Hope for a Homer

A Major League ballplayer is inspired to aim high.

Posted in , Sep 9, 2010

Brett and Alyssa give the thumbs up

I’m an outfielder for the New York Yankees, and I can do a lot of things to help my team win a ball game.

I’m blessed with great speed—I leg out bunts, steal bases and stretch singles into doubles. I’ve learned to be a disciplined hitter—I draw walks and I get on base. I’m pretty good with the glove too—I get to a lot of balls because of my speed.

What I definitely am not blessed with is power. I’m no slugger. One look at me and you’ll know why.

The official Yankees’ guide lists me as 5’ 10,” 185 pounds, but that’s generous. When I walked to the plate the night of May 15, 2009, I had one career home run to my credit. And I didn’t have much of a prayer of hitting another.

Then again, prayer had already been a big part of my day. That morning I’d visited kids at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, not that far from Yankee Stadium. I have to admit, when I walked into the hospital reading room, I didn’t know much about the boys and girls I’d be seeing—how sick they were, what they were going through.

Project Sunshine, an organization that provides free educational, arts and social programs to kids with medical challenges, had put the visit together. I was there with Linda Ruth Tosetti, one of Babe Ruth’s granddaughters. She told the story of how the Babe had once promised a sick child that he’d hit a home run for him, and how, later that day, he had done exactly that.

Then Linda introduced me. I explained that I almost never hit home runs. I told some baseball stories—about how I made the Yankees, about my better-known teammates, like Derek Jeter.

Afterward, one girl came up to me in her wheelchair. She was on the small side, but flashed a huge smile. She introduced herself: Alyssa Esposito, 18, of Long Island, New York. She told me she was waiting for a heart transplant. “I’ve been here since January,” she said.

Oh, man, I thought. To me, a bad day was going 0 for 4 at the plate. And here was this girl, just a teenager, fighting for her life.

Alyssa tapped me on the arm. I figured she wanted an autograph. Instead, she said, “I have something I want to give you.” She unhooked a bracelet from around her wrist. It was simple, a yellow cord with a small silver charm. She had gotten it that morning from Project Sunshine. “This will make you hit a home run tonight,” Alyssa said. “I prayed about it.”

“Thank you,” I said, slipping the bracelet on, praying that by some miracle I’d slug a ball out of the park. More important, I prayed she’d get the transplant she’d been waiting for.

“I’ll be watching the game,” she said.

When I got to Yankee Stadium in the afternoon, I checked the lineup card for our game that night against the Minnesota Twins. I wasn’t scheduled to play. So much for answered prayers, I thought. I hoped Alyssa wouldn’t be disappointed. I took off her bracelet and tucked it safely in my locker. Then I pulled on my uniform and turned my focus to baseball.

The game began. I sat on the bench, watching our left fielder Johnny Damon roam the outfield, tracking down fly balls. Then the craziest thing happened. In the third inning, Johnny—generally a mellow guy—got into it with the home plate umpire over a called third strike. The ump tossed him out of the game.

Joe Girardi, our manager, pointed to me. “Gardy,” he said, “you’re playing left.”

My first time up, I singled. My next at-bat came in the seventh inning. We were trailing the Twins, 4-1. With two out, I stepped to the plate. I have to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about Alyssa. I was thinking about doing my job: getting on base, then maybe stealing second to get into scoring position so we could get back in the game.

Strike one. Focus, I told myself.

Strike two. I stepped out of the batter’s box and gathered myself. Took a deep breath.

I was ready for the third pitch. I lined a shot that sliced toward the left field foul line. Single, I figured, running to first base. Our first base coach waved his arm—the signal to head for second. Turning, I saw the ball get past the Twins left fielder and roll to the wall. Double, I thought. But as I neared second, I saw the ball take a crazy carom away from the left fielder. Triple, I decided and raced for third.

That’s when our third-base coach began windmilling his arm. I went into an all-out sprint for home. I knew it would be a close play. Ten feet from the plate, I dove headfirst. Safe! An inside-the-park home run!

In the dugout, the guys were all over me. Inside-the-park homers are pretty exciting, and very rare. We’d cut the lead to 4-2 and were back in the game.

I took a seat on the bench and tried to catch my breath. That’s when it occurred to me: It happened just like Alyssa said it would!

I told my teammates about Alyssa and the bracelet. I think she inspired us, because we rallied in the ninth inning to win the game, 5-4.

Alyssa’s prayer for me had been answered. But what about my prayer for her? Take care of her, Lord, I pleaded.

The next day, one of the Yankees publicists pulled me aside. “Did you hear about Alyssa?” he asked. “They found a donor. She had a successful heart transplant last night.”

I saw Alyssa that summer, when she was well enough to visit Yankee Stadium. She flashed a huge grin and tapped her chest, where her new heart was. “You had a big heart to begin with,” I said.

“Do you still have the bracelet?” she asked.

“I keep it in my locker,” I said. It’s a reminder of the power of prayers—and of the One who answers them.

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