Oct. 15, 2014
By Sean Tenaglia (’16)
Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said, “You gotta be a man to play baseball, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you.”
Memories of Little League ball games played in the sweltering heat of summer linger long after the final out is recorded. Baseball has been, is, and always will be a kid’s game.
To find out what the game truly means to a kid, just ask Daniel Alexander. To this special 13-year-old, baseball is everything.
Over the course of the past year, Daniel has become an integral part of the University of Notre Dame baseball family. His courage and determination in the face of immense adversity off the field have served as an incredible source of inspiration for the Irish.
In August 2010, Daniel fell and injured his head. After being rushed to the emergency room, he was airlifted to Chicago where doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor. Despite the grim diagnosis, Daniel continued to battle. In the span 18 months, he underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy amid countless trips to the hospital.
Shortly after the surgeries and treatments ended, Daniel developed a blood clot in his heart, and once again, was airlifted to Chicago and hospitalized. The setback turned out to be another bump in the road for Daniel, but did not in any way lessen or dampen his enthusiasm and passion for baseball.
In the fall of 2013, the Alexanders contacted the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which pairs children fighting brain tumors with high school and collegiate sports teams. The Notre Dame baseball team appeared to be a perfect fit for both Daniel and the Alexander family, residents of Chester, Indiana (located less than hour from South Bend).
His mother, Karen, believes that the team has had an incredible impact on her son.
“They adopted him, and these guys have been great,” she says. “They’ve welcomed him with open arms and come to numerous events – basketball games, baseball games and band concerts.
“We come out here to watch and support the team, and Daniel loves being with them. It’s an opportunity for him to not think about his illness. He gets to be here and just be one of the guys.”
While the team has provided support for the Alexander family, many Irish players argue that it is Daniel who has been the true source of support and inspiration for them.
“Getting to know Daniel has been such a blessing for all of us because he is such a tough kid,” junior outfielder Kyle Richardson says. “He’s gone through so much, and yet he always has a smile on his face and he’s always making sure people around him are happy. He comes to the park and loves the game of baseball, so there’s really not much more you can ask for.
“His mom is a phenomenal woman. With all they’ve been through, she spends her time raising money for other people and other causes. Never once is it, ‘What can someone else do for me?’ It’s always, ‘What can I do for you?’ It’s just inspirational, and it makes me extremely excited to be able to include Daniel on our team. He’s done more for our team than we could ever do for him.”
Richardson has grown particularly close with Daniel and even surprised him on his birthday during the return journey to Notre Dame for the fall semester.
“We clicked for some reason from the start and have got along really well,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him and he’s a great kid. He’s hilarious and cracks me up all the time.”
Since partnering with the Irish last fall, Daniel has been in the dugout or bleachers for several scrimmages and games. Richardson argues that there is a direct correlation between Daniel’s attendance and the team’s performance.
“I tell people all the time that we actually have an extremely high winning percentage when Daniel is in our dugout,” Richardson says. “He really is great for our team and brings a lot of energy and improves team morale. He reminds us that baseball is just a game, and that the power of the game is incredible.”
On Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, the Irish welcomed Daniel and his teammates from Chesterton’s Duneland Diamond baseball team to Jake Kline Field at Frank Eck Stadium. The day began with a tour of the clubhouse and indoor batting cages, where the young players were able to test their skills at the plate with the brand new HitTrax Data Capture and Simulation System. The Diamond teammates then competed in a three-team scrimmage as the Irish players provided tips in the field and called balls and strikes.
Senior right-handed pitcher Kyle Rubbinaccio says the team was more than happy to host Daniel and his Diamond teammates.
“It really speaks highly of our team that everyone came out,” Rubbinacio says. “It wasn’t a mandatory event, but we all look really highly on Daniel and want to do whatever it takes to make sure he has the best experience with us. These kids are having a good time and we’re honored to have them out here. I’m really happy that he and his team got to come out today and enjoy this beautiful day.
“I can remember when I was the age of these kids and how excited I would have been to be out there with a group of college baseball players. These kids look up to us as role models, and it’s really nice to be a leader for them.”
Richardson, who led the Diamond players through stretches and warm-up tosses, says the day reminded him why he loves the game of baseball so much in the first place.
“I grew up with a passion for the game, and I love to share that with others,” Richardson says. “Today really puts things in perspective. It reminds you that baseball is just a game, and it takes a lot of pressure off.
“You can get wrapped up in ACC, Division I baseball and you start trying too hard and forcing things. Instead, we get to look around and see kids having fun. To see them looking up to us, it makes us realize that we’re living a dream and we might as well enjoy it.
“I’m almost jealous of these kids because all they’re doing is just showing up and playing some ball. I’m excited we get to play a little too. Just to be on the field, you get to realize how fortunate you are to play this game. Seeing these kids out here having fun makes life that much more enjoyable.”
In his first plate appearance, Daniel drove in a run on an RBI groundout. When asked what his favorite part of the day was, he flashed a grin from ear-to-ear and said, “All of it.”
Karen Alexander is still astounded by the outpouring of support her son and family have received from the Notre Dame baseball community.
“With all the horrible things that come with the brain tumor, so much good has come from it,” Alexander says. “I’ve met the parents of the players on the team, and we’re good friends now. Some of them stuck around today to watch Daniel. It’s not just about baseball, but getting to know these families. We’ve made connections that are going to last a lifetime.
“It’s amazing that he has this opportunity with his peers to come out here and practice and play. All of these guys chose to get up to be here to watch and support him. It’s just wonderful.”
Kids will face adversity on the baseball diamond. Occasionally they may drop a pop fly or go through a hitting slump as they continue to hone and craft their skills. Daniel has overcome more adversity in a few years off the field than ballplayers will experience in a lifetime on it.
Earlier this month, on Oct. 7, Daniel received some great news – his tumor has stabilized and he has concluded another round of chemotherapy.
With the colder weather slowly creeping closer to South Bend, Daniel and his Irish family members have nothing but spring, sun and the expectant sound of a ball hitting a bat on their minds. Baseball season can’t come soon enough for Daniel and his family.
For more information on the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, please visit http://www.friendsofjaclyn.org.