A Champion in the Dugout

Here’s a question to ponder as the Wilmington University baseball team’s 2019 season gets into full swing:

baseball seniors
The 2018 baseball seniors flank Mike Smith. From left: Christian Adorno, Kyle Fries, Nick Grant, Chuck Delagol; Front: Nick Macey, Mike Smith, Zach Rumford

Is Mike Smith’s presence in the Wildcat dugout more beneficial to him or to the team?
Call it even.

A WilmU student, Smith is afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. DMD is a genetic disease that causes muscle degeneration and weakness in the body, and as a result he is confined to a wheelchair. Last year, he became the baseball team’s second “Muscle Champion,” which means he was awarded a Letter of Participation and gets to sit in the dugout during games.

Coach Brian August and the entire team have welcomed Smith. “Our guys really feed off him being around us,” says August. “Mike has a great attitude and our guys love having him with us. He has such a positive outlook in life every day. You can’t believe he has problems because he’s so positive.”

Max Carney, one of the team’s tri-captains, says Smith’s impact is evident as soon as he appears at a game. “You get such a charge when you see him come rolling down the warning track,” Carney says. “The mood in the dugout lightens.”

Smith’s presence also amps up the pressure — in a good way — on the players. “We don’t want to strike out or, if we’re in the field, we don’t want to walk anybody,” Carney says. “We’re putting our muscles to the test because he can’t, and we don’t want to let him down.”
Frank Nigro, another captain, says Smith makes players realize “how blessed we are.” As a result, says the 6-3 catcher, “we don’t take [our abilities] for granted.”

For his part, Smith is thrilled to be a member of the team. “It’s so cool,” he says. “I’ve never been part of a team before, and it has meant a lot to me. I get right in the dugout with the guys and feel like I’m a player. I’ve made great friends on the team that go beyond baseball.”
Says Nigro: “He’s a happy kid, always messing around. He hangs with us in the dugout and everyone is always talking to him.”

The bond between Smith and his teammates continues after the game ends. They compete against each other on PlayStation, which brings out Smith’s competitive streak. “I try to be the last team standing in Fortnite,” he says, adding that his favorite games are Call of Duty and Madden.

The team is providing more than companionship and emotional support for him. Through the Muscle Movement Foundation’s Charity of Champions program, players are raising awareness of neuromuscular diseases and soliciting pledges based on their on-field performance – RBIs and defensive strikeouts – throughout the season.

Rob DeMasi, the founder and president of MMF, suffers from an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. A cum laude graduate of WilmU and a nominee for the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award, DeMasi explains that a Muscle Champion is an individual living with and defying the odds against neuromuscular disease.

“My fellow Muscle Champions continue to win each day in the face of adversity,” he says. “This is why they are true champions, and they inspire so many.”

He explains that the foundation pairs “Muscle Champions” with athletic teams across the country, so it comes as no surprise to him that Smith and the Wildcat ballplayers derive inspiration from each other.

“Joining an athletic team creates a new support system for our affected families, through physical, financial and emotional support, plus memories that will last a lifetime,” he says.

As for the players, DeMasi says, “I believe they gain a new perspective about life. Witnessing the champion attitude many of our MMF Muscle Champions possess, despite living with muscle-debilitating symptoms and life-altering circumstances, inspires a new way of thinking. It allows our partnered athletes to understand the privilege of health and embrace their individualized health in full. It also increases students’ knowledge about their community, themselves and a variety of academic disciplines.”

The Wildcats welcomed their first Muscle Champion, Eddie Hazeldine, who was then 13, three years ago. The team raised about $3,000 for him, according to DeMasi.

“That enabled the MMF to grant him a wheelchair-accessible ramp for his home,” he says. “Eddie has successfully transitioned into a power wheelchair and has a clear and safe entry to his home now. MMF also provided Eddie’s family a wheelchair-accessible automobile.”

He adds that Hazeldine is currently a student at Delcastle Technical High School and is doing well.

Smith, who graduated from McKean High School in Wilmington, enrolled at WilmU in 2016. He originally planned to study Sports Management, but quickly changed direction when he discovered that the University offered Video Game Design.

The 22-year-old New Castle resident has found a welcoming and supportive atmosphere on campus. “WilmU is great with accommodations,” he says. “I can’t really write notes, so they supply a note taker. And all the classes I’ve had are easy to get around to.”

Smith, who lives with his parents not far from WilmU’s New Castle campus, has battled DMD since the age of 5. Throughout those 17 years, he says, he has had great support from his family and friends, which now includes the Wilmington University baseball team.

“They make me realize I’m more than just some guy in a wheelchair,” he says.

Meanwhile, his teammates are battling to improve on last year’s 35-21 record. But no matter what their final record may be, they’re already champions.

-Bob Yearick