Cole Arledge takes a miserable cut and strikes out during a Harvard baseball practice. It’s been a long day, and the junior catcher throws his helmet down in disgust before walking off the field. A little up the third-base line, he sees a teammate taking his usual unorthodox swings at a ball in the grass. It’s far from perfect form, and despite his bad day, Arledge smiles. He can’t help it when Alex is around.
Three-year-old Alex Wawrzyniak doesn’t resemble the typical Crimson athlete, but he has certainly proven himself enough to earn a roster spot. While other ballplayers might struggle through evening practice after an exhausting day of class, no one thinks to complain when Alex arrives after his weekly chemotherapy.
Harvard’s honorary teammate suffers from Pilocytic Astrocytoma Low Grade Glioma, a form of cerebral tumor. Alex has gone through nine months of intensive treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute following his diagnosis in April 2009.
“The MRI showed four tumors in his spine, like a cluster of grapes, and cancerous cells within his brain, like frosting on a raisin,” says Alanna Lopez, Alex’s mother.
The cancer is very treatable, and the early intervention has spared Alex unknown hardship. But the tumors did not spare his vision. As the low-grade gliomas crushed his optic nerve, Alex succumbed to a life of blindness before ever stepping on a baseball diamond.
“[Baseball] is one sport that I really wanted him to get into if he was going to do sports,” Lopez says. “So this is it. Because he’s blind, I don’t know if he can [ever play]. If anything, this is the closest to a team he’ll ever be.”
But as it turns out, Alex is much closer to the Harvard team than he or his mom could have ever imagined.
The Crimson met its new teammate through Friends of Jaclyn, a non-profit organization committed to pairing children with brain tumors with collegiate or high school teams. Much like the organization’s namesake, Jaclyn Murphy, drew inspiration from the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team during her battle with cancer, nearly 200 young patients have signed up to be matched with programs around the country.
“Our whole mission is to give kids some kind of normalcy in their life, after whatever hardships they’ve gone through,” explains Brandi Gordon, a Boston program coordinator for FOJ and a Crimson softball coach. “We try to provide them with love, support, and friendship through—in [Alex’s] case—30 guys who can be teammates and brothers. He is a part of their family now.”
The program has proven particularly effective in its outreach. Since Hippocratic laws prevent hospitals from disclosing patient illnesses, FOJ finds potential matches mostly through word of mouth. In Lopez’s case, a friend from chemotherapy facilitated the pairing, and as soon as the organization called, she knew it would be a perfect opportunity for Alex.
“It’s kind of like an escape from all his medical stuff,” Lopez says.
And so Lopez makes the 34-mile drive every week from their home in Marshfield, Mass. and plans to do so for each of Harvard’s home games. After all, she would never deprive the team of one of its integral members.
“It’s been awesome to have him around,” Arledge says. “I think that everyone brings something to the team. Some people bring numbers and home runs, some people bring defense, some people bring leadership in different kinds of ways, and then having Alex as part of the team—he really brings inspiration and perspective.”
While scouts might focus on production more than inspiration, anyone inside the program knows just how valuable Alex’s contribution is.
“Our game is a game of failure,” says Gordon. “A lot of times, you strike out or mess up and focus on that. Now that [the players] have something else to think about, a strikeout or an error [doesn’t] mean as much. It puts into perspective what things are dramatic when really this three-and-a-half year old has gone through more than most people ever will.”
No. 5 Cornell To Provide Early Test on RoadFacing two ECAC opponents this weekend, the Crimson men’s hockey team will attempt to replicate last week’s win over Dartmouth. Harvard (1-0, 1-0 ECAC) will face Colgate (2-2-3) tonight and archrival No. 5 Cornell (1-0) on Saturday. The two New York road contests will be the first games away from the Bright Hockey Center this season. Last year, the Crimson went 0-11-5 away from home. With this in mind, the players acknowledge the added challenge of attaining victories this weekend.
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