On a unusually quiet Sunday, in the morning hours before students returned to campus from spring break, a small fraction of the Muhlenberg baseball team shuffled into Seegers Union and situated themselves around a couch. Decked out in baggy sweats and baseball caps, they’re still slightly groggy from multiple plane rides and the six games they’ve played in four days. They have another annual spring break trip in the books, but it’s actually a team member’s baseball tryouts that they’re focused on now.
Six players — one first baseman, two pitchers, one catcher, one outfielder, and a second baseman — huddled around a phone, staring at a mirror image of themselves in the screen as the ring tone repeats in the background. Nine-year-old Bobby DiGiacomo answers his mother’s phone, staring back at a group of once strangers he now calls his team. The Muhlenberg players had called to check in, see if he wanted to come out to a game at the Cedar Creek field and get the details on how his tryouts went the week they were away.
Jack Avallone ‘20, Brandon Eden ‘19, Kenny Freid ‘19, Steve Koester ‘19, Jake Picker ‘18 and Justin Revel ‘19 may differ in class year and position but they all share one commonality: all six serve as the main student ambassadors for the team’s recent endeavor. They listen intently as Bobby gives them the run down.
“strong-willed since day one, a man of few words,” Kristin DiGiacomo (Bobby’s mother)
Pop flies are his favorite thing to do at tryouts right now. He’s not hitting yet but they’re starting the next day. And then, out of the blue, he asks if they want to see his room.
“There were two big turning points, at least for me,” said Picker. “First was him asking us if we wanted to see his room and him giving us a little tour. And then the last thing was, we were about to hang up and he says, ‘I miss you guys.’ I think for all of us that was a wow moment. This is a kid who three weeks ago didn’t say two words to us. It’s exciting.”
Bobby became part of the Muhlenberg baseball team after both joined Team Impact. According to the organization’s website, Team Impact is a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses to local college athletic teams, forming lifelong bonds and life-changing outcomes. Families and schools are responsible for signing up if they are interested, and then the waiting game for a match begins.
According to Tod Gross, Baseball Head Coach, Picker was one that was really invested and pushed for the team to join, but it wasn’t his first experience with Team Impact. As a member of the Muhlenberg ice hockey team, Picker developed a relationship another Team Impact child, one he’s still connected to now.
“I didn’t know about Team Impact before I came to college,” said Picker. “I was just impressed by everything about it — impressed by their goal, impressed by how they run things, impressed by the participation around the country with big D1 schools, small D3 schools, club teams, varsity teams, everything in between. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done at Muhlenberg in my four years here.”
For Muhlenberg baseball and Bobby, the timing could not have been better.
“It just kind of came about that there was a boy in Team Impact locally,” said Gross. “I don’t think it’s very easy to get paired up but the opportunity arose and we took it. It kind of worked out perfectly.”
With just weeks until the season would begin, both coaches and players wasted little time getting to know their newest teammate. First, Bobby was recruited, and his family came on a traditional recruiting visit where they were given a tour of the weight room, field house, the famous dining hall and the dorms. Before the spring break trip, he was able to come out to a practice where the team let him pitch and hit, just in time for his own tryouts.
But for Bobby, his family and the team, this is more than just baseball.
Described by his mother as “strong-willed since day one, a man of few words,” Bobby was diagnosed with high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March 2014. While he underwent treatment, his family made sure he also had time to be a kid.
And then, about a year after his diagnosis, Bobby played baseball for the first time.
“I feel it helped him feel normal,” said Kristin DiGiacomo, Bobby’s mother. “He loved being part of a team. It didn’t bother him that he was a lot slower and could barely swing a bat.”
After three and a half years of treatment, Bobby’s has been off all chemotherapy since June 2017. DiGiacomo says her son may appear as though things don’t affect him, but they do, and after losing three and a half years of his childhood, they joined Team Impact in hopes of getting him the connections he missed out on.
“I really want Bobby to connect with the players,” said DiGiacomo. “He has a lot of anxiety, is so shy and doesn’t express himself much. I know he loves being with the older “kids.” He needs positive connections outside of school and a place to ‘belong.’ As a secondary factor, I also want him to be motivated to go to college and continue learning.”
As for those older kids, DiGiacomo said she never really thought about them getting anything out of it. “I guess I would want them to learn you can’t control what happens to you in your life. You need to deal with it and move forward. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but Bobby handled it like a champ. He adapted.”
I didn’t know about Team Impact before I came to college… It’s probably the best thing I’ve done at Muhlenberg in my four years here. – Jake Picker ’18
Echoing DiGiacomo’s sentiment, Freid said, “For Bobby, I believe joining the team will give him something to look forward too and will help him take his mind off things; it will help him realize that he is no different from any other kid. For the baseball team, I believe that Bobby will push each and every one of us to play with heart because we know what he has been through. Having Bobby on our team will show the guys how lucky we are to be able to play college baseball. There are so many kids that would love to play but do not get the opportunity.”
Gross agrees, hoping that both Bobby and the Muhlenberg players get something out of Team Impact. “I think as a whole number one for our guys to be involved in somebody that has had some struggles. With our guys being college athletes and all that, I think it’s good for them to be there for Bobby and help him through everything. I think on the other end, Bobby impacts our guys lives as well.”
Despite missing “the guys,” Bobby didn’t have to wait long between their Sunday morning Facetime and being reunited with his new mentors, teammates and friends. On Monday afternoon, at their home field and with their new biggest fan braving the sharp, frigid winds that blew off the creek, Muhlenberg baseball beat Wilkes 10-4. The postgame time with Bobby made the win all the more special.
He loved being part of a team. It didn’t bother him that he was a lot slower and could barely swing a bat.
As the other team packed their equipment and left the dugout, Koester, almost the same height on one knee as the nine-year-old standing up, positioned himself next to Bobby and watched him throw. Most days the players would be eager to get out of the cold and head back to campus for a shower and a warm meal after a game, but today the team hangs around to give out celebratory fist bumps or congratulate Bobby on his tryouts. Because, at the end of the day, it isn’t about winning or losing or however many miles an hour the wind is blowing.
Now, it’s about who they’re playing for and the impact they make.