Mitch Wilson is quite literally going to bat for someone he hasn’t even met.
When Wilson, Dorman’s power-hitting C/1B, found out about Griff Rousseau, about the 7th-grader’s love of baseball and battle with leukemia, he knew what he wanted to do – just what he does best on the diamond.
Hit some long balls.
“We had a lot of people when we found out about Griff and his cancer wondering if there was anything the baseball team could do,” Wilson said. “Part of our program Coach (Jack) Jolly really pushes us to is to give back to the community and serve. The Lord really laid it on my heart to do a home run derby. I thought we could really raise a lot of money and help him out.
That’s exactly what’s happening Monday night at Dorman. Wilson will join former Cavaliers Braeden Harrison, Chaz Welch, T.J. White, Douglas Angeli, and Tanner McCallister in a two-round home run derby to raise money to help Griff’s family offset the costs of his treatment.
The five Dorman alumni will compete in three-minute rounds with one timeout each. Wilson will follow with an exhibition round, and then the top two from the first round will compete in a two-minute, one-timeout final.
Wilson has participated in a home run derby before, and is excited to see one with some former Dorman legends.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Wilson said with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun, though, and I thought it would be a good way to bring back some Dorman alumni to get them back in the community and help out. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to hit some balls really far and raise some money.”
The effort to reach out and help, Wilson said, was something he and the Dorman program immediately wanted to do.
“That’s just how the baseball community is,” Wilson said. “Pretty much everybody is connected, whether you know them or not.”
“It feels good to be part of such a big family”
Griff’s mom Abby Rousseau says she’s been blown away by just how tight the baseball community is.
She works with Jolly’s wife, Pam, at Anderson Mill Elementary School. When Pam relayed word of Griff’s fight to Jack and he took it to the Dorman baseball program, support started flowing immediately.
“The very first time Coach contacted me was through a text message,” she said. “He just said to tell Griff they were behind him, thinking about him, praying for him. Then he said they wanted to send him a message. It was a video with the signing background behind them, very professional. He spoke to Griff, and had the AD and the players speaking to him as well. They sent Dorman gear. Every time we see Dorman baseball, it’s a message that they’re praying for Griff and thinking about him.”
The baseball family ties run deep, and the circle gets smaller the further you go. So when Jolly found out Griff is a Clemson fan, a video message from Tigers’ coach Erik Bakich and his players followed. During September, Children’s Cancer Partners of the Carolinas hosts a Kidz in Lids fundraiser initiative. Dorman baseball’s hats for the month read “Griff Strong”, and will be worn by the team during batting practice. That news came in another video from Jolly.
“He told us he just wanted us to know that they were continuing to pray, and that Griff’s not fighting alone,” Rousseau said. “The fact that Griff is a seventh grader who was hoping to try out for the D team, maybe make the C team, and the varsity head coach takes the time to do this just says a lot. I feel like I know him now, even just through texts.”
It’s not just Dorman, though. Griff has played travel baseball since kindergarten, and his organization, 5G Prime, has been supportive since his diagnosis. They organized a benefit at Grill 221, and T-shirts and bracelets from that first benefit will be sold at the home run derby. And, Abby said, there’s so much more.
“They’re wearing his number, 21, on their helmets,” she said. “Every time they huddle, they break with ‘Griff on 3’. He’s a part of the team even though he’s not there. When they won a tournament, he got a ring and a banner. A lot of his friends who don’t play on the team have been filling in and playing in his place.”
And again, the baseball circle tightened around Griff even more.
“Austin Riley (Atlanta’s 3B) called,” Abby said. “Steven Duggar and Manny Machado have reached out. Harold Reynolds did a huge video that was just very encouraging, and he shared his favorite Bible verse and told Griff he was praying for him. TJ White came and visited and gave Griff signed gloves, balls, and a hat. Wofford baseball sent a video and mailed him a team shirt and a baseball with all the players’ signatures. It’s all just been so special.”
One of the most special things, she said, came from another young player who the Rousseaus don’t know.
“He knows that Griff is a Padres fan, and his Mom has gone through cancer,” Abby said. “He had a hat that had been signed by the Padres, and he gave it to Griff. It’s amazing. It feels good to be a part of such a big family.”
“It’s just a long road, for sure”
Griff’s medical outlook is positive, but Abby said it’s been a trying experience.
“It’s been tough mentally, emotionally, and physically,” she said. “He hasn’t been out much, because he has leukemia and his numbers have been so low. He feels like everything has been taken away from him. But as his doctors tell him, every day is just one step closer to the end.”
Griff didn’t suffer any symptoms at all, with the only thing raising any alarm was some discomfort in his neck after playing in a big baseball tournament. His diagnosis was rapid, and his treatment started quickly.
“Because the leukemia is aggressive, the treatment is as well,” Abby said. “And he started responding quickly. He’s fighting, but it’s just been hard. We had two weeks in the hospital just from complications. It’s just a long road, for sure.”
That road might include a return to school in January, but the Rousseaus aren’t sure. Chemotherapy is a six to eight month process. The entire recovery process could take two to two and a half years. A lot depends on the course of treatment and Griff’s reaction to it.
“It helps to know there’s an army of people hoping, praying, and believing,” Abby said.
Community support is crucial
For Monday’s home run derby, Wilson knew that star-power on the diamond wasn’t enough. He needed dollars to back it up. So he sought out some sponsors. Again, results came quickly.
Harrison’s, Pelican’s Snowballs, Anchor Bat Company, Chad Pye, Newman Fence Company, All-League Baseball, Spartanburg Martial Arts, and First Team Sports Center of the Carolinas all stepped up to contribute.
“This is something we feel passionately about,” Kevin Harrison said. “When somebody in our community is facing something like this, and there’s a way to help, we always want to be a part of that.”
Additionally, an anonymous donor has pledged to match everything raised by sponsorships and by derby participants.
Wilson is grateful, but not surprised.
“It’s really exciting to see how the community is backing up Griff in everything he’s going through, and his family,” Wilson said. “That’s Spartanburg for you. Everybody’s got their back, it looks like.”
Jolly agrees with his slugger.
“There are people who are continually reaching out and saying they want to be a part of this and help give back,” he said. “It just shows you what type of community we have here around Dorman.”
The coach said he’s not sure who might have the edge in Monday’s competition, and that the pitches they’re served up might make the difference.
“It’s going to be very interesting,” Jolly said with a laugh. “They’re all strong. I think it’ll be who gets the best BP pitcher.”
Jolly said that the effort Wilson is leading surpasses anything he could see his team do on the field.
“We want to be a team that’s about service and giving back to the community because the community gives so much to us,” Jolly said. “This is just a small way of us being able to say that we want to help this young man in his battle with cancer. It makes me as a baseball coach really, really proud. We hope to win a lot of games, but at the end of the day to see them give back and help to support the community is what makes me the most proud. To see the good they’re doing off the field is something they’ll remember forever.”
Wilson just hopes that the event can use the sport that he and Griff, and so many others, share a love for to provide some help.
“Griff obviously loves baseball,” Wilson said. “That’s what brings us all together. We all love baseball, and we’re going to use baseball to help him.”