Meggie: Dragonfly kids have a field day
Young patients get a chance to be a Red for a day
The starting lineups posted on the Jumbotron at Great American Ball Park Monday didn't sport names like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce or Brandon Phillips.
The names on the players' jerseys were those of children battling cancer and blood disorders.
But just the same, they lived the life of a Red, even if only for one day. They donned customized jerseys -- which resembled dresses on the smallest of them -- and hats, and participated in a game of their own, complete with Jumbotron slow motion replays and play-by-play narration.
They are members of The Dragonfly Foundation, a Cincinnati nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of pediatric cancer and blood disorder patients and their families.
Every year, larger sponsors of the Cincinnati Reds are treated to a "corporate game."
"They get the opportunity to come down to the field, play a game just like Major Leaguers, use the dugout, the scoreboard, really make a full go at it," said Reds Corporate Sales Account Manager Rebecca Martin.
Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions is one of those sponsors. But instead of using the corporate game for business purposes, CBTS' John Burns, the company's president, decided to donate the day to the Dragonfly Foundation.
"I thought about these kids and how nice it would be for them to get out of the hospital or just change their routine during their treatments, and get out to play some baseball at Great American Ballpark, having a meal, getting a jersey," Burns said.
"We only open up the field a few times a year for these types of events and for CBTS and John to donate one of these to the Dragonfly Foundation is a big deal," Reds Corporate Sales Manager Dave Collins said. "Getting to see these kids and all of the fun they are having -- it is worth every bit of it. At the end of the day, I bet we will look back and say that this was our best game of the year on this field."
The Dragonfly Foundation's cofounders, Ria Davidson and Christine Neitzke, said the "Dragonflies," as the patients benefitted by the foundation are dubbed, were excited.
The foundation got its start two years ago, when Neitzke's son Matt was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"The Neitzkes were fortunate to have the support of family, friends, their church, the local baseball community and even strangers who heard about Matt from others," said Ria Davidson, one of the people who helped the family through this dark time. "We did everything we could to make him smile. While we did, you couldn't help but notice that other families, other children, did not have the same support as the Neitzkes."
That lack of support led Nietzke and Davidson, Neitzke's best friend, to form The Dragonfly Foundation.
"The Dragonfly Foundation wants to bring smiles to kids and families that need it." Davidson said. "Every day that you are receiving treatment or are in the hospital, there are challenges that you have to go through. You are separated from friends and family and we try to make it easier to meet new friends and family. We try to make it easier to meet new friends and have a family that knows what they are going through.
"We have 188 families that we support right now, and about 500 volunteers. We have 40 players here (Monday) and 60 other family members here."
"When Cincinnati Bell called us, and said 'Hey, would you like to play a game at the Reds stadium?' Who could say no?" Davidson asked. "It's awesome to be involved with baseball and the Reds -- our kids just love baseball and baseball is about family. What a better way to show that than to have our families here?"
The Dragonflies hammed it up on the field. Six-year-old Matt Kuntz, who has cancer, performed a Pete Rose-esque headfirst slide -- after he had already passed the base. One little boy rounded first, destined not for second base, but for the outfield wall, which he touched before coming back to the infield. Yet another patient ran the bases -- backwards. A few young Dragonflies even treated the crowd to their own rendition of the National Anthem.
Davidson and Neitzke surprised some of the Dragonflies -- a few were told they were only attending a Reds game, when, in fact, they were the Reds game. Parents watching the proceedings from seats in the Diamond Club emphasized the significance of the event.
"It just means the world to us because [my daughter] is not allowed to do other things that normal kids are. So this gives her the opportunity to have a normal childhood for a day," said Heidi Slattery, mother to Riley, 2, who suffers from ALL (acute lymphoblastic lymphoma).
"I think it is encouraging to know that people beyond their immediate family really do care about them and what they are going through," added Tod Miller, the father of Ridgway, 10, who also has ALL. "And to give them the encouragement to overcome some of the difficulties they have of not being an average kid, but extra special."
The game also included siblings of the sick children, another meaningful aspect of the day for Dragonfly parents.
"I felt like a Reds player! I went two bases without stopping," proclaimed Amani Salem, 11, whose little brother deals with medical issues.
"It is so important and so special that they let the other kids in the family participate as well, because they have felt left out in the past," said Sherie Miller, who had four children attending Monday's game. "You know, as parents, we have to be at the hospital all of the time with our sick kids, so our other kids are at home or with other people taking care of them, so they start feeling left out. So they don't get as much time with mom or dad, so when we get to do family things like this, it's wonderful. Cancer doesn't just touch our sick child, it affects the whole family."
Tyler St. Clair, 22, whose osteosarcoma is in remission, had his parents and grandparents and a friend cheering him on Monday.
"To bring happiness to my family and to my boys who have also been affected by what she is going through [is huge]," said Jamie Mason, mother to Ella-Reid, 3, who is sick, as well as three sons. "For our family to be able to spend quality time together ... this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"One of our families said it best: 'We are a club you don't want to join, but we are also a club you never want to leave,'" Davidson said.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.