For those who grew up on Roosevelt Island, it was just like being back in Little League.
They were playing ball with their friends at Tony Capobianco Field, the park they grew up playing at. They still talked to friends and family through the fence as they waited for their turn to bat. If they shanked a foul ball down the first base line, with some luck they could see the ball splash into the East River. The only difference was why they were there.
The Fourth Annual Tim Sheehy Softball Classic was this past Saturday, and was the second half of a week of fundraising efforts by Project Main St. and Team Gleason. The two organizations seek to improve the quality of life for individuals living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This week they raised over $230,000, which will be used to provide direct financial assistance for home health care, eye gaze machines to facilitate speaking, wheelchairs and transportation, and more ways to assist people with ALS.
Tim Sheehy and his friends grew up on Roosevelt Island, the 147-acre narrow island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. They all played little league together on a local field on Saturdays, before adults took the field on Sunday to play softball. When people returned from college, they would join the Sunday softball games.
In 2005, Sheehy was diagnosed with ALS, and Project Main St. was founded to help people living with ALS. At the time, much of the costs associated with living with ALS were not covered by health care, and there were few organizations that served to help people with ALS be able to continue living meaningful and productive lives. ESPN baseball play-by-play announcer Jon Sciambi was one of Tim’s friends and is a board member of Project Main St., and has helped bring awareness of the cause and the organization to the larger baseball community. Sciambi hosted Project Main St.’s other event this week, the second annual Tim Sheehy Gala, on May 29th at the Museum of the City of New York. Attendees included former players such as Al Leiter, Derrek Lee and Robin Ventura, as well as media members like Ken Rosenthal and Julie Stewart-Binks. There were silent and live auctions, with items including jewelry, signed memorabilia from players like Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, and Ken Griffey Jr., a trip to MLB All-Star week, as well as the ability to donate directly to Team Gleason.
"I'm pretty overwhelmed by the support in the baseball community,” said Sciambi, who is also a board member of Project Main St. “The Yankees have been amazing, the Red Sox have been incredible, the Cubs have been so supportive. I got a poster from the Fenway Park show that Pearl Jam played. They signed it, and then retweeted the auction link and it went for over $4,000."
According to the ALS Association, over 6,000 people are diagnosed with ALS in America annually. ALS causes the degeneration of motor neurons, causing those who have it to lose motor functions. Individuals with ALS can lose the ability to breathe without life support when the muscles in their chest and diaphragm stop working. People who live with ALS usually retain their cognitive abilities and their senses. There is no cure for ALS yet, and the cause is unknown.
Project Main St.’s motto is “until there is a cure, there is care.” They help people who are living with ALS by providing financial assistance to help people cover expenses associated with ALS. They partnered with Team Gleason last year not only to help grow their size and impact, but also because Team Gleason is additionally focused on developing and providing technology and equipment, including communication devices and home automation devices.
With ALS largely recognized and associated with one of the sport’s all-time greats, still commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, baseball has continued to be involved with ALS issues. In 2009 and 2014, MLB honored the 70th and 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s speech by forming “4 ALS”, reading Gehrig’s speech during the 7th inning stretch of games on the 4th of July, and raising money for four different ALS organizations. Last year, inspired by Pete Frates, the former Boston College outfielder who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 and was one of the people behind the ice bucket challenge, MLB launched #MLBFightsALS, a week-long effort to raise funds for home health care.
"This is baseball's disease, let's not kid ourselves,” said Sciambi. "I mean it's called Lou Gehrig's disease. I do think that baseball should own it, and we should have a day designated, however you want to do it. Pick a color. They do pink for Mother's Day and blue for Father's Day, but we can pick green, and even something as simple as that. If everybody in baseball is wearing green socks on the day that we pick. 'Hey, why were the Yankees and the Mets wearing green socks today?' 'For ALS awareness.' That's the type of thing I would love to see happen going forward."
While they weren’t all wearing green socks for ALS at the Sheehy softball classic, they had shirts donated by Nike, and hats donated by New Era. This was the fourth year of the softball classic, and last year’s players included Derrek Lee, Jessica Mendoza, and Aaron Boone. Generations of Roosevelt Islanders had raised money together, even going door to door to raise awareness, and now got to play together and support a cause started by a friend.
“Obviously you want to get the message out there, and you want to find more people with deep pockets to contribute to the cause,” said Sciambi. “The other part of it that I really love is this: we get to talk about Tim. Ok it’s sad. It’s sad, alright. But I get to talk about my friend.”