Yanks' visit speaks louder than words
HOPE Week turns to Little League's 'Most Valuable Person'
NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez tossed popups into the air above Greenwich Village on Tuesday, complimenting a young player's glove work. The offhand comment produced a beaming smile from the Little Leaguer, present for a rally and clinic with his heroes.
Nearby, Tom Ellenson wore the uniform of his A's club, stashing a Yankees cap on the back of his motorized wheelchair -- his two favorite teams being represented on the playing field. The team's Most Valuable Person may have been having the best time of all.
The sixth-grader has cerebral palsy, but there is nothing that he cannot be a part of. His father, Richard, created a device that allows non-verbal individuals like his son to communicate, and Richard Ellenson said that Tom was having a difficult time calming his nerves while taking a bath late Monday.
"He was so excited," Ellenson said. "He was kicking and moving around, and water was going everywhere. All week, everything was 'Yankees, Yankees, Yankees.' He couldn't wait to get here."
That snapshot from the second day of the Yankees' HOPE Week told only a portion of the story. A-Rod, Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain and Kevin Long were the latest representatives of the club to step out into the community, but as they offer the gift of their time, the Yankees are also finding that they receive a whole lot back.
"That's the irony of it all," Rodriguez said. "Everyone thinks the kids are having this moment. But for Joba, Pettitte and myself, and everyone in the organization, we get so much out of this. We really enjoy doing this. The lesson for us is in coming out and opening up your heart."
While cerebral palsy has not affected Tom's cognitive skills, it has rendered him non-verbal and unable to speak. Richard Ellenson created the Tango (www.dynavoxtech.com), a device that permits users to express their thoughts with speed and clarity.
Tom may not be able to take the field during games, but he has been as much a part of the team as anyone. Introducing the Yankees at the clinic, Tom recited his rallying cry for the league champion A's: "We play as one, we win as one!"
As the A's "MVP," Tom has responsibilities that include keeping score, programming the lineup into his computer for printouts, playing music that would inspire the team to victory and leading the roster onto the field for each game. The story was an inspiration for the Yankees.
"I'm a parent and I've got four kids, so my kids have been off to Little League," Pettitte said. "Just to see him whenever the kids come around him -- how excited he gets and how much these kids love him -- he's a part of the team. It's just a great story. If your heart can't be touched by something like this, you don't have a heart."
Chamberlain said that the event had special meaning for him. The pitcher's father, Harlan, also uses a motorized wheelchair, the result of a childhood bout with polio.
"They're no different," Chamberlain said. "They may go about it a different way, but at the end of the day, we all do things different. The more comfortable that you are around them, the more comfortable they're going to be with everyone else. It's going to make this world a better place."
With a focus on inclusive behavior, making sure everyone is able to participate equally, the Little League even honored Tom by having him lead the season-opening parade.
"Tom may not be on the field, but he's in the dugout," Ellenson said. "It means he's part of the team. Before the league really understood it all, he was made Most Valuable Player on the team, but that's not real. This year he was Most Valuable Person on the team, and that is real."
Despite his handicap in communication, Tom is able to express himself fluidly with his family and teammates -- something the Yankees witnessed firsthand as they enjoyed chicken fingers and Caesar salads with him at Out of the Kitchen, a Greenwich Village restaurant.
"Tom and I spent some time yesterday figuring out what he would want to ask the Yankees, and he had some really smart questions," Ellenson said. "Tom introduced his friends to the Yankees and he asked everybody questions.
"There was this wonderful energy, and everyone was mesmerized to watch so much communication coming out of this kid. They completely understood that this was his moment."
After Tom used his Tango to introduce each of the four Yankees -- who high-fived the A's and their "fans" -- a baseball clinic took place on the field with three separate stations.
Rodriguez instructed the Little Leaguers on fielding drills, whipping popups and ground balls on the turf field, while Pettitte and Chamberlain helped offer pitching tips by a mound. Long conducted tee work at a hitting station, offering basic tweaks to each player's stance.
"We never knew that we'd have this much fun coming out here," Rodriguez said. "Tom's story is really an incredible one. For all of us, it's a great example of teamwork and fellowship. The whole experience was just great."
Having enriched his son's life with technology, Ellenson has high hopes for the continued success of the Tango device, which allows users to launch fully customizable pre-programmed phrases with just the push of a button.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people in America who cannot speak and who don't have their own voice," Ellenson said. "There is opportunity for every single one. This is HOPE Week, and 10 years from now, this will be reality week. That's what's amazing."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.