SAN DIEGO – Maytown, Pa., outfielder Willie Burger transformed himself into a Perfect Game All-American by dropping 50 pounds over the past 14 months and by staying dedicated to a rigorous workout routine, healthy diet, and keeping his nose to the grindstone.
His dogged determination and attention to detail paid off again for the talented 6-foot, 195-pound senior at Lancaster (Pa.) Catholic High School, but this time it isn’t college recruiters or professional scouts who will benefit. This time, it is all the pediatric cancer patients being cared for at San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital.
This is the first time in the 12-year history of the Perfect Game All-American Classic that the 54 players on the East and West rosters were asked to do individual fund-raising in their communities in the weeks leading up to the game, and every one of them embraced the challenge.
Officials had originally set a target of around $20,000 for the two teams combined and the players blew that figure out of the water, with the total expected to reach nearly $50,000 when all the donations are tabulated.
Burger was able to raise a jaw-dropping $5,725 in a little over a month’s time, or nearly a quarter of the entire total raised by the members of the East team. He takes a lot of pride in his ability to raise those much-needed funds for the children’s hospital.
“When you’re selected to a game like this it’s amazing, and you walk away proud to be able to actually do something with that selection and be able to make a difference with that selection,” Burger said Friday morning during the players’ annual visit to Rady, which is the PG All-American Classic’s beneficiary. “Luckily, everybody was very generous and able to give to this cause. The fund-raising part of this was just amazing.”
Everything about the Classic’s partnership with Rady is amazing, and the annual visit to the children’s hospital has become the highlight of the four days the All-Americans get to spend in this beautiful city that sits on the Pacific Coast.
The players are given an opportunity to interact with many of the young patients and it is often difficult to determine who is enjoying the interaction more – the patients or the prospects.
“These kids, they probably don’t get to do anything like this frequently, if at all,” East outfielder Kep Brown from Mount Pleasant, S.C., said Friday morning. “It’s an honor to be here and maybe this might help these kids fight a little bit harder, a little bit stronger; it might make their day, might make their week, maybe even their year. We’re just hoping to provide them with a fun time and hope they make it through this because that’s what we all want.”
Watching the teenage prospects interact with the very young cancer patients during the hour or two they spend out in a playground area on the hospital grounds is always a heart-warming sight to behold.
The activities include board games and coloring, but the favorite activity by far – for both patients and prospects – is when the players toss plastic balls at plastic bats wielded by the patients, who take absolute in delight in smoking the ball over the players’ heads.
“I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they’re out here playing with us,” West right-hander Beau Burrows from Weatherford, Texas, said. “I feel very blessed and I wish these kids had the same opportunities that I’ve had but I think it’s good for them that they can come out here and do this and play outside with all of us and smile and just have fun. I think that’s awesome.”
All of the players were taken on a tour of the facility in addition to the time they got to spend with several of the young patients out on the playground, and West outfielder Doak Dozier from Fort Worth, Texas, found the tour especially informative.
“They broke everything down and it’s amazing how far they’ve come from just having the original hospital to treat polio to now having this incredible center devoted to helping kids of all ages with all different illnesses,” he said. “It’s amazing getting to see this place and interact with these kids; they’re having a blast out here.”
Jahmai Jones, an electrifying East Team outfielder from Roswell, Ga., always seems to be having fun no matter what he’s doing, and the time he spent with the pediatric cancer patients Friday morning was no exception. Jones’ effervescent personality is infectious but he seemed to feed off the kids’ smiles as much as they fed off of his.
“I’m having a great time interacting with these kids, and this (visit) is for a great cause and these kids seem to love it,” he said after tossing some balls to one bat-wielding youngster. “As long as they’re enjoying themselves, I’m enjoying myself, too. You can see they’re having a great time; they love baseball and I’m just really excited they’re having a great time playing the game.”
“It’s amazing to know what the money goes to and to see kids like this that are fighting with these illnesses,” Burger added. “It’s amazing to actually come here … and interact with kids like this and to know that the money is going a good place and (the staff at Rady) is going to everything they can to help these kids.”
This year’s enhanced effort to raise money for Rady – the children’s hospital has been the beneficiary of the event eight of the last nine years – was greeted enthusiastically by everyone involved with the event. The players took their fund-raising duties seriously and on Friday got a first-hand look at how the money they raised will be spent.
“This is really eye-opening, and it’s a blessing for us to be able to come out here and raise money for these kids,” West infielder Parker Kelly from Portland, Ore., said. “It’s really cool to see how the things we’ve done on the field effects these kids off the field, kids that are in the hospital and sick. All the smiles and all the other things that we get when we come in here makes us feel good and makes us want to go out and work even harder.
“Just seeing all the smiles is heart-warming enough for us, and I feel very blessed to be here.”
The All-Americans naturally reached out to family and friends when seeking donations but were also pleasantly surprised to find how total strangers from across their respective communities were willing to chip in. It was those strangers’ generosity that most impressed the prospects.
“It just shows how many people care,” the East’s Brown said. “People we don’t even know donated, and it’s not just for us it’s for an unbelievable cause for these kids. Something like this can bring the world together, and it can do fascinating things to people and their priorities. It was truly and honor to be able to raise the money and have some people that I had never even met before contribute, because that is what these kids need.”
The East’s Jones, and extremely mature young man who lost his father when he was 13, said it was important to be able to give back to those who might be less fortunate due to circumstances outside of their control.
“The whole fund-raising part is probably the number-one reason why (Perfect Game) has this game,” he said. “Yeah, there is great talent out here but it’s for such a bigger cause than what everybody sees. Some children won’t get to experience the things that we get to experience so being able to raise money and donate our time with them is just a great cause.”
The West’s Dozier said the visit to the hospital left him encouraged that the money was being well-spent and would be used for improved facilities and treatment.
“It is really incredible and I’m glad I got to be a part of it and raise money for them,” he said. “These are kids that are just fighting for their lives and getting to come out here and enjoy the weather outside; it’s as simple as that. We take a lot of things for granted and then you see these kids having an absolute blast doing the simplest of tasks and getting to spend time with us; it’s really humbling.”
The 12th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic will be played Sunday evening at beautiful Petco Park in downtown San Diego. With the Rady fund-raising effort reaching its conclusion for this year and the visit to the children’s hospital behind them, the players can now start looking forward to the game.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday so much,” the West’s Kelly said. “I’ve played in one or two big-league stadiums but Petco is a great facility, a great park, and I just can’t wait to walk into the locker room and see the new Nike jerseys and put them on and go hit BP and be a big-leaguer for a day; hopefully, that’s the future that we get.
“This is an awesome experience and not too many guys get to be here and I’m just blessed to be in the same room with all these guys.”
For Burger, the fund-raising effort and the hospital visit will always be with him, even when he walks out on the field at Petco Park Sunday evening.
“It absolutely puts everything in perspective,” he said. “We’re out there playing a game on Sunday and they’re in here fighting for their lives, and it really is a humbling experience. It’s great just to know that with (PG All-American Classic) hat and this shirt on and with our abilities we can lighten their day and take a little load off of what they have to deal with.”