The Major League All-Star game will be happening this week here in Washington DC, so I imagine that lots of our NVTBL players and their families will have their eyes focused on all the action at Nationals Park. Every year this game brings a flood of memories of the first time I actually paid attention to an All-Star game that didn't involve 11 or 12 year-olds. That was a July when I was consumed with baseball and little ballplayers which frankly, wasn't all that unique.
But it was that specific July - five years ago - when the little boy's face I saw most often in my mind's eye was that of someone else's child. He so very well could have been mine. He had played both Little League and travel baseball through NVTBL for years. He had, like my boys, played some hoops, too. He had two siblings and friends galore. He liked hanging with his buddies and cheering college football.
But for all the similarities, there was one big difference between this boy and my three. You see, he wasn't playing ball that summer, because he was dying of cancer at the age of 13. In June of 2013 his parents had discovered that treatments for the brain cancer he had fought for two years had been unsuccessful. So instead of doing what I was doing that summer and what they had done many summers before which was shuffling kids to practice, cleaning up Gatorade bottles, and buying record amounts of Oxi clean, this boy's mom and dad were stuck with spending the blazing days of July keeping him comfortable, praying mightily for a miracle, and being thankful for every single minute that they had left with him.
It was Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League who blasted out a social media post with the news that Gavin Rupp needed our prayers and support that summer five years ago. It was this league who urged all of us to look beyond hits and errors and wins and losses as we took our seats in the bleachers around our community. It was this boy's journey that taught multitudes of young ball players to be grateful for the simple fact that they could put one foot in front of the other, could breathe in and out, and could have the immense blessing of a chance to connect a bat with a ball or even to strike out looking.
The NVTBL community rallied as did Little Leagues around our area as the news spread. They raised money at rallies and folded their hands in prayer. They wore colorful awareness ribbons and dyed their hair in the same color as those ribbons. They spray painted Gavin's number 15 on their fields, taped it up in their dugouts, and wrote his name on their hearts.
That summer in many ways seems so long ago to me and yet in many ways, not so much. In the five years since, my boys have all aged out of Little League. My oldest has gone on to college to pursue broadcasting baseball games as opposed to playing them. The middle one has stopped playing baseball altogether to focus completely on basketball. And that little eight year old who wore colored shoelaces and raised money for pediatric cancer in honor of a boy who had played just up the road from him is now thirteen years old - exactly the age that Gavin was lost to the world. He continues to pursue the game that has infiltrated our every summer since he was born. And though so many of those scorching days on the ball field run together in our minds, I think even though my boys were so young, they will always remember that summer of 2013 as the "Summer of Gavin" when their coaches and teammates decided that a focus on love and compassion as much as on how to field a ball cleanly could inspire them to do things much bigger than winning a championship.
I knew that the summer of 2013 could have the potential to change something deep inside of my young boys. Though the subject was hard to discuss with them, I knew it was vitally important. That summer they came to appreciate their friends, their teammates, their coaches and their opponents as they never had before. And what I found out as I watched that Major League All-Star game one night in July was that it wasn't just little boys who had been moved and inspired by Gavin's story. It was the big guys, too.
As I sat down to watch the Major League All-Star game with an attention I hadn't ever before, we saw the camera pan by our hometown hero, Bryce Harper. He lifted his sign during the Stand Up for Cancer event and we all stood close to the TV and I hit pause on the remote. My eyes filled as I prayed with all my might that Gavin might be able to see and understand how very important his short life was to so many that summer - both little and big leaguers.
While there likely wasn't a ball player in all of Northern Virginia that didn't know Gavin Rupp's name in the summer of 2013, unfortunately, life moves quickly and in 2018 there are many who don't know his story. But that doesn't make it any less important.
So as you curl up on the couch with your ball player this week to watch home runs sail over the outfield wall or even if you're lucky enough to be at Nats Park, I hope you'll pause for a minute to think about Gavin Rupp. I hope you'll know how hard he fought, how much he wanted to stay, how he hoped to "pay forward" the love and support he had received, and how much he is missed by his family and friends. I hope you'll scoot a little closer to your kiddo whether he is six or sixteen, whether he has been an obedient little angel today or is flat out getting on your last nerve. I hope you'll remember that every moment with your child is a gift and be just a tad more grateful for his toes and his fingers and his little freckled nose than you were yesterday.
I will never forget you, Gavin Rupp. I will never forget the summer you taught me what was important. When we look at those All-Stars this week as they gather to wow us with their hitting prowess and their amazing defensive plays, I will think of you . . . an All-Star in a league of his own whose strength, courage and spirit taught my children and me lessons that no major leaguer could ever have imparted.
I hope you're enjoying the game from the best seats in the house this week, #15. You will never be forgotten.
September 24, 1999 - July 30, 2013
Jennifer P. Skinner