Volume 79, Number 7 | July 22 - 28, 2009
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Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

A-Rod talked to members of the Majors Division A’s at J.J. Walker Field on Tuesday.

Yankees salute Little League’s M.V.P. — Most Valuable Person

By Lincoln Anderson

During this past Greenwich Village Little League season, Thomas Ellenson always led his Majors Division Athletics team onto J.J. Walker Field, proudly scooting ahead of them in his motorized wheelchair as they entered from the center-field gate. On Tuesday afternoon, he again preceded a group of ballplayers onto the artificial-turf field — except this time the players were Yankee superstars Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain.

The three pros — wearing T-shirts, jeans and sneakers — came to J.J. Walker, at Clarkson and Hudson Sts., to honor Ellenson and his teammates as part of the Yankees’ first annual HOPE Week, HOPE standing for Helping Others Persevere & Excel. Each day from Mon., July 20, through Fri., July 24, the Yankees will be reaching out to an individual, family or organization that the Yankees deem “worthy of recognition and support.”

The Villager’s front-page article on Thomas three weeks ago caught the eye of Yankee officials, and it was decided that Thomas and his teammates should be part of HOPE Week.

Ellenson, 12, who has cerebral palsy and uses a device called a Tango to talk, was an integral part of the A’s championship season in which they went 15-2, winning the American League Division. In addition to leading the team out onto the field, Thomas would announce the lineup, play the “Charge!” music on his Tango, give high-fives to his teammates and keep track of the pitch count. Beyond all of the above, he was the “intangible” in the A’s championship season — teaching them about humanity and what’s really important in life. For all of that, this year he earned the team’s Most Valuable Person Award.

Thomas’s dad, Richard, invented the Tango, which Thomas has been using for the last two and a half years, before which Thomas had never spoken. Thomas pushes buttons on the device to play words and sentences, which are prerecorded by his father and then altered in pitch to sound like a boy’s voice.

Thomas, his friends and his dad first ate lunch with the three Yankees at nearby restaurant Out of the Kitchen. After they entered the field to cheers, they assembled at a spot in left field, and huddled with the rest of the A’s, while a crew from ESPN, the cable TV sports channel, filmed them for an upcoming segment.

“A-Rod!” and “Joba the Hut!” cried out kids ringing the outside of the fence. The event, which had only about 75 people, was by invitation only, and was mainly composed of the A’s team and their families and other select G.V.L.L. volunteers and board members. This was done on the Yankees’ advice to keep the event manageable, according to Rich Caccappolo, the league’s immediate past president.

Daniel Miller, the A’s coach and league vice president, is longtime friends with Thomas’s dad, which is what led Thomas, who lives on the Upper East Side, to get involved with the G.V.L.L. A’s.

“How awesome is it that we’re here with the Yankees on our home field?” Miller asked the crowd as he took the microphone at the start of the event. “We want to extend our hope that the Yankees can follow in our footsteps and win a championship of their own in October,” he said to cheers.

Miller noted that the league “had to break a few rules” to allow Thomas to be in the dugout with the A’s. But it was necessary so that Thomas could be with the team, “not only as a fan, but as a very, very important member of our team,” he said.

“My son said it very simply the other day,” Miller said: “ ‘Tom wouldn’t be here without the A’s, and we wouldn’t be here without Tom.”

Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain ran a pitching clinic for the A’s.

Tom gives the intros

Next, using his Tango, Thomas took over the show in his usual role, intro’ing both the pros and the Little Leaguers:

“It’s incredibly exciting to be here today! I think I’m about to introduce some Yankees!” Then, more emphatically and at a louder volume: “Actually, let me say that again — I am about to introduce some New York Yankees!” he said, expertly sparking cheers from the crowd.

“My man — Andy Pettitte!” Thomas started off, as the pitcher went down the line slapping hands with all the G.V.L.L. players, then came out and slapped Thomas’s hand and stood behind him.

“O.K., here we go,” Thomas said next, “Joba, Joba, Joba — Chamberlain!” And the process repeated.

“Now — on my home field — we’re talking ‘home run…’ ” Thomas said dramatically, “A-Rod!” And the Yankee slugger slapped everyone’s hands and joined his teammates near Thomas.

Then, Thomas did the honors for all his teammates, who, one by one, came out and slapped hands with first, Thomas, and then the Yankee players.

The three Yankees next took the mic and gave remarks.

“It’s an honor to be here,” Chamberlain said. “It’s something I’ve lived with and been around a long time: My father has polio. A popular conception about people with cerebral palsy is they’re different. They’re not. I dress different than Andy, and we talk different. … At the end of the day, we’re all the same.

“Congratulations on your championship,” he told the A’s.

Pettitte took the mic from his fellow starting pitcher.

“Just what a great story this is,” he said, “that you guys could get him in the dugout with you guys. He’s a huge part of the team. It’s just a blessing,” said Pettitte, who is well known for his deep faith. “I thank God I’ve had the opportunity to be here today.”

Pettitte said of the idea behind the Yankees’ HOPE Week, “That’s what we should do — is try to make a difference and touch people’s lives. Tom, we’re proud of you — and it’s awesome to see what’s being done around here.”

Thomas Ellenson and his dad, Richard, had the time of their lives.

Pro skills clinics

A-Rod didn’t take the mic to make remarks, and the three pros then led the young A’s in a skills clinic, along with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. In groups of four or five, the A’s ran from station to station, taking turns at each one. A-Rod led a fielding drill at second base. In right field Pettitte and Chamberlain watched the A’s throw off a mound to a catcher. Out in left field, Long tossed balls as the A’s whacked them into the chain-link fence.

A-Rod imparted the three basic skills of fielding to the players: Put your mitt out in front of you on the ground, not right under you; step toward your target as you throw; and keep your head still.

“Nope…back foot,” A-Rod pointed out, after one A had shifted his feet incorrectly while throwing.

“There ya go,” he said approvingly, after the player did it right the next time.

Afterward, the pros fielded the media’s questions. Asked by The Villager what he thought about the event being in Greenwich Village, Rodriguez said, “It’s just great to be in the city and actually have a ball field here. You can see why these kids won a championship. They obviously have a lot of confidence,” he said, saying it was a credit to the Little Leaguers’ families. “The most important thing that comes out is the beautiful attitude.”

Asked by The Villager how he thought the G.V.L.L.’ers looked pitching off the mound, Chamberlain quipped, “They’re pretty good — I think some of their mechanics are better than mine.

“It’s about having fun at this age,” the fireballing hurler added. “I think this league has done a good job of keeping things in perspective and getting everybody involved.”

Before the players left, they were mobbed for autographs, with Pettitte patiently staying the longest to sign baseballs and pieces of paper eagerly thrust toward him.

“I’m going to put it in like a safe,” said Harry Swanson, 9, of his baseball with Pettitte’s signature, before he promptly bounced it off the artificial turf.

Jarred Caccappolo, 13, from the A’s said the clinics were “a lot of fun and they gave us some tips. Kevin Long said, ‘Have an open stance but point your toes.’”

Trip to stadium

Later on, the A’s and other Little Leaguers and league leaders went to the Baltimore game at Yankee Stadium and sat in 30 seats right behind home plate, courtesy of the Yankees. They met the whole Yankees team, toured the new stadium and saw Monument Park, as well.

The A’s “threw out” the game’s first pitch, by forming a line between the mound and home plate, passing the ball from one to the other, and then giving it to Thomas as the catcher.

After the Yankees won, Thomas did his specialty, leading his A’s teammates and the Yankees out onto the field after the victory.

Caccappolo said the Yankees’ visit to the Village ball field came about because of The Villager’s article, which was written by intern Rita Wu.

“Rita’s article got to Jason Zillo [Yankees media relations director] and Jason said, ‘That’s exactly what every Little League should be,’” Caccappolo said. “The reason they were so happy about this — what they told us — is that Little League should include the whole community, and that’s why they liked the article.”

Richard Ellenson noted that he has disability contacts at Yankee Stadium, but that The Villager’s article took Thomas’s story “to a whole new level.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m a disability dad,’” he noted. “But it’s another thing to say, ‘Look at the beautiful article in The Villager, and the beautiful cover photo’ — it represents the best in Greenwich Village and the best in the world,” he said of the story of his son and the A’s and G.V.L.L.

As for the Tango device that he created, he said, “There are hundreds of thousands of people in America who can’t speak and who don’t have a voice, from the guy who came back from Iraq to the baby born with cerebral palsy. This is HOPE Week — in 10 years, it will be Reality Week.”

George Usher, the Little League’s new president, said, “I thought it was just a tremendous community event. That’s the thing about Little League — it brings everyone together in one setting, like a small town and with those same old-home vibrations.”

‘Greatest day ever’

Carlo Saldano, the A’s manager, said it was just a great day all around, in fact, the best he’s ever had.

“I’m a big Yankee fan — to be up in front of A-Rod, and especially Joba Chamberlain, and Alex Rodriguez — the greatest day of my life, definitely. More important, it was a great day for Thomas. Having him on our team was a special experience for our team. We always put Thomas out the first of the line — I never let anyone get ahead of him — when we shake hands [with the opposing team].

“I don’t think it was just our team. It was the whole American League Division,” Saldano said of Thomas’s impact. “They looked forward to having him on the field. Everybody embraced him.”

Although Thomas will “age out” of Little League when he turns 13, Saldano stated definitively, “He’s welcome on my bench anytime, whether he ages out.” In fact, he added, “There’s no doubt in my mind that he will come back.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents Greenwich Village, and Assemblymember Micah Kellner, who represents the Upper East Side, also were at J. J. Walker.

“This event was a great recognition not just of what our local Little Leaguers have accomplished, but what we can all achieve if look past small differences and work together,” said Quinn. “Congratulations to Tom and his team on a great season.”

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