On Monday, the Yankees announced to their Twitter followers that the next five days would constitute HOPE Week. Called a week-long program that brings to light five remarkable stories intended to inspire individuals into action in their own communities, HOPE Week is about Helping Others Persevere & Excel, and when Vinny Milano saw the Twitter announcement, he immediately knew he had to get involved.
Better known to the Yankee world as Bald Vinny, leader of the Bleacher Creature, Milano fired back a reply to the Yankees. He offered up the his services and those of the Creature loyalists in the right field bleacher. A few days later on Thursday afternoon long after the Yankees had downed the Tigers and the stadium had emptied out, Milano and his friends found themselves back in their customary place conducting a different kind of roll call.
With the help of the Yankees’ staff, Bald Vinny and his crew chanted out the names of the children from The Beautiful People as these kids with special needs played a one-inning game with the Yankees. “The kids were turning around. The parents were turning around,” Vinny said to me. “People were coming up to us to tell us how cool it was.”
For Milano and the Creature, the act was a simple one that meant a lot to these children. “It just seemed like a perfect fit,” he said. “They were playing ball in our house and that’s how we do it at home.”
The Beautiful People is an organization based out of Orange County, New York, that works with children ages 5 to 21. They try to give these kids with special needs — such as one with Spina Bifida or another who needs an oxygen tank at all — the opportunity to play sports just as anyone else would. They started with baseball after founder Peter Ladka got the idea while having a catcher. “I’d been spending some time thinking about how my family and I could give back to the community,” Ladka said. “I just got the idea that there have got to be families out there with kids that don’t get to enjoy that opportunity that I was experiencing.”
Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees joined these children on the field to cheer them on. Each of the players held a sign, and the kids enjoyed an afternoon of play on the most famous baseball field around. “There are very small magical moments,” Ladka said to MLB.com. “It’s not the big things. You see a kid learn how to throw a baseball, or a kid … actually hitting the ball out of the air. It’s little miracles that happen and they’re amazing. Talking about them now, I get emotional, and I’ve seen hundreds.”
For me, sitting at the stadium for the past two games, the moment that struck me came in the fourth inning yesterday when Paul Olden turned over the PA duties to Daniel Fratto. The 16-year-old looks far younger than his years, and he suffers from a severe immune deficiency syndrome that requires him to breathe with the assistance of an oxygen tank. He can’t play in the league and instead serves as The Beautiful People’s public address announcer. Without the nerves one would expect and with the calm of a seasoned veteran, he announced the bottom of the fourth to a crowd of 48,000 Yankee fans, and he was perfect. He could have done the whole game and could very well have a career behind the mic if his health allows him to. “He was outstanding,” Joe Girardi said after the game.
The Beautiful People are only one of the many groups enjoying the Yanks’ HOPE Week. On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez and Joba Chamberlain accompanied Jane Lang, a blind but very devoted Yankee fan, from her home in New Jersey to the stadium where she attends numerous games a season. Lang, born without sight, did not know that home plate was shaped like a home until Girardi explained it to her, and yet, she attends 30 games a season with her guide dog Clipper. She sees the game through crowd reactions, the sounds of the game and John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. On Wednesday, the club honored Mohamed Kamara, an 18-year-old survivor of the civil war in Sierra Leone who supports his family from abroad and will be attending college in the fall. Meeting him and hearing his story, said Curtis Granderson, was “humbling.” Today, two sisters who were homeless until they were 16 yet never wavered in their commitment to academics are getting the full Yankee treatment.
For the Yankee players and the organization, this isn’t a one-off week. The team is devoted to this effort, and those who see it in action says this true commitment shines through. “One thing that amazed me was that a lot of the other players participated,” Jay Gordon who joined the Bleacher Creature yesterday said. “The three guys who were on the field the longest were Andy Pettitte, who was there the whole time, Burnett who I don’t think ever left, and Joba who was basically all over the place.”
Even as HOPE Week fades, the Yanks’ good deeds remain throughout the year. It truly transcends baseball rivalries and shows what happens when our heroes who play a game for a living devote their energies toward giving back.