Angels in the Outfield

Last month while I was in Dallas for the USOC Olympic Media Summit, I received a note from my dear friend, Collie, who is married to one of my best friends, Monica. He’d heard I was in Dallas spending a few days in a hotel filled with Olympic athletes and he had a favor to ask. Collie is from Dallas and recently found out that the 6-year-old son of one of his friends was sick. His name is Michael and he’s a sports fan, Collie wrote. Maybe there’s something you can do to brighten his day. He included an e-mail Michael’s mom had sent to him and a link to Michael’s fundraising website.

Michael, I learned, was more than sick. Four days before Christmas 2009, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 High Risk Nueroblastoma, a pediatric cancer that affects about 650 kids in the U.S. every year. In the time between his diagnosis and that conference in Dallas, Michael had already completed 15 rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow stem cell transplant and 38 radiation treatments. He participated in clinical trials and had two surgeries to remove tumors from his spine and left eye orbit. What an incredible will to live this little boy must possess, I thought. I couldn’t imagine what the past two years must have been like for him, and for his family.

I didn’t need to read much more to know I wasn’t going to be spending the next day doing my job. My friend had given me the opportunity to do something special for this little boy and his family, and I wasn’t going to let him down.

Here, I must backtrack and tell you a bit about my friend. Monica met Collie a year and a half ago, a few weeks before his own 5-year-old daughter, Maddie, a towheaded, glasses-wearing lighthouse of a kid, was diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. Maddie lived for 57 days after her diagnosis. I didn’t know Collie well then, but I watched him deal with a devastatingly sad loss in a way that continues to awe and inspire me. I remember how important the Make-A-Wish trip to Hawaii was to Maddie and her family and I know how special those memories are for Collie. It has to help to know there is still good in the world when you are witnessing such inexplicable suffering.

Getting ready for the London Olympics at his weekly neighborhood block party.

What I learned over the next few weeks is just how much good orbits the world in which I live and work. When I asked folks from the United States Olympic Committee if they had anything I could give to Michael, communications director Mark Jones loaded me up with jackets and shirts and hats and flags. The folks from Nike and Ralph Lauren did the same. More than 25 athletes signed a Polo shirt for Michael—the same one they will wear at Opening Ceremonies–and wrote notes to him. Many of them told me stories about Make-A-Wish programs they were involved in and asked me to write down the link to Michael’s website so they could keep up with his progress. Everyone wanted to do something.

“Let me go get some autographs for you” … “Let me see if I can drum up more swag for him” … “Do you want shirts for his mom and dad?” … “Don’t worry about that second story you were supposed to write. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Although he was too sick to come to the hotel in person, Michael was all over that summit. We’d set out to do something nice to put a smile on a sick little boy’s face, and he was the one putting a smile on all of ours. That Friday, his parents gave him his Olympic gifts at the weekly neighborhood block party they throw in his honor. I later found out that he wore the hat all day.

The day I left Dallas, my friend Anna Katherine Clemmons sent me an e-mail. Anna covers baseball at The Mag and she’d been thinking about Michael since I told her his story at the summit. “I don’t know if this is going to work out,” she wrote, “but the PR guys over at the Rangers are really nice. Most of them are dads. Let me reach out to them.” Then we crossed our fingers. And hoped Michael liked baseball.

Michael and Josh Hamilton at Rangers batting practice.

Two weeks later, the Texas Rangers, the hottest team in baseball, hosted Michael and his family at a Tuesday batting practice and made him feel like a rock star. They gave them tickets so they could stay and watch the Rangers beat the Seattle Mariners. The Rangers, it turns out, are Michael’s favorite team. And every guy on that team–from Josh Hamilton to Yu Darvish to Elvis Andrus—stopped by to say hello, shake Michael’s hand and take a photo with him. When I saw the photos, I cried. And became a Rangers fan.

I’ve since learned that Michael dreamed of one day playing professional baseball and was the leading rebounder on the Meadowbrook Mavericks basketball team. Besides the Rangers, he also had the opportunity to meet members of the Dallas Cowboys and Mavericks and fly the Space Shuttle trainer in Houston.

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet Michael, but I hope to meet his parents someday. I’d like to tell them how much their son affected all of us, and likely many more people he never had the opportunity to meet. It is hard to imagine having the kind of strength that was packed inside that 60-pound little boy. I’m sure meeting all of those athletes had an affect on Michael. But I venture to guess he had a more profound effect on all of them. I know he made a lasting impact on me.

This past weekend, two weeks after celebrating his 7th birthday, Michael Malone lost his battle with cancer. “Michael joined Maddie in heaven today,” Collie wrote to me Saturday afternoon. Lucky place, that heaven. But hopefully the work being done by organizations like Wipe Out Kids Cancer will uncover ways to keep angels like Michael and Maddie here on earth a little while longer.

In lieu of flowers, Michael’s family requested donations be made to WOKC. If you feel so inspired, you can click on the link above and make a donation. (To read more about the Maddie James Foundation or to make a donation, click here.)

The next time you catch a Rangers game or watch an event at this summer’s Olympics, smile in memory of one strong-willed little dude.