WooSox host Fidrych Foundation, Challenger players take the field

On August 21, 2021, Challenger League players had the chance to live in the shoes of a WooSox player as they took the field at Polar Park as part of a Mark Fidrych Foundation event.

This was an awesome opportunity for the players, who were kids of a variety of ages with special needs. It’s all thanks to the WooSox partnership with the Fidrych Foundation.

A longtime partnership

Even back in Pawtucket, the Red Sox AAA affiliate has always given back to the community around them and made their ballpark accessible to all audiences. As part of this, they have longtime partnerships with both the Challenger League, a baseball league for those with physical and developmental disabilities, and the Mark Fidrych Foundation, an organization that enhances the lives of those with special needs through sports and sports education. The Fidrych Foundation was started by the family of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych after he died in a tractor accident back in 2009. Fidrych, a former MLB pitcher who spent time with the AAA Red Sox, was highly involved in the community of his hometown of Northborough, MA prior to his death and his family wanted to continue his legacy.

When the team moved to Worcester and became the WooSox, it was the perfect opportunity to bring their Fidrych Foundation and Challenger partnerships together, as the Foundation supports Challenger teams in many nearby towns.

I caught up with Ann and Jessica Fidrych from the Foundation as well as Joe Bradlee, the WooSox Vice President of Baseball Operations and Community Relations, who spoke about the partnership.

Challenger League comes to bat

To begin the day, Challenger League players and their buddies were welcomed onto the field and each player got the chance to bat and run the bases.

As players came up to bat, their names were announced, just like the real WooSox players.

Bradlee pitched to the players and multiple coaches and WooSox staff members, including former Red Sox catcher and current WooSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, played the field.

I caught up with Gedman after the game. Gedman is a Worcester native and is proud to be involved not only with the WooSox but also in giving back to the Worcester community.

I also spoke with several long time Challenger League players: Krish from Shrewsbury, Tobin from Southborough, and Jay from Framingham. All three of them had nice hits off of Bradlee, and Krish had one of the biggest hits of the day as he drilled the ball down the third base line. Krish said it was a result of him continuing to work on his swing.

Parents were able to watch their kids from the berm. I spoke with the parents of Ryan Love, a longtime Shrewsbury Challenger League player. They were ecstatic about Ryan having the opportunity to take an at bat at Polar Park.

Outstanding volunteers honored

After the players finished batting and running, the Fidrych Foundation announced the honorees of their annual Citizenship Award. The award was given to four individuals who have volunteered as buddies in Fidrych Foundation programs. According to the Foundation’s website, the Citizenship Award is for “young men and women who have actively participated in and advocated for special needs athletic involvement within their surrounding communities.” This year’s winners were Kyle Daunais, Gianni Colonero, Michael Warwick, and Chase Collins.

Kyle and Gianni, both longtime Challenger League buddies, were in attendance. I had the chance to speak with both of them after they received their awards. They were glad the Foundation was so appreciative of their volunteer efforts and were happy to take part in this welcoming community.

Ken’s Foods welcomes Challenger League back

Thanks to Ken’s Foods, all the Challenger League players, buddies, and their families were welcomed back to Polar Park later that day for the game against the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees. The Fidrych Foundation was honored as part of the pregame ceremony. This topped off a fun day for everyone involved in this evolving partnership.

The Fidrych Foundation not only improves the lives of the players, but also gives teenagers in the area a chance to make a difference in their community. I have several friends who have gotten involved either as players or volunteers, and when I played in the Northborough Challenger League for its first five years, I truly saw how much the Foundation did to make the Challenger players feel special.

The WooSox have continued to welcome people from all backgrounds to the ballpark with open arms, and I think it’s amazing that they’re supporting an organization like the Fidrych Foundation.

Making My Mark with the Fidrych Foundation

Today, thanks to The Mark Fidrych Foundation, I was invited to play in their 8th annual charity softball tournament.  They sponsored me and all the friends and family of the Northborough Challenger Baseball League.  Like in past years, it was a great way to put a closing on my Challenger Baseball season. The Fidrych Foundation has sponsored my team for the last 5 years and I am so appreciative to have the opportunity to play organized baseball.

Today’s event, held at Memorial Field and Casey Field in Northborough, was even more exciting than last year’s event.  I played third base on the Challenger/Miracle League team and my dad Ken played with me on the field at first.  He batted after me and you can see us both on the bases below.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with some of my teammates after the game, including NCAA 1989 Final Four basketball star for Illinois, Matthew Schnaderbeck, along with his wife, Catherine, and his two daughters, Jessica and Alexis.  Here’s me with Matthew and his daughters after we had lunch.

I had a lot of fun playing softball and even caught a hot line drive hit right to me at third and also made a few plays throwing to my dad at first.  My teammates and I all got to bat twice, once each inning, so I was happy to get two hits.  After I finished playing, I met up with one of my long time Challenger coaches, Sean Durkin, who has taught me so much over the years and he told me he was proud to see how well I played.

Before leaving, I was very excited to get some photo opportunities with some well-known sports personalities. First, I took a photo with Tessie the Green Monster.  After that, I met up with Women’s Olympic Hockey Gold Medalist Haley Skarupa.  Last but not least, I met up again with sports broadcaster Joe Braverman, who graduated from my high school, Algonquin Regional High School and now I am trying to follow in his footsteps with the same great high school sports coverage that Joe did for four years.  I have already started with “Gonk Knocks” covering the T-Hawks football team and look forward to getting some help from Joe during the year.

I’d like to thank Ann Fidyrich and the entire Fidrych Foundation staff and volunteers for sponsoring me year after year to play baseball and softball in the Spring and Summer.  Today’s event was a lot of fun and I can’t wait to play again in the Spring.

Massachusetts Pirates Blowout Steelhawks in Final Regular Season Game, Playoff Bound

Yesterday I attended the final Massachusetts Pirates game of the regular season.   I won the tickets in a Mark Fidrych Foundation raffle at the 2018 Make Your Mark Kickoff Event.  (NOTE: the Make Your Mark softball tournament will be held on August 18th at Casey & Memorial Field in Northborough).  I went to the game with my dad, my longtime friend Paul Alfonso, and his dad Tony.

The Pirates play in the National Arena League (NAL), one of many Arena Football leagues across the country.  The season takes place between April and August, ending right around the start of the NFL season.  I’ve been to one Pirates game earlier this year when they played the Maine Mammoths back in May, so I knew that although Arena Football has many differences from NFL football, it was still very exciting.

Arena football is an 8 on 8 game.  There are no designated running backs, but offensive linemen will sometimes run the ball.  Typically, the starting offense is made up of a QB, three wide receivers, and four offensive linemen.  The defense typically has three defensive linemen, two linebackers, and three defensive backs on the field.  The Pirates fans are often called the 9th man, because like the Seahawks in the NFL, they are the league’s loudest fans.  The game is played on a 50-yard field rather than a 100-yard field and is often played in hockey stadiums.  Players will often be pushed into the boards which is considered out of bounds, but sometimes wide receivers dive over the boards to make catches and if they do, it’s considered a completion.  The downsized field makes for much higher scoring.  Although the uprights are narrower, kickers can often make it through the uprights on a kickoff from the opposite end zone, scoring what is often called a “deuce”, worth two points.  The smaller field also makes it so nobody ever punts.  On fourth down, teams will either go for it or go for a field goal.

The 10-5 Pirates were scheduled to play the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, the worst team by win-loss record in the NAL.  They had not won a game all season long, and they were 0-14 going into this game, their final game of the regular season.  The game was held at the DCU Center in Worcester, the home of the Massachusetts Pirates.  The stadium also currently hosts the Worcester Railers, the ECHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, and was formerly home to the Worcester Sharks (now the San Jose Barracuda), the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate.

We all made score predictions on our way to the game:

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We arrived at the game, bought some pizza, popcorn, and soft drinks, and took our seats.  Before the game, the Pirates welcomed members of the Special Olympics of Massachusetts team, who were attending the game.

The game began and the Pirates got off to a fast start after the Steelhawks won the toss and deferred.  Pirates QB Sean Brackett was out with a sprained ankle but QB Darron Thomas was doing a good job filling in.  He completed a deep pass to WR Lavon Pearson to get the Pirates close to the end zone.  A Pirates o-lineman ran in the TD to put the Pirates up 7-0.  Steelhawks kicker Spencer Hotaling was off to a rough start.  He attempted a “deuce” on the opening kickoff and missed.  He also missed in a Steelhawks FG attempt, but the Pirates defense had shut down Lehigh Valley quickly in their first drive, making for a difficult kick.  Despite a nice catch by WR Charles McClain, the Steelhawks were shut down again in their next drive, and Spencer Hotaling’s field goal attempt was blocked.

The Pirates scored another TD on a huge catch by WR Mardy Gilyard.  He was being covered very closely by the defense, yet he still scored.  Although Pirates K Ali Mourtada missed the extra point, he scored a “deuce” on the kickoff, making it 15-0 Massachusetts.

To start the 2nd quarter, Lavon Pearson made a catch that set the Pirates up to score another touchdown.

The Pirates scored another one soon after on a one-handed catch by Lavon Pearson.  The Steelhawks did not make much progress offensively in the 2nd quarter, and they were so far behind that they had to start going for it every time on 4th down.  With little time left in the half, the Pirates had one more scoring opportunity.  Darron Thomas had one long pass that was deflected into the stands but completed a long pass on the next down to make it 1st and goal for the Pirates.  The Pirates tried to eat some clock before scoring in order to make sure the Steelhawks did not get another chance before the half.  But they lost the ball in a fumble, losing the opportunity to score.  However, they were up 29-0 at halftime.  The Steelhawks nearly scored on a nice pass just before the half but failed.

During the half, I enjoyed a mini football game between the Worcester Police Department and the Worcester Fire Department.  More fans were rooting for the fire department but it ended in 14-14 tie.  Here is some video I took of this mini-game:

The Pirates scored another pair of touchdowns in the third quarter.  They scored one on a fumble by Steelhawks QB Patrick Ryan that was recovered for a TD by RJ Roberts, and the other on a deep pass to Lavon Pearson.  Ali Mourtada scored a deuce after that one to make it 44-0 Pirates.  Mardy Gilyard scored another TD just minutes into the 4th.  Here is Gilyard’s TD:

The Steelhawks scored their only TD of the game by recovering their own fumble. The ball was nearly recovered by two Pirates players but found its way into the end zone, where Jason Johnson recovered it for the TD.  The Pirates scored 2 more touchdowns before the end of the game.  Lavon Pearson scored on a long ball to make it 58-7 Pirates, and another Pirates TD was scored when Spencer Hotaling missed a long field goal that Pirates DB John Hardy-Tulieau returned for the touchdown.  Mourtada made one more deuce to make the final score Pirates, 67, Steelhawks, 7.  My dad came the closest to predicting the score but we all overestimated the Steelhawks offense.

During the game, I noticed a man with a laptop sitting near us.  I gave him my business card and it turns out that he was writing a recap on the game for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.  His name was Bill Gilman.

The Pirates, who finished the season 11-5, will play at home in the NAL semifinals next week.  They will host either the #3 seed, the Carolina Cobras, or the #4 seed, the Columbus Lions.  It all depends on whether the Jacksonville Sharks beat the Maine Mammoths tonight.  If the Sharks win, the Pirates are the #2 seed and play Carolina.  Otherwise, the Pirates are the #1 seed and host Columbus.  The Steelhawks missed the playoffs after a 0-15 finish.

After the game, they allowed fans to walk onto the field for an autograph and photo session.  Paul and I took plenty of pictures on the field, some of them with Pirates players.  I gave the players and a couple fans my business card as well.  Paul got his Pirates football signed by all the players we took photos with.

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Me and Paul in the end zone

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With OL Cornelius Lewis

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With WR Mardy Gilyard

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With OL Bill Vavau

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With DL Kaelin Burnett

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With DB Cheatham Norrils

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With OL Thomas Claiborne

I even met Special Olympic powerlifter Joe Morrill, Team Massachusetts’ only powerlifter at the USA Games, on the field.  He had his USA Games medals with him.  He won two golds (combo and deadlift) and two silvers (bench press and squat).  He had roomed with Tyler Lagasse in Marlborough before.  Speaking of Tyler, I am meeting with him and his family at APEX tomorrow to celebrate his silver medal win at the USA Games, where I will go live on Facebook with Tyler and compete with him in simulation golf, go-kart races, Olympic bubble hockey, candlepin bowling, and other games.

I had a great time at the Pirates’ final game of the season.  Arena football is fast-paced and very exciting.  The rule differences from the NFL give football fans a nice indoor viewing experience during the NFL offseason.  I’d like to thank Ann Fidrych, Jessica Fidrych, and the Mark Fidrych Foundation for making this amazing experience possible.