The collection of trinkets that hang around Jason Motte’s neck gets a little heavier each year.
Each one marks a different place and time from the relief pitcher’s nine years in big league baseball. And some of those memories are as heavy as the relics that represent them.
Strung through the center with silver chain is a bead barely larger than a thimble. It’s white and marked with red stitches, like those on a baseball. Encased within are ashes from Brandt Ballenger, a 9-year-old Swansea elementary school student who died from a rare form of pediatric cancer five years ago this July.
The disease brought the two together in 2012, less than a year after Brandt was diagnosed and after Motte and his wife, Caitlin, began their cancer awareness campaign.
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“My wife’s grandfather was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer about two months before our wedding back in 2010,” Motte said. “The cancer facility where he was getting his treatment was just so great in every facet — everybody from the nurses to the doctors to the volunteers.
“My wife asked the question from which all of this came: What can we do to help those who have helped us and others like us who have gone through the fight.”
Lynn Doyle died the day after Christmas in 2011. Not long after, the newly-formed Jason Motte Foundation held its first fundraising event, an auction of player memorabilia that raised $37,000 for the West Clinic in Memphis. It also began working with 108 Stitches baseball apparel to sell T-shirts displaying a backwards “K” — scorekeeper’s shorthand for a strikeout looking — above the world “cancer.”
“We did our first event in 2012 with the simple purpose of raising money to give back to the people who helped us through that difficult time,” Motte said.
Meanwhile, back in Swansea, friends of the Ballenger family started a social media campaign asking friends, family, school organizations, and even a few celebrities to post photos holding a “Team Brandt” sign, mainly to raise the sick child’s spirits. It became an all-out movement, amassing more than 9,000 Facebook followers who still post pictures almost daily.
That’s how Motte came to know Brandt. Their friendship started with his “Team Brandt” selfie on the Facebook page.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation fulfilled Brandt’s desire to visit Disney World in Orlando, Florida, just up the coast from the Cardinals’ spring camp in Jupiter. Motte took time off to meet him there.
“Brandt was kind of shy at first and the next thing you know he was running around, taking my hat off, yanking on my beard — just Brandt being Brandt,” Motte said. “We got really close to (his parents) Jeff and Robin over the next couple of months and it was just great to get to know Brandt. He was just an awesome little boy, always making people laugh.”
On Opening Day in April 2013, Motte arranged for Brandt to ride with him in the players’ parade around the Busch Stadium warning track. Stephanie Wyatt, Brandt’s third-grade teacher at Wolf Branch Elementary, joined them in the cabin of the pick-up truck.
The stands were full of supporters from Wolf Branch, who speckled the sea of red with “Team Brandt” signs.
“He saw a bunch of those and he said, ‘There’s a lot of Team Brandt signs out here. I don’t see many of yours,” Motte said. “I told him he had a lot more fans than I had.”
A year after leading the National League with 42 saves, Motte tore a ligament in his pitching arm and was forced to sit out the season and the Cardinals’ drive to the NL championship. He used his time between rehab work playing Chutes and Ladders and “Angry Birds” with Brandt and other kids in the hospital.
And since their birthdays are just three days apart, Motte and Brandt celebrated together at Dave and Buster’s in Maryland Heights, Mo. in June of 2013.
“Brandt looked forward to every visit he got from Jason. We all did,” said Robin Bellenger, Brandt’s mom. “They played games on Jason’s iPad and had fun. He made us feel normal for a little while, like we weren’t living in a hospital.”
Brandt had rallied several times from the symptoms of the Wilms’ Tumor and the aggressive treatments he endured to slow the cancer’s spread. But on July 23, 2013, a half hour after a visit from his favorite Cardinals pitcher, Brandt died.
In the intervening five years, Motte has spent time with the Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies and Atlanta Braves. His Foundation has spread to all 30 major league cities, where at least one player from each team is represented on a Strike Out Cancer T-shirt. Major League Baseball also sponsors an annual “Baseball Battles Cancer” weekend, which this season will be June 8-10.
“It’s grown faster than we could have imagined,” Motte said. “At first we kind of started reaching out to guys (on other teams) and then it got to a point where guys often times reach out to us. In some places we’ve had a rep for four or five years who called and said ‘hey, I’d like to help out.’
“Cancer has affected so many people, so they want to get out and help us raise awareness and raise money for those in the fight.”
The next event in St. Louis will be a cornhole tournament April 23 at The Biergarten at Anheuser-Busch. Registration is $200 per team and can be made by calling Karen Cole at 314-780-6397 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ballenger family has its own foundation now, named appropriately after Brandt. An annual trivia night benefits St. Baldrick’s Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Wilms Tumor Foundation. A head-shaving event for St. Baldrick’s will be held at Helen Fitzgerald’s Irish Bar and Grill from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in St. Louis.
Motte isn’t handicapping his chances at earning a spot in the Cardinals’ bullpen, saying he’s learned from Brandt’s disease that life and baseball are best taken day by day.
But he knows where to find his motivation — it comes from the memories he wears around his neck.
“I always have a lot of on my chain that’s clinking around and people are always like ‘man, you got a lot of stuff on there, you ever think about taking it off?” Motte said. “No. It’s all stuff that means a lot to me. (The baseball bead) is always there so that he’s always there with me.”