A Connecticut Red Sox in King Papelbon's Court; In Philly to fight ALS

The 24th Annual Phestival to fight ALS
My uncle Mark was very close to my family. He was one of my dad's nine siblings, he lived nearby, and he had two sons that were close to my age. When he was diagnosed with ALS, it shocked my family. Only ever hearing about ALS as Lou Gehrig's Disease, I had never spent any time researching or thinking about ALS until my uncle had it. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Amyotrophic comes from the Greek language. "A" means no or negative. "Myo" refers to muscle, and "Trophic" means nourishment. When a muscle has no nourishment, it "atrophies" or wastes away. When we read about ALS, we were learning that Mark was going to waste away and eventually become paralyzed, and because there is no cure, we also learned that the diagnosis for all ALS patients is eventual death. Knowing we couldn't do much to physically help Mark, our family came together and completed an ALS walk in Connecticut, where many other patients and families of ALS sufferers gathered. It helped to meet so many other people who were touched by the disease, but it was so frustrating to just sit back when you know there is not much you can do while your uncle suffers. Mark lasted a couple of years until he passed away pretty quickly. Many others with ALS are not so lucky. The disease wears them down until their own lungs can no longer breathe for them, and all the while, their brains are fully functional.

Being a huge fan of baseball, I remembered Curt Schilling as a Red Sox player. He was a huge proponent of ALS research, even putting "K ALS" on his shoes during the 2004 Playoffs. It was through Schilling that I remembered the Philadelphia Phillies and their partnership with the ALS Association. As I looked into the connection, I noticed that the Phillies have run a "Phestival" since 1984 where the entire organization, from players to players' wives to ushers, come out to volunteer their time and try their best to help fight ALS. Although it is a 4 hour drive from Connecticut, I have since made it my mission to get there every year and support this wonderful cause.
                The Autograph Stations
This past Thursday was the 24th annual Phillies Phestival, and it was the third in a row that I have attended. The Phillies were able to raise $860,000 on Thursday, and they have raised $14.3 million for ALS since 1984. Everything you buy is given directly to ALS research, so this is the one day that I don't worry too much about sparing expenses. Here's how the event works: You buy admission tickets in advance, and the Phillies send you two numbered autograph tickets for each admission ticket you buy. When you show up, there are 6,000 other people waiting in line. A couple of hours before the event, the Phillies post who is going to be signing at what number, and chaos ensues. Because my brother and I are such die hard Sox fans, we were hoping to score Jonathan Papelbon tickets. Pap was a household name in Boston for a good amount of seasons, and I was wondering if his popularity had moved with him to Philly. Based on the amount of fans asking to trade for his tickets, you could tell he is still loved by his fans. Unfortunately, when the list came out, we didn't have Papelbon. Instead, we each had Cole Hamels tickets, but after some moving around, we traded our Hamels for Papelbon, then did the "Cinco Ocho" jig in excitement.

The rest of the waiting time (3 hours total) was spent talking to other fans, meeting other people in ALS shirts, and looking at all the unique items people were bringing in to get signed; bats, balls, cards, banners, jerseys, etc. When the doors opened at 4pm, the fans poured into Citizens Bank Park and waited for their heroes. But that is also when the other heroes came by as well; many Phillies fans in wheelchairs, some not able to move anything but show a slight smile, or give a slight flex of their hand to try to communicate with the players. The ALS patients were wheeled around by family members and you could tell that this was a day for them; earlier, many patients got a chance to meet the players on the field, and maybe, just maybe, they had the chance to feel special, to feel better than just "an ALS patient." As the players sat around the stadium, it was easy to tell who had the bigger lines, and Jon Papelbon's line was no exception. As I waited, I noticed that he conversed with every fan, looking up, smiling, sharing a story, picture, or just giving a thumbs up. Boston misses the eccentric closer, his stare to home plate, and his "Shipping up to Boston" song as he approached the mound. But today I was bringing Boston to him. With me, I brought a banner that hung at Fenway during the 2007 playoffs, and I was lucky enough to have him sign it next to the Keith Foulke signature I got from this winter. I also was able to get him to sign an unused lineup card from a game where Pap recorded his 200th save. Because moments like this are rare, and you only get a few seconds with each player, I like to ask players a question when I get up to them. I asked Papelbon if he still talked with the Boston Police Officer whom he used to slaps hands with every game before he left he bullpen. Pap looks up and smiles, "Yeah, of course." I asked him his name. "Billy Dunn!" Papelbon retorts. With that, I ask for a quick picture, thank him for donating his time for the cause,and I am on my way.
Jon Papelbon, King of Philly!

Yes, the fans get to be that close!
With another hour to move around, I am able to meet Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Dominic Brown. I asked Howard if he really eats Subway. He responded, "Yeah! I had a Tuna sub today, but my favorite is the Turkey."

I asked Rollins if he liked hitting or fielding better. He waited about 20 seconds, thought about it, then gave a great answer. "When it's my turn to bat, hitting is my favorite. When the ball is coming to me, fielding is my favorite." Simple but so true.

When I got to Hamels, I didn't have a ticket ( remember I traded it for Papelbon?), but because this is a fundraiser, the players stay late and take donations in exchange for autographs. We shared a story about ALS, he mentioned how tough the disease must be and how tough people with the disease are, and because I was the last in line for Brown, I left him alone and let him leave after he signed a ball for me.

As the night wore on, plenty of other activities were available for the large crowd. Fans could buy grab bags, and each contains a signed ball, hat, bobblehead or some rare memorabilia  there was a slient auction with many Phillies and other sports items for sale, and there was also an "Every roll is a Winner" game, where you roll dice and each roll gives you a Phillies item. The Phun Zone was also open for young kids to run around and play in, so all ages of fans got to enjoy their afternoon at the ballpark.

I bought a couple of grab bags and landed two bobbleheads and some signed baseballs. My brother took his chances at the dice game and scored a game used baseball.
Overall, it was a beautiful day in Philadelphia. When it was over,I would reluctantly get into my car and have to drive four hours back home, but I was beaming the whole time. I hope they find a cure for ALS soon, because it pains me to see so many people suffering. But until that day comes, the Phillies have it right. I hope they continue this event for as long as possible, because it increases ALS awareness, raises funds, and gives ALS patients a chance to look forward to a day about them. I know I will continue to do what I can to support the Phillies, and any other ALS cause, because this is a way for me to remember my Uncle Mark, and what he stood for, and who he was. I will keep walking, because I can.
Rollins and Howard

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