

“I love being here this part of the year,” Hayhurst says, “it reminds me of the mid-west, Ohio. Kent State especially is very overcast, it’s cold. I can remember a lot of college games where we cleaned snow off the field before we played. That is fine by me, I like cold, I like dreary and I’m okay with that because that’s what I grew up with. It kind of makes me feel closer to home.”

So how does he kill time during rain delays?

“We sneak in [the clubhouse] and get hot chocolate and coffee and see what’s going on on Cartoon Network, well, me Cartoon Network, other guys it’s probably ESPN, but that’s boring, I want to see Sponge Bob.”

As a reliever, Hayhurst is used to a lot of downtime. He writes the Non-Prospect Diary for Baseball America (the true account of the minor leagues, he says) and always carries a notebook with him. Even in the bullpen you can catch him jotting things down when inspiration strikes.

Further into the clubhouse several other players are listening to music, playing cards and there’s even a heated game of Connect Four going on. Relief pitcher Paul Abraham and second baseman Matt Antonelli are lounging on a couch watching basketball on TV and I ask them what they do to pass the time during delays in the action.

“I tend to eat a lot of food during rain delays, that’s how I kill the hours,” says Abraham. “Eat food, listen to some music, pretty much what you’re seeing now.”

Perpetually smiling Antonelli nods in agreement but adds “They [other players] like playing cards but I don’t play a lot of cards.”

“I just like hanging out with this guy right here,” Abraham says, playfully grabbing Antonelli’s head.

Forty minutes before the game is supposed to start the board in center says the temperature is down to 44. Now there’s a cold breeze blowing and I’m shivering in my thin sweatshirt. I decide to call my wife to see if she can bring me something warmer. With nothing better to do and the promise of a ballpark hotdog, she mercifully comes to my rescue.

Slowly the rain subsides and the game starts on time. With my third hot chocolate in hand and a much warmer coat on, I settle in to watch. Baseball is truly a great game, but in Portland in April, it’s also a very chilly one.

A Family Affair

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My father never wanted to coach my brothers or me in Little League because he always thought he’d have a tough time remaining impartial with us on his team. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to face the fact that he might have to bench one of us.

After years of playing on teams where the “star” players were the coaches’ sons (and yes, some of those kids should have been benched), I could see my Dad’s point. But I often wondered what it would have been like with him sitting in the dugout instead of on the bleachers.

Portland outfielder Will Venable certainly knows what that’s like – his father Max is the Beavers hitting coach. I asked the Venables what it’s like working together.

“It’s great to be able to come to work everyday and have your Dad there,” Will says. “It’s fun. It’s great to be able to spend time with him, I’m fortunate.”

Max, a twelve-year major league veteran, genuinely seems to enjoy having Will on the team although he does admit there can be some anxiety. “So far it’s been good. For myself, [you do get] a little nervous watching your own kid perform everyday.”

And, he says, there’s never any preferential treatment for Will.

“I treat him just like everybody else; everyone like I treat my son, there’s no difference at all. As far as work, he’s just like one of the guys giving 100 percent. Anytime we’re here it’s straight up business; baseball talk, the information I have I give it to him.”

Will agrees. “I think what everyone respects about [Max] is that he’s really professional, really laid-back and having me around is no different than if it was any other situation. He treats me like everyone else, I treat him like one of the coaches. Mutual respect and professionalism on the field.”

But is there any additional stress coming to the plate with your Dad standing over there coaching first? Not for Will.

“It’s just business as usual. There’s no added pressure or anything like that.”

Indeed, Will is used to Max coaching him. In 2006 he was the hitting coach for the Single-A Ft. Wayne Wizards where Will was a starting outfielder.

And having his Dad around appears to be encouraging. With Ft. Wayne Will batted .314 with 91 RBI. The next year he moved up to Double-A San Antonio while Max went on to coach at Lake Elsinore. With the Missions Will saw his average drop to .278. And now, reunited once again with his father, so far he’s batting .295.

Overall both Max and Will seem happy to be on the same time. They realize how ever-changing minor league baseball is and are relishing the time they get to spend together.

Will sums it up nicely: “A lot of these guys, their parents don’t get to see them play everyday and one of mine does and that’s definitely sometime special.”

The Patch of Agony

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Picture this: you’re giving a presentation in the boardroom in front of several co-workers. Things are going very smoothly; your opening joke about the Accounting Department got a nice laugh and everyone’s paying attention.

But then you pull up the next Power Point slide and it’s the wrong one. All of a sudden you’re blanking on last month’s sales figures. Your audience is starting to fidget; you’re losing them. You try another joke but it falls flat. You can feel your face getting red and the sweat starting to form on your forehead.

The next thing you know your supervisor stands up, takes the note cards from your hands, and tells you to have a seat. He hands the cards to Bob and Bob finishes the presentation.

Now, this probably doesn’t happen too often in the real world (although if it did it might make board meetings more interesting), but for pitchers, it’s something that occurs all the time. They’re out on the mound, trying to do their job and, if they’re having an off day or maybe make a couple of bad pitches, they could be asked to relinquish the baseball.

But unlike Bob who might get chewed out in the manager’s office for faxing the wrong report to the Delaware office, a pitcher’s dressing-down could take place in front of thousands of people.

So what’s it like to be yanked from a game? A few Portland Beavers gave me some interesting answers.

What’s it like when you see the manager come out to get you? What’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

Dirk Hayhurst: Usually you know it’s going to happen before it does. It’s rarely ever “Oh my gosh, what is he doing out here?” I do this thing where I look down, pretend that he’s not really walking out towards me. It’s a defeated feeling and it’s not so much that he’s coming out there because you have to suck it up and hand him the ball, but it’s that walk back from the mound into the dugout you just feel like you’re walking under water, it’s so foreign. You spend all your time out there, I’ve been playing on that thing since I was a little kid, I run across that grass all the time, I pitch off that mound, I’m at home out there as I’m going to get. But as soon as I give that ball back and have to walk by myself the other direction while the other fielders stay out there I just want to get up and go so fast but you can’t, you have to keep your head up, be tough. It might be the longest walk in baseball, the patch of agony between the mound and the dugout.

Paul Abraham: First of all you think you failed, failed your team. Obviously I didn’t do my job. If you’re a reliever you have to have a caveman mentality, in one ear and out the other. The next day you have to be ready to go out there and do it again. That feeling is bad when you see that guy trotting out there. At first there’s hatred towards the coach, but then you realize the team needs somebody else in here right now to face this next guy because I don’t have my best stuff today, so you get over it quick. But when you see him coming out of the dugout it’s horrible, I hate it. As the competitor that I am I get angry. At first I’m angry but then after a while I kind of assess the situation and come to terms with it but it’s never good.

Adam Bass: For the most part you have a pretty good idea of when things are starting to get out of control and when the manager might be more likely to make a move. You never want to see him coming out to get you because as a competitor you’re always wanting to get out of your own jams. You got yourself into this jam, you want to get out of it. You don’t want to turn it over to somebody else. It’s frustrating because you’re sitting [in the dugout] helpless watching your runners on base and you don’t want them to score and if they do you can’t necessarily blame the other guy for it, it’s your own mess that you created. Obviously nobody ever wants to get pulled out of a game but it’s necessary if things start snowballing.

Would you ever admit you need to be taken out?

Hayhurst: Sure, there are times you need to be taken out. I gave up back to back to almost back homeruns in Springfield and a third one was over the fence and our centerfielder…grabbed it and almost fell over the fence, that would have been three in a row. And when he came out to get me that time – it was Randy – and asked for the ball, I said, “Well, I guess I didn’t have it today.” It’s the truth, sometimes you go out there and you don’t have it and you hope you battle through it.

Abraham: There are absolutely times where you think I wish he would have pulled me two hitters ago. When you’re out there struggling and you can’t throw a strike or you’re getting banged off the walls. There’s times when you’re like I think it’d be great if Megrew or Hayhurst or somebody else came in here and get this guy out to get me out of this jam.

Bass: I would never admit that I couldn’t get out of a situation. If you’re ever on the mound and you believe that you can’t get out of a situation then you don’t have any business being [there]. If you’re not 100 percent confident that you’re capable of getting the job done regardless of what has happened leading up to that point you have to be confident that you’re going to make the next pitch and you can execute the job and get out of the situation. Obviously sometimes you need a third party to step in and say in this situation you’re not going to make the pitch, we need to bring somebody in that’s more capable, or you’re stuff’s just not there today or bring somebody in that’s a better match-up for this hitter or whatever the situation might be. As a competitor very few times you’ll find somebody who wants to come out or admit they need to.

Do you always think you can get that next hitter?

Hayhurst: It’s not like you want to quit and you’re never going to back down but sometimes you know you just don’t have it and it’s probably better off to hand it to someone else in this situation.

Abraham: I’d say about eighty percent of the time you want to stay in there to get that next guy. You always want to get that guy out yourself. You want to finish what you started.

Bass: Absolutely.

Why is This Man Smiling?

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The first thing you can’t help but notice about the Beavers’ second baseman is his smile. It just always seems to be there, stretched across his friendly face. During batting practice, waiting out a rain delay, or even answering questions he’s probably been asked a hundred times, it never seems to fade. So why is Matt Antonelli always smiling?

Could it be because it’s taken him less than two seasons to make it from Single-A up to Triple-A?

Or perhaps it’s because baseball might only be his third best sport? In 2003, Antonelli was the Massachusetts Player of the Year in both football and hockey, but only the runner-up in baseball.

Is it due to a stellar college career at Wake Forest – where he batted .333 in 219 at bats – after which he was drafted 17th overall by the Padres and received a $1.5 million signing bonus?

Maybe it’s because he just turned twenty-three (although he looks about fourteen) and he’s the number two prospect in the Padres’ organization. But then again, perhaps it’s a nervous smile; surely being such a top prospect adds a lot of pressure?

“Not really,” he says. “I don’t really look at the prospect list or anything like that. I’m just going to keep trying to do whatever it takes to get up there [the majors] and not worry about if I’m number two or five or ten or whatever prospect it is, just try to get up there.”

Is that smile the result of his terrific 2007? After the promotion to the Double-A San Antonio Missions, Antonelli batted .294 with a .395 OBP and helped lead the team to the Texas League championship.

“[I’m] just trying to…hopefully improve on all the things I did last year and just get a little bit better at everything.” (Perhaps it’s a smile derived from modesty?)

Could it come from his versatility, and the confidence he has that you could put him almost anywhere and he’d succeed? Originally a third baseman, he’s also spent time at short and some believe he could play all three outfield positions.

Might that smile be a result of his promising new team and its excellent blend of players?

“Everyone seems excited and ready to go play,” he says. “It seems like a good mix of older guys, some veterans, and some younger guys.”

And – although he’s not known for his speed – maybe that smile is for those triples he hit in each of his first two games with the Beavers. (In his previous 191 games he had only seven).

Perhaps it’s due to his manager Randy Ready who has nothing but good things to say about him.

“Matt’s a refreshing young man. He’s got all the right tools to play at the major league level with his makeup included. Strong work ethic, great attitude, his ability to apply information is what’s propelling him. This guy loves to play.”

Most likely the answer comes from a combination of all of the above. Wherever he ends up, whatever position he ends up playing, Matt Antonelli seems destined for big things. And that ever-present smile tells you he’s enjoying every minute of the ride.