Frontier League players put some skin in the game
According to their website, the Frontier Greys independent minor league baseball club makes its headquarters in Highland.
But that's just where the phone rings and the mail gets delivered. They're called the Greys because of their uniforms — there's no need for home whites. Without a home ballpark and 96 road games each season, the Greys are the nomads of the Frontier League.
On the professional baseball spectrum, they are about as far away from the major leagues as you can get.
But thanks to pitching coach Billy Bryk Jr. and some tough kids at Camp HIS KIDS, the players have gained a heightened awareness of just how special it is to be a professional ball player, even at the lowest level.
They discovered that however far away they are from their goals, there is always someone with a longer road ahead. In some cases, tragically longer.
Bryk and four of his players gave their week off during the Frontier League all-star break to volunteer at HIS KIDS summer camp for children with cancer.
Thursday night at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, they were joined by members of the Gateway Grizzlies in having their heads shaved in an effort to raise awareness of what their new HIS KIDS friends deal with in their fight. Their barbers were the children of HIS KIDS, many of whom have lost their hair to chemotherapy.
"I learned from my dad that you have to give something back,” said Bryk, as 8-year-old Keira Stout dug a set of electric clippers into his thick waves of hair. “This lets the kids know they are not alone.”
This story actually begins on a sunny day in Venice Beach, Fla. in 1982.
Highland residents Jim and Connie Miles had sold off some valuables and borrowed a motor home to fulfill their dying daugther's wish to go wading in the Gulf of Mexico. Marcia Miles was 11 years old and in the late stages of an unpronounceable form of childhood cancer.
Just a few minutes floating with her parents in the salty surf was all her weakened body could handle. As Jim carried her across the sand she looked up from his arms and told him "I'm going home tomorrow, daddy."
She fell into a coma the next morning and died later in the evening.
Less than two weeks after Marcia's funeral, hospital social workers called on Jim and Connie to counsel a single mother from Potosi, Mo., whose daughter was in her own fight with cancer.
That was the unofficial birth of HIS KIDS, an organization dedicated to providing support to families dealing with childhood cancer in Illinois, Missouri and Florida. Among other things, HIS KIDS helps provide such staples as groceries, lodging, and transportation to and from hospitals.
It also reserves a week each summer at Camp Wartburg in Waterloo, for both the young cancer patients and their siblings.
Much like the Frontier Greys, the phone rings and mail is delivered to the HIS KIDS headquarters in Highland. But the organization does its work on the road, wherever a child goes to bat in the ninth inning of their life.
Bryk, whose off-season home is in the Indiana suburbs Chicago, heard about HIS KIDS through one of his player's host family. His interest in getting involved was personal — he was just shy of 5-years-old when his older sister, Becky, died of leukemia.
He and three players — pitchers Justin DAlessandro and Jordan Kraus, catcher Dillon Haupt, and third baseman Zach Tanner — went to Camp HIS KIDS in July to help with camp activities and making connections with the campers.
On their first day in Waterloo, Byrk was singled out by Keira, whose treatment for a type of bone cancer has since cost her the sight in one eye and most of her hair. Their connection was as immediate as it has been lasting, maybe because Keira is the same age as Bryk's sister.
"They have become so close in a such a short time and what that just means everything," said Robin Stout, Keira's mother. " Keira talks about Billy every day."
Bryk says he and his players gained something valuable in return — perspective.
"Don't get me wrong, this is all about the kids, but the experience is just as good for the players," Byrk said. "Being with them makes these guys better ball players. It shows them that life in baseball isn't so bad compared to what these kids have to face.
"If they aren't moved or affected by this and become better people by the experience, then there's something wrong with them."
Skin the the Game
The coach and players carried the impact of their week at Camp HIS KIDS to GCS Ballpark Thursday night. Some 20 players from both teams lined up on the left field patio at GCS Ballpark to get free haircuts from the "tough-as-nails" children who have so inspired them.
"The kids lost their hair without a choice," said Greys' pitcher Brent Choban. "Sometimes as a player you get upset when you walk a batter or fail to get a hit. But baseball is a game. For these kids, it's life or death."
Independent minor league baseball shatters all illusions of the pampered pro athlete. Even the Frontier League's very best have to claw toward their big league dreams for only about $1,600 a month.
When it comes to a cause, what they have to give amounts to a few hair follicles, a little bit of pride, and friendship.
And that's plenty.
"I saw Keira after the camp with her hair all gone," Bryk said as he placed his scalp in the little girl's hands. "I told her 'we're going to grow it back together."
To learn more about HIS KIDS, visit http://his-kids-inc.org/