HOPE Week: Vacations for cancer patients

HOPE Week concluded Friday with a visit by Yankees pitchers CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova and Adam Warren and infielders Brendan Ryan and Greg Bird, who surprised Frank Squeo at Rockland BOCES in West Nyack, N.Y., to bake cookies with him and his family.

Squeo, 47, was diagnosed with Stage III testicular cancer in 2007. During the months that followed, he began his fight against cancer, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Just as troubling to Frank, there were many children who were battling their cancer alongside of him – kids who did not know a life beyond hospitals or their disease. Frank promised himself that when he overcame his illness, he would do something to help these children.

In 2012, the Rockland County resident founded Baking Memories 4 Kids, a non-profit organization that sells chocolate chip cookies during the holiday season. The sales from those cookies fund all-expenses-paid vacations for the families of children with life-threatening illnesses to Give Kids the World Village, an Orlando, Fla., resort designed specifically for children with disabilities and illnesses.

While on their vacations, children and their families have the opportunity to visit any of the Orlando-area amusement parks and receive VIP treatment. If a child falls ill on the trip or is too sick to go out, the amusement park of their choosing brings the excitement to them at the resort.
Strictly by word of mouth Frank and local volunteers sold more than 3,000 batches of cookies during their first holiday season in 2012. They were able to more than double their sales in their second season.

In less than three years, Frank has processed more than 10,000 cookie orders and sent 10 families to Orlando on their dream vacation. In 2015, they have committed to sending nine more families.

Prior to Friday’s game against the Indians, the Yankees will team with Baking Memories 4 ids to help surprise Noah Diaz and his family with an all-expenses-paid vacation. Noah Diaz is a four-year-old who suffers from a rare heart defect and Kabuki syndrome.

Yanks need more than A-Rod’s power

Two nights ago, one home run by Alex Rodriguez was enough for the Yankees to win a game. Thursday night, one homer by A-Rod was not enough, although he provided the bulk of the offense in a 3-2 loss to the Indians.

In Monday night’s victory over the Twins, Rodriguez turned things around with his 25th career grand slam. The bases were empty in the fourth inning when he homered off Josh Tomlin, which they were often against the journeyman righthander, 30, coming back from shoulder surgery. The Yankees had only other hit off Tomlin in seven innings, a leadoff double in the third by Chase Headley, who was stranded.

Rodriguez triggered a ninth-inning rally as the Yanks threatened to pull this one out. He led off against closer Cody Allen with a single, and when the reliever did not pay attention to him at first base A-Rod swiped second.

Allen got a big strikeout of Brian McCann, who disputed the call but not as much as manager Joe Girardi, who took up the beef and got ejected for the third time this season. Plate umpire Dan Iassogna actually ran Girardi before the skipper even opened his mouth. Girardi then made sure he got his money’s worth.

In truth, the breaking ball Allen threw for the third strike on McCann was over the plate. Girardi’s argument indicated that he was more upset with Iassogna over a called third strike on Jacoby Ellsbury the previous inning on a pitch from righthander Bryan Shaw that video replays revealed was clearly off the outside corner of the plate. Girardi made a line in that area in the right-handed batter’s box to demonstrate to Iassogna where he thought the pitch was.

Carlos Beltran followed the McCann strikeouts with a solid single through the shift into right field to score Rodriguez and make it a one-run game. A walk to Greg Bird pushed pinch runner Chris Young into scoring position and put the potential winning run on base.

Those runners advanced when first baseman Carlos Santana bobbled a potential double-play grounder by Headley and had to settle for one out at first base, but Didi Gregorius could not get the hit the Yankees needed in flying out to left field.

The Yankees have done well against American League Central teams this year with a 17-9 record but continue to have trouble with the Indians, who are 3-1 against them this year. Ivan Nova had control problems and lasted only five innings in which he gave up three runs, six hits and two walks with four strikeouts. Adam Warren and Chris Capuano supplied two shutout innings of relief apiece, but the Yanks ultimately fell a run short.

HOPE Week: Special needs cheerleaders

The Yankees might try an alternative for the YMCA break between the sixth and seventh innings at Yankee Stadium. How about some players coming on to the field and doing a cheerleaders routine, complete with pom-poms?

Several Yankees players proved adept at such an exercise Thursday when they surprised the Hunterdon Huskies Contender Cheerleaders at the Jawonio Center in New City, N.Y., as part of the club’s HOPE Week initiative.

Coached by instructor Debbie House and the girls themselves, pitchers Andrew Miller, Michael Pineda, Chasen Shreve and Chris Capuano, catcher John Ryan Murphy and third base coach Joe Espada showed off some deft moves in doing a few of the squad’s regular routines. The Yankees players were joined by the Prime Time Players — the wrestling duo of Darren Young and Titus O’Neil, who are the reigning WWE tag team champions.

Before the Yankees’ contingent arrived, the cheerleaders went through their paces in a practice session in front of relatives and friends that drew wild applause. The girls wanted to be letter perfect for their guests from the Bronx.

The idea of the Hunterdon Huskies Contender Cheerleaders was born in the mind of House five years ago as the result of watching a national cheerleading competition on television at her home in Clinton Township, N.J. House noticed that there were teams of special needs cheerleaders performing between the competitive routines.

Although she does not have a special needs child, House has a passion for helping children who must persevere through Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism and saw in cheerleading a potential outlet for local young girls in similar circumstances. She approached officials from the Hunterdon Huskies cheerleading program to gauge interest in creating their own special needs team. The organization welcomed the idea and decided to create a team for the following year with House serving as head coach.

There were six girls in the first year of the program that is based in High Bridge, N.J. More girls joined up over succeeding years and the current squad is an even dozen students of high-school age. The Contender Cheerleaders are one of five such squads within the Huskies organization, which also sponsors eight football teams, including one for special needs boys.

Each August, the Contender team begins its season with bi-weekly practices and performs at Huskies home football games at Union Forge Park. They will make a trip in December to the 2015 American Youth Cheer National Championships in Kissimmee, Fla.

Overcome with emotion at the appearance of the Yankees, House said, “I could never imagine anything better.”

Her cheerleaders surely feel the same way about her program.

Yankees’ ‘Birdman’ flies high

Birdman won the Academy Award as Best Picture for last year, and the Yankees had their “Birdman” give an Oscar-winning performance Wednesday at Yankee Stadium in a 4-3 victory that completed a three-game sweep of the sinking Twins.

All four runs were driven in by rookie first baseman Greg Bird, who whacked a couple of two-run home runs off Ervin Santana. The initial homer, in the fourth inning following an infield single by Carlos Beltran, was the first of Bird’s major league career as was the curtain call urged on by the Stadium crowd of 38,086.

It provided a 2-0 lead for Nathan Eovaldi, who flirted with a perfect game for 5 1/3 innings before coming unglued somewhat in the sixth and allowed Minnesota to go ahead on two-out singles by Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe. Mauer singled with the bases full for two runs off a 3-2 fastball from Eovaldi, the one pitch of the 120 thrown by the righthander he wished he could have back.

“I tried to go middle-in,” Eovaldi said, “bad pitch selection.”

Plouffe’s hit was a dribbler between Eovaldi and third baseman Chase Headley that put the Twins ahead momentarily. Bird’s second homer, in the sixth following a walk to Beltran, returned the lead to Eovaldi, who protected it with a perfect seventh before Chasen Shreve and Dellin Betances (eighth save) followed with scoreless innings that preserved the victory for Eovaldi, who ran his record to 13-2.

This has been quite a week for Bird, who was called up from Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre a week ago and is hitting .333 with a double, two homers and five RBI. He started the winning rally Monday night, got his first major league RBI Tuesday night and his first homer Wednesday. He got the ball from his second homer because it landed in the Yankees’ bullpen. The first one wound up in the right field second deck.

“I don’t know yet,” he said about whether he can get that ball. “I’m just trying to do my job. It’s so much fun to come in here every day and hear what these guys have to say.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi described Bird as someone “with a slow heartbeat,” meaning that he does not get over-excited and keeps an even keel.

“Some players have to learn to slow the game down,” Girardi said. “That’s not the case with him.”

Bird concurred and said he inherited it from his parents, who were at the game seated in the terrace level behind first base. “I just like to be even-keeled and level-headed,” he said.

Bird got extra playing time during the series because regular first baseman Mark Teixeira has been sidelined with a badly bruised right shin. Bird does not play a position besides first base, but he might earn some more playing time if Girardi decides to sit Alex Rodriguez (0-for-3 Wednesday and hitting .131 in 61 at-bats in August) against some right-handed pitching and use Tex at DH to open up first base for Bird.

That is a consideration for the future. Bird was all about the present Wednesday, and what a present he gave the Yankees.

HOPE Week: Students pack kits for disadvantaged

At the start of the 2014-15 academic year, Robert Gardella, principal of the Southern Boulevard School in Chatham Township, N.J., embraced that core concept and adapted the HOPE Week initiative for his school. Principal Gardella, along with the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, wanted to reorganize the school’s service projects by taking inspiration from the Yankees’ HOPE Week.

Throughout the week of Nov. 17-21, 2014, kindergartners created weekend snack kits for low-income children who participate in the free lunch program. First-graders made care packages with essentials like diapers, baby wipes and other toiletries for infants from disadvantaged families in the local community.

Second-graders were tasked with making no-sew fleece blankets for Project Linus, an organization that provides blankets for children in need, whether it’s from illness, homelessness or abuse. Third-graders made “Holiday Hope Chests,” which consisted of decorated shoe boxes filled with small toys and art supplies which were distributed to children in local shelters during the holiday season.

Dozens of Southern Boulevard School students were at Yankee Stadium Wednesday to meet and spend time with outfielder Carlos Beltran, shortstop Didi Gregorius, pitcher Luis Severino and bench coach Rob Thompson, who thanked them for their service to the community.

Principal Gardella, accompanied by students Claire O’Rourke and Bennett Polomeni, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Yankees’ game against the Twins. After the game, the students and the Yankees players were to enjoy an ice cream party in the press conference room at the Stadium.

The school also encouraged students to apply the HOPE Week sentiment at home by seeking out items that could be donated to different causes. They created “Caring Corners” in the school, where students could bring in items to donate. One corner benefitted Jersey Coats, which assists families with coats during the cold winter months. Students also collected pennies for the Pennies of Peace program, which provides school supplies for children in impoverished communities overseas. The participation in this program is designed to broaden students’ horizons by teaching them about the impact they can make on a global scale.

By getting everyone involved—from the office staff, to the teachers, to the students and their families — the Southern Boulevard School used inspiration from the Yankees to show their students the internal rewards that come from making a difference in the lives of others.

A-Rod’s slam takes bite out of dog days

What a way to break out of a slump. The dog days of August have had their clutches on Alex Rodriguez all month, but he did some major barking of his own with a grand slam off J.R. Graham in the seventh inning Tuesday night that turned a 4-1 deficit to the Twins into a 5-4 lead for the Yankees, who went on to an 8-4 victory to stay one game ahead of Toronto in the American League East.

How bad had things been going for A-Rod? Well, he was hitless in his previous 14 at-bats, had one hit in his past 27 at-bats and was hitting .125 with three doubles and two RBI in 56 at-bats in August.

But the inning was setting up in his favor as Twins lefthander Ryan O’Rourke kept putting runners on base — Chase Headley with a leadoff single and walks to Brendan Ryan and Brett Gardner. Graham was summoned to calm things down, but he threw gasoline on the fire with a flat fastball on a 1-0 count over the heart of the plate that Rodriguez crushed to right-center. The blow increased A-Rod’s major league record for grand slams to 25.

Yankees hitters have a major-league-high 32 home runs of at least three runs (25 three-run homers, seven grand slams. Just one other club has more than 20. The Yanks have scored 34 of 69 runs this month on home runs. Yankees pitchers meanwhile have allowed 3 homers of at least three runs (12 three-run homers, one grand slam).

It was the first home run for Rodriguez since July 27, his 40th birthday, at Arlington, Texas, when he joined Ty Cobb, Rusty Staub and Gary Sheffield as the only players to hit home runs before their 20th and after their 40th birthdays. A-Rod had gone 72 at-bats between home runs, and the timing to end that drought could not have been better.

The salami took Yankees starter CC Sabathia off the hook. He retired the first 13 batters of the game and was in a 1-1 game in the top of the seventh when Minnesota took the lead on a two-run home run by Miguel Sano and added a run on three straight singles later in the inning.

But while Sabathia has not had much run support when he has been on the mound this season he has received it quite often after he has come out of games. Tuesday night marked the seventh time this year the Yankees have come back to score enough runs to spare CC a losing decision. His 4-9 record may be unsightly, but it could be 4-16.

Headley, who got the game-winning RBI in the 10th inning Monday night, was supposed to have Tuesday night off. He came off the bench to start the seventh-inning rally with a single, remained in the game at third base and knocked in two more runs in the eighth with a double. Some day off.

Mark Teixeira did get the night off with a shin bruise. Rookie Greg Bird played first base and got his first major-league RBI with a single in the fourth inning to score Carlos Beltran, who had doubled as part of a 2-for-4 performance that continued his torrid hitting since the All-Star break (.303, 13 runs, seven doubles, six home runs, 12 RBI, 13 walks).

Yet this looked like a Twins night until A-Rod howled back at that August moon.

HOPE Week: Theater employs disabled

Across the United States, more than 57 million adults have some form of disability, 80 percent of whom are unemployed. Valerie Jensen grew up with a sister who has Down Syndrome and has seen first-hand how difficult everyday tasks and activities can be for individuals with disabilities, especially finding a fulfilling job. She recognizes that many who have disabilities face an internal struggle to feel as if they have a purpose in life.

One afternoon, Jensen was driving in Ridgefield, Conn., when she saw an old, vacant former theater that was going to be demolished. She immediately had a vision — to transform the building into a unique movie theater, staffed primarily by individuals with disabilities. Over the course of the next several months, she made her vision a reality as The Prospector Theater opened to the public in November 2014.

Staff members there are referred to as “prospects,” as a way to make them feel inspired to realize their own potential and give them the necessary training to advance to other jobs using their skills developed at the theater. In the 10 months since its grand opening, the staff of The Prospector Theater has grown to more than 100 people with no signs of slowing down.

As Jensen put it, “We really didn’t need more trips to the pond. We really didn’t need more trips to the zoo. We just needed meaningful employment.”

As part of the Yankees’ HOPE Week initiative, general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, third baseman Chase Headley, catcher Brian McCann and first baseman Mark Teixeira surprised Jensen and her staff at the theater Tuesday, took a tour and talked spoke with the theater’s prospects about the importance of teamwork

In many ways, The Prospector Theater is like a traditional theater; visitors purchase their tickets just inside the main entrance and can stop at one of two concession stands before going to see a popular new release. It has four theaters, ranging in capacity from 16-167 people, with the smallest theater designed especially for people with sensory issues who may not enjoy movies in larger settings. Each of the four theaters has handicap seating, along with fixed chairs so friends and families are able to watch movies together. All of the theaters are equipped with technology to aid those who are hearing and/or visually impaired. Each offers closed-captioning glasses and high-quality headphones.

“The answer to the unemployment epidemic among adults with disabilities is in our own backyard, on every Main Street in America,” Jensen said. “Small businesses are missing out on a huge resource that lies in the incredible talent pool of the 57 million talented Americans with disabilities, who are willing, competent and able to work.”

Extra-inning game goes Yanks’ way for a change

Extra-inning games have not been a Yankees strength this year despite their excellent bullpen. Before Monday night, they had a 2-7 record after regulation, including 1-5 at Yankee Stadium. Thanks in part to former Yankees infielder Eduardo Nunez, the Bombers pulled out an 8-7, 10-inning victory over the Twins, who had 16 hits in the game.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi expected Monday night to be a bullpen game with Bryan Mitchell starting, but it became that literally after the righthander was knocked out of the game in the second inning with a liner hit by Nunez that struck him in the face and left him with a broken nose.

Girardi used seven relievers to get through the game with the last three — Adam Warren, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller — doing their customary first-rate work to control the swing-happy Twins.

The Yankees had squandered a 3-0, first-inning lead achieved on Brian McCann’s 21st home run but came back from a 7-5 deficit in the sixth on a two-run homer by Carlos Beltran (No. 13), who has gotten quite a few big hits lately, including a game-winning, three-run blast last Friday night at Toronto.

McCann had a huge night for the Yankees with three hits and five RBI. He also threw out three runners attempting to steal second base. Mac put the Yankees ahead, 5-4, in the third with a two-run single, but solo home runs by Aaron Hicks in the fourth off Caleb Cotham and Trevor Plouffe in the fifth of Chasen Shreve moved the Twins in front again, and they added another run in the sixth on a two-out, RBI single by Plouffe off Justin Wilson.

Once the Yankees tied it at 7, the bullpen limited Minnesota to one hit over the final four innings, including retiring the last six Twins batters in succession, four on strikeouts.

Twins closer Glen Perkins came on in the 10th and gave up a leadoff double to rookie Greg Bird, who had entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch runner for Mark Teixeira, who came out of the game with a bruised left shin the result of fouling a ball off it (x-rays were negative).

McCann continued his hot night with a double off the glove of left fielder Eddie Rosario. Bird had to hold up to see if the ball would be caught and was stopped at third base. Brendan Ryan ran for him after Beltran was walked intentionally to load the bases.

Twins manager Paul Molitor inserted Eduardo Escobar in place of right fielder Torii Hunter and stationed him as part of a five-man infield. Chase Headley hit a hard grounder that Nunez failed to handle cleanly. He threw to first base, even though a throw home was the only chance to keep the game alive for Minnesota. Ryan crossed the plate without a challenge.

The victory increased the Yankees’ lead in the American League East to one game over the Blue Jays, who were not scheduled, and stayed four games up on the Orioles, who won their fourth in a row at home against the Athletics.

Mitchell injury shades of Herb Score

One of my most vivid memories of first following baseball as a kid was a newspaper photograph on the morning of May 8, 1957 of Indians pitcher Herb Score with blood rolling down his nose after he was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald.

That image came to mind in the second inning Monday night at Yankee Stadium when Bryan Mitchell fell to the ground on the mound after being struck in the head by a line drive by the Twins’ Eduardo Nunez that went into center field for an RBI single.

Mitchell, a spot starter as the Yankees decided to give an extra day’s rest to all the pitchers in the rotation, was on the verge of getting out of a jam that inning. He had a 0-2 count on Nunez, the former Yankees infielder, with runners on first and third and the crowd urging him the righthander on. The liner caught Mitchell flush and he hit the ground as if slugged by an opposing boxer.

The Stadium quieted as manager Joe Girardi and head trainer Steve Donohue raced to the mound. Mitchell lay prone with his right hand clutching his forehead. He eventually got to his feet on his own power and walked off the field holding a blood-stained towel over his eyes. A scary moment indeed.

Score back in ’57 was the hottest young pitcher in the game off of two All-Star seasons with strikeouts galore and a promising future ahead of him that was never realized. He was never the same pitcher after the incident. For that matter, neither was McDougald the same player as he was haunted by the damage he had done unwittingly but very graphically.

Mithell was taken to New York Presbyterian Hospital where he was diagnosed and treated for a small nasal fracture and released. Yankees medical personnel will continue to monitor Mitchell for potential concussion symptoms.

CC incident incidental to rotation change

Bryan Mitchell starting Monday night instead of CC Sabathia had nothing to do with the lefthander getting into a shouting match on the streets of Toronto during the Yankees’ recent series there. A videotape of the incident made the Internet rounds Monday, but Sabathia was not involved in the brawl that ensued soon after the pitcher was shoved into a taxicab by a cousin and left the scene.

“I think I was definitely lucky the other night that I had friends to push me in the cab, that cared enough to get me out of that situation,” Sabathia told reporters before Monday night’s game. “It was a bad decision on my part.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the decision to start Mitchell and push back everyone in the rotation one day was made after Sunday’s game and had nothing to do with Sabathia’s exchange of harsh words with hecklers in Toronto. Girardi told Mitchell of the change on the charter flight back to New York. Twins manager Paul Molitor confirmed this Monday night when he said his club was notified of the change late Sunday night.

Girardi told reporters before Monday night’s game that he was not even aware of the Sabathia incident until Monday afternoon. The skipper also said that players have to be more careful now than ever before because with the preponderance of cell phones today there is really no such thing as privacy anymore.

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