When the right person is in the right place at the right time, miracles can happen. So it was with Sean Casey who was at Boyce Mayview Park in Upper St. Clair Saturday. Our little corner of the world is better because of it.
"The Mayor," they have called Casey since his playing days in the big leagues as a .302 career hitter and a three-time All-Star. To say he has a warm, wonderful, infectious personality wouldn't be doing him justice. It long was his dream to build a Miracle League field for special-needs kids and young adults in his hometown. There was just one problem. "I had never raised a dollar in my life," Casey said.
Now, more than $1 million later ...
The Pirates Charities Miracle League Field of the South Hills had its official opening Saturday morning. Somehow, it just seemed right that Casey caught the ceremonial first pitch from Genny Kanka, the younger sister of his wife, Mandi, and a special-needs player herself. A total of 135 athletes signed up for the opening day games, each with a buddy, who provided a lot of love and support and maybe a bit of help swinging the bat or getting around the bases.
"Please focus on what I can do rather than what I can't do," is the mantra of the special-needs players.
They put on some show under the sizzling sun. Pirates announcer Greg Brown introduced the players and called the action with his usual zeal. You would have thought it was Andrew McCutchen ripping a single to left. Certainly, each of the players had a smile just as bright as McCutchen's after a winning hit.
"It's all about these kids. It always has been," Casey said. "It's also an awesome statement about community. We're all Pittsburghers here. We came together and did something really good."
CentiMark was the first local company to donate $50,000 to Casey's cause. "They really got the ball rolling," Casey said. Nine other businesses soon stepped up and matched the $50,000, as did Casey. Pirates owner Bob Nutting donated $150,000 through Pirates Charities for the naming rights to the field. The team also was involved in the area's first Miracle League field in Cranberry Township and is supporting two more that are scheduled to open later this year in Wheeling, W.Va., and Murrysville.
Casey was the perfect front man.
Really, how do you say no to him?
"We're all going to be pushing up daisies one day and no one will care about what we did in our jobs," Casey said of his sales pitch. "So why not leave a legacy? The people who built this field will always be remembered."
Pirates pitchers Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli took part in the ceremonies fewer than 12 hours after they played big parts in a 1-0 win against the Chicago Cubs Friday night. Do you think it was a thrill for the special-needs players to get an autograph or take a picture with the big leaguers? Hanrahan and Grilli later pitched in the first game. How do you think it made those kids feel to bang the ball around the park off of those guys and hear the crowd's applause? Never did getting lit up feel so good for Hanrahan and Grilli.
Cubs starting pitcher Ryan Dempster, who was the tough-luck loser Friday night, also came out. His daughter, Riley, 3, has special needs. He and Casey were teammates with the Cincinnati Reds. He read of Casey's work with the Miracle League and sent what Casey called "a really big check" the next day.
"Anything Sean is behind, I'm there with him," Dempster said. "To me, just being here is more important than the check. To see these kids ...
"We as players have an opportunity to touch lives in some small way by what we do on the field. But here, what Sean is doing, it's changing lives. That's so much more important."
Shelly Gastgeb of Bridgeville is the proof. She's 37 and has non-verbal autism. When she was 12, she fell in love with baseball. Rather, she fell in love with then-Pirates manager Jim Leyland. "I told him she saw something in his eyes," Shelly's mother, Judy, said. Leyland quickly befriended the girl, but he also broke her heart by getting married to someone else. "I told her he was too old for her, anyway," Judy Gastgeb said, grinning.
For a long time, Shelly Gastgeb wouldn't leave the family's home except to go to Pirates games. Now, she has a second destination. "We probably come to this field three or four times a week," Judy Gastgeb said. "All she wants to do is bat off the tee and run the bases or use her father's old softball glove. This is such a blessing for us."
There were 134 other stories on that field Saturday. It's nice to think there will be hundreds more when word of the facility spreads.
"We're just getting started," Casey said. "I think if people come out to see it, they'll say, 'Wow! This is what it's all about. This is the right thing. This makes sense.' "
Stage 2 for Casey is a handicapped-accessible playground next to the Miracle League field. The price is high, almost $300,000, he said.
It's the right place for the playground.
It's the right time.
Casey is definitely the right man for the job.
Do you believe in miracles?roncook
Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 27, 2012 4:00 AM