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A cardboard cutout, an Oakland A’s outfielder and a collision of inspiring events

BRIAN MULHERN SELECTED THE LINK AND BEGINNED TO READ. It had something to do with his favourite baseball team. He considers him to be one of his favourite players. It was about the Oakland A’s and right fielder Stephen Piscotty, just like this one.

The account was initially devastating. A storey about an incurable disease, death, and bereavement. But the storey sparked something inside Mulhern, who was stuck in a new apartment he didn’t like in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Then he went out and bought a cardboard cutout.

That cutout would set in motion a chain of seemingly improbable events that even the best oddsmakers would not have bet on. A sinker with a top speed of 94 mph. A phone call that was unexpected. And a hometown hero who’d been lurking on the outskirts of Mulhern’s life for the past two decades, until everything came crashing down in Section 107 of the Oakland Coliseum.

YOU COULD SAY IT ALL BEGINS WITH THE CUTOUT. But, in reality, it all started 26 years ago, when Brian Mulhern did something terrifying to him. He agreed to work as an usher at A’s games at what is now known as the RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland, California.

During the 2020 season, the Oakland A’s will dedicate a fan cardboard cutout section to raise funds for ALS research. “Cutouts for a Cure” can be seen on “SportsCenter.”

“I wasn’t a particularly gregarious person,” Mulhern admits.

He discovered he enjoyed the job’s camaraderie. At each game, I meet new fans while greeting season-ticket holders like old friends.

A 6-year-old boy was running after every foul ball in the stands the same year Mulhern became an usher. Stephen Piscotty and his brothers, Nick and Austin, caught so many foul balls that he’s not sure how many he can rightfully claim as his versus those caught by his brothers. “We have them in a small case at home,” Piscotty says. “As kids, we treasured those things.”

Pleasanton, California, about 35 minutes southeast of the coliseum, was home to the Piscotty family. Mike and Gretchen, their parents, had season tickets in Section 220. Stephen Piscotty recalls, “We’d run around all the sections.”

Nobody will ever know for certain, but the dates and facts point to Piscotty and Mulhern being in the same place at the same time. Mulhern remembers the boys with their little mitts running past his knees in those early days as an usher, and Piscotty is almost certainly one of them. Mulhern could have been one of the ushers watching over Piscotty’s family – and possibly even assisting Gretchen – as she wrangled her three boys while they gleefully chased foul balls.

PISCOTTY, OF COURSE, BECAME A VERY GOOD BALL PLAYER. Mike coached all three of his sons, while Gretchen captured their developing talent behind the camera. “She was always there,” recalls Piscotty. “She had one of those foldout chairs and a couple of blankets, and I think she just liked being there and watching us.”

In 2018, his brother Austin told ESPN, “Her go-to saying was always, ‘Knock the snot out of it.”

Piscotty was named the East Bay Athletic League’s Most Valuable Player in 2009 during his senior year at Amador Valley High School. Piscotty was drafted in the 45th round out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he chose not to sign and instead attended Stanford. He was an All-American and played college summer league with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox before being drafted No. 36 overall by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the 2012 MLB draught.

Piscotty was sent to the minors for development, where he was moved to the outfield. He was an all-star with the Palm Beach Cardinals before making his major league debut on July 21, 2015, with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2017, ESPN’s Mark Saxon described him as the “most voracious learner in the clubhouse,” after the Cardinals’ pitching coach said Piscotty eagerly absorbed everything he could on pitching mechanics and power hitting.

In 2017, Piscotty had just signed a long-term contract with St. Louis when he received a call from his parents. “When I picked up the phone, it was my mother,” he says. “She informed me that she had been diagnosed with ALS.”

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the legendary New York Yankees first baseman who died of it in 1941 at the age of 37, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that causes the body’s muscles to weaken, sometimes rapidly, while the mind remains fully intact.

There is no cure.

“ALS is brutal,” Piscotty says. “It’s relentless.”

Gretchen’s doctor told her family that in all his years of practise, he had never seen a case move as quickly as hers. “I’m not a big cryer, but I’ve never cried so hard in my life,” Piscotty says. “I needed to be with my mother.”

The Cardinals were aware that their outfielder was quietly grieving over his inability to assist his family from afar. They worked out a deal with the A’s to allow Piscotty to return home.

Piscotty was returning to the ballpark where he used to catch foul balls as a kid.

He was heading back into Brian Mulhern’s life.

Mulhern progressed from newbie to veteran usher while PISCOTTY was growing up. For 22 years, he worked Oakland Raiders games at the Coliseum and Golden State Warriors games at Oracle Arena, just across the breezeway. But, at the age of 61, his back began to fail him. He initially tried to convince himself that it was sciatica. Then, in May 2019, Mulhern found himself on television for the first time.

In Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, the Warriors faced the Houston Rockets. Mulhern recalls it because Bob Weir performed the national anthem that night. “I got to speak with Bob Weir! One of my first trips to the Oakland Coliseum as a teenager in 1976 was to see the Grateful Dead “Mulhern reminisces. “It’s possible that talking to Bobby was my ultimate Oracle moment.”

Mulhern had the opportunity to meet one of his musical idols due to his assignment to the arena’s VIP section on the court floor. Mulhern’s job after the game was to keep people away from ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith while he recorded his postgame hit for “SportsCenter.” In a video of the incident, Smith expresses his displeasure with Kevin Durant’s performance while an usher in a yellow shirt walks by in the background. Although the usher’s head is turned away from the camera, his uneven, painful-looking gait is visible.

Mulhern realised he couldn’t fool himself into thinking it was just sciatica after watching a replay of the game and seeing himself behind Smith, shifting from right to left, his arms waving awkwardly. “It’s more painful when I try to walk normally,” he says. “I thought I was concealing it better with my gait and movement. But it was clear that I was in bad shape.”

His sister had been nagging him to see the doctor. He finally scheduled an appointment and spent the next five months undergoing a battery of tests. “I went through a million MRIs and a couple of X-rays,” he says. “They stick a cattle prod in you and time how long it takes for electricity to pass through your muscles.”

Mulhern’s diagnosis was finally given to him on January 3, 2020. He was suffering from ALS.

“I just kept thinking, ‘What have I done to deserve this?'” Mulhern explains.

The disease advanced rapidly during the months of testing before doctors were able to intervene. “The initial prognosis was pretty grim because I was on a downward spiral at the time, losing my ability to walk,” Mulhern says.

He realised he’d need an elevator that could accommodate a wheelchair soon. A good friend assisted him in moving out of his attic apartment in a converted Oakland mansion where he had lived for 30 years. His sister did his laundry, and other friends delivered milk and groceries that had become too heavy for him to lift.

He had to give up his job with the East Bay Municipal Utility District much sooner than he had planned.

And he quit his job as an usher. But he never had the opportunity to clean out his locker.

COVID-19 had arrived.

During the coronavirus pandemic, CARDBOARD CUTOUTS will be the enduring image of sports. Oversized rigid plastic heads smile out over strangely silent ballparks. They reminded us of the fun we’d lost and the fear we were desperately trying to keep at bay.

They were, as Mulhern put it, “a little bit of happiness in a very dark time.”

The concept of cutouts originated in another country. Mannequins and cutouts were first used by Taiwan’s Rakuten Monkeys. The idea was picked up by Germany’s Bundesliga, which displayed fan photos in its stadiums.

When players returned to some ballparks in July 2020, Major League Baseball embraced the idea. Cutouts became common in pandemic-era sports, as nearly every team provided fans with the opportunity to participate while earning a small fee.

But no one went as far as the A’s did.

“There are cutouts and then there are cutouts like we did in Oakland,” says A’s vice president of ticketing Steve Fanelli. Fanelli and his team did the expected, selling cutouts for $49 to season-ticket holders. “But we didn’t realise how long we’d be like this,” he recalls. “We figured, ‘Let’s try something fun and engage the fans.'”

Local legends such as “A’s Guy,” a fan who wears a human-sized letter “A” costume so large he can’t sit down, started appearing in the stands. Animal lovers could purchase a cutout of their favourite wild animal, with proceeds going to the Oakland Zoo to help feed their real-life counterparts while the zoo was closed due to a pandemic. Visiting fans could purchase a cutout to be placed on Oakland’s “Mt. Davis,” the nosebleed section of 20,000 empty seats that Oakland fans despise as an ever-present reminder of the city’s failed attempt to keep the Raiders from leaving.

The team even received a phone call from actor Tom Hanks. “He used to be a hot dog vendor,” Fanelli explains. “He inquired about being a part of the cutout programme. He sent us an image of his high school yearbook, which we re-created as a hot dog vendor.”

When Hanks revealed to the team that he used to yell, “Those are hot dogs! Get your hot dogs ready! “In its radio and television commercials, the team used a recording of Hanks’ signature call that he made. “When you hear it, you think it’s Woody from ‘Toy Story,'” Fanelli laughs.

“When I heard Tom hawking hot dogs and his voice, I thought to myself, ‘How is this happening?’ Like, this is something no one expected to happen “Fanelli explains. “He sat behind home plate the entire season, selling hot dogs in the same position. It seemed almost natural to see him back there.”

During that odd COVID season, players like Piscotty found themselves in the stands near Hanks, in and among the cutouts of former players and all-time great A’s players behind home plate. “As part of the COVID protocols, we had to sit in the stands, and we were basically intermingled with the cutouts,” Piscotty recalls. “During the game, you’d walk up and see a slew of former players. A’s are former all-time greats.”

“It was because of the legends. Guys who wore the A’s uniform and had significant moments throughout their careers, in our opinion “Fanelli explains. “It wasn’t always about the biggest stars. Connie Mack was present. Rickey Henderson was in attendance. Guys who made a variety of impacts.”

It was a hit with Piscotty and his family. They purchased a cutout of their cat, Bubs.

“Bubs was out there,” chuckled Piscotty. “My brother’s dog, Ollie, was outside. People were having a great time with it. It was fantastic.”

“We had horses, cats, cows, whatever you could think of,” Fanelli says. “They were all verified as legitimate MLB fans for the 2020 season. Those were our fans in a year when there were none.”

Fanelli, on the other hand, wanted to up the ante by “gamifying” some of the cutouts. Fans could purchase a cutout in Sections 125-129, the foul-ball zone in left field, for a small fee. In exchange, the team would send the ball to fans who were fortunate enough to “catch” one if the ball slammed into their corrugated plastic faces.

The zone was completely sold out in less than ten days.

So, what could the A’s do with Sections 106, 107, and 108’s other foul-ball zone in right field? Based on what had just occurred in left field, Fanelli realised they could raise funds by selling seats in this section. But what would they be able to do with that money? He wanted it to be something special. He wanted it to have meaning.

MULHERN WAS NOW ALONE, trapped with his thoughts for days on end inside his generic apartment during the peak of the pandemic.

He’d read everything he could about the disease on the internet, looking for articles about people who’d battled it. That’s how he came across the Gretchen Piscotty article. He was aware that the Piscottys were from the East Bay. He’d seen Piscotty play. Mulhern had no idea his favourite right fielder had lost his mother to the disease when she was only 55 years old until he received his own diagnosis.

As he read, he discovered that her decline had been astonishingly quick. She died less than 18 months after being diagnosed.

But he was particularly moved by footage of Gretchen during her final game at the coliseum. Mulhern describes it as “as if you could see it in her eyes.” “She was just so grateful, and looking at her sons, you could tell she didn’t want to bother them. I could tell she was happy and feeling it, and I could see how difficult it was for her, but also how no mother wants to be a burden on her children.”

Mulhern was quick to sign up when the A’s announced the creation of the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone. “I’m thinking I’m never going back to the ballpark again,” he says. “However, I could send my cardboard cutout.”

The A’s and the Piscotty family wanted to make something extra special for fans willing to pay three times the price for a cutout in their section. Mulhern paid $148 and was guaranteed a photo signed by Piscotty as well as a seat in Sections 106-108, the foul-ball zone near where Piscotty played outfield. If you “caught” a foul ball, Piscotty promised to sign it before mailing it to you.

Mulhern thought the odds were stacked against him. He purchased his cutout because the proceeds went to the ALS Cure Project, a family foundation established by the Piscotty family following Gretchen’s death.

“While she was sick and, quite frankly, suffering,” Piscotty says, “she wanted to use the platform we had through the A’s, and even with St. Louis and the trade storey, to do something that could be helpful.” “I was wondering if that would kind of fade away when she did pass and there was a lot of attention to it.”

When Piscotty returned from bereavement leave in May 2018, the family had received more attention than ever before. “I recall being exhausted,” he recalls. “I’m just trying to make it through the night.”

Piscotty fought off a third strike and then smacked a home run over Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field in his first at-bat back from bereavement. “I don’t know how I hit that ball as well as I did,” Piscotty says, recalling that night three years ago in Boston. “I immediately remembered her and placed my hand on my chest. That’s what she’d do to visitors who came to see her. She couldn’t say anything. That was her way of telling him, ‘I love you.'”

THE OAKLAND COLISEUM is the final hybrid stadium, serving as both an NFL stadium and an MLB ballpark. The old football field outline creates an extra-wide buffer between first base and the stands, giving players a better chance of catching a foul ball. And fans have a very slim chance of ever catching a foul ball.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, there were 1,445 foul balls hit in RingCentral Coliseum in 2019, for an average of 42.5 balls per game. After T-Mobile Park, this is the second-lowest number in MLB. Even without taking the coliseum’s hybrid border into account, and based solely on the A’s average attendance for 2019, Oakland fans have a 0.2 percent chance of catching a foul ball.

All of this demonstrates how unusual the Piscotty brothers truly are, having collected so many foul balls as children that they had long since lost track of how many balls each brother could claim. Catching a foul ball is a Holy Grail experience for most fans. Something you fantasise about as a child and, for many adults, a wish that remains unfulfilled.

“I’ve been an A’s fan for 30 years,” says Michael Fanucchi, who lives about a mile away. “I’ve been coming to this stadium for a long time. Sitting in seats all over the ballpark, always thinking, hoping, and dreaming of catching a ball. So, I suppose in my dream of dreams, I’d be able to catch one.”

Fanucchi had never met anyone with ALS, but he sent in a photo of himself wearing his A’s jersey for the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone because he admires Piscotty. “You’re just pulling for him because you know how much it means to him to fight for some attention on a disease that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”

Shane Devine was a new father who never considered sending in anyone else’s picture other than that of his baby daughter, Charlotte. “I was really looking forward to taking her to a game before the season,” Devine says. Despite the fact that she was only a year old, he had visions of her sitting in the stands in the green-and-yellow onesie he’d purchased for her. However, the pandemic made this impossible. “So I thought this was a really cool alternative,” says Devine. “I’d heard Piscotty’s storey, as well as his mother’s ALS battle. I knew they’d begun the project in her honour.”

Chris Di Redo suffered the loss of a family member to ALS. “The price didn’t matter,” the Fresno, California, resident says. “It goes to a good cause that needs to be supported.”

Di Redo purchased a cardboard cutout for his stepson, Nolan, as well as another for his son, Dominic, who has nonverbal autism. Even though the odds were stacked against him, Di Redo told himself that it was still the best chance Dominic would ever have at catching a ball.

When a fan bought a cutout of Di Redo, Devine, or Fanucchi, A’s communications director Erica George would take photos to Piscotty for him to sign. It was only a small handful at first. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, it’ll be a cute little thing,'” Piscotty says. “We’ll sell a few and the rest will be whatever.”

But George kept coming back with more photos. Piscotty recalls George and Fanelli telling him, “‘All right, we had this section and it sold out.’ We’re going to make a bigger opening.’ Then it grew even bigger.”

Piscotty, they say, never complained. He remembered instead thinking, “Man, this is really doing it!”

George claims she eventually delivered 1,200 photos to Piscotty before Fanelli determined there were no more seats available to “catch” a foul ball. “Fans were obviously doing it for the great cause,” Fanelli says, “but they were also doing it because of their connection to Stephen, who is obviously a local hero here.”

The ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone raised $76,000 for the Piscotty family’s foundation, making it one of the charity’s most successful fundraising events.

But Piscotty wasn’t done yet. Brian Mulhern was returning to the coliseum.

MULHERN wasn’t sure he’d get very far out of his mechanical wheelchair at first. Then he worried that he wouldn’t be able to get down the stairs with just his hand crutches.

He was adamant about sitting in the seat where his cutout had caught his foul ball.

It had occurred on September 20, 2020. The night the San Francisco Giants defeated the Oakland A’s 14-2 in their annual Bay Bridge series, preventing the A’s from clinching the AL West title. Mulhern was hit in the top of the eighth inning by Austin Slater of the Giants, who smacked a 94 mph sinker from Lou Trevino into Section 107.

Unlike a home run, video of a foul ball flying into the stands is rarely shown on television. Mulhern didn’t realise he’d been hit until the A’s delivered a box to his apartment. He initially assumed management was sending him the personal items he’d never been able to retrieve from his locker. Instead, he was surprised to find a signed baseball from Piscotty.

Then ESPN requested a storey on Piscotty’s cutout project. Would he be willing to join the other “cutouts” from the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone who, like him, had “caught” a foul ball?

He was not going to miss it under any circumstances.

In May, the Devines, Di Redos, and Fanucchi followed Mulhern down the aisle in order to locate the seats where they had been struck.

“It’s strange that it wasn’t my physical human being,” Fanucchi observes. “But, hey, it was my photo. And I’ll gladly accept it. It is still valid.”

As ESPN’s crew set up cameras, the small group sat in the seats surrounding Mulhern and laughed about how a foul ball had most likely smashed baby Charlotte’s face. Di Redo informed the group that not only Dominic, but also his brother, Nolan, had been hit. Despite being placed on opposite sides of Section 108, the Di Redos now have two signed balls from Piscotty.

They were standing there, holding their Piscotty-signed baseballs and telling their stories, when a voice came from a laptop on a tripod nestled in the camera gear in front of them.

“Hello, everyone. I just wanted to surprise you and thank you for your participation in the ALS Cure Project.”

Because of MLB’s safety protocols, Piscotty was unable to meet any of his fans in person. So he did what we’ve all been taught and hopped on Zoom to greet them.

“It means a lot to our family, and I know we feel the same way about ALS,” he said.

Mulhern responded: “I just wanted to say thank you, Stephen, because this has been a difficult year for me. I was diagnosed in January [2020], and we had a rough start to the year. As you know, it’s a difficult diagnosis because no one can tell you what you’re up against. It’s an adventure. I’m not sure what my journey will be like, but you and your mother together were just, I mean, the way she looked at you and was so proud. She was overjoyed.”

“I hope your journey is a long one,” Piscotty said to Mulhern. “When I think back on the time I spent with my mom, it was emotional,” he explained, visibly crying. “I don’t look back on those memories, even the ones that weren’t going as planned, in a negative light.”

“Of course not,” Mulhern replied.

“Just because she was sick didn’t stop us from having fun, and we still went on some trips, and I have some very positive memories to look back on. And I can only hope that it is the same for you.”

Choked up, Piscotty took a deep breath before giving Mulhern one last word of advice.

“Enjoy.”

Mulhern sat quietly in his seat as PISCOTTY SIGNED OFF from the Zoom and the other fans moved away, while the crew readjusted the lights. He was still processing what Piscotty had just said.

“He’d made the point that it’s not bad memories for him,” Mulhern explained a few moments later. “That all of that time was beneficial to him. That’s how I look at it. It’s as if everything is going swimmingly here.”

Piscotty’s words were clearly taking root as Mulhern spoke. He still had a lot of living to do. He wasn’t finished yet.

“I really didn’t think I’d have five years a year ago,” Mulhern reflected. “I could live for the next 20 years and never have the right moment. It’s only…”

He came to a halt as his thoughts and emotions overtook him.

“All I want to do right now is celebrate the moment,” he said. “You just want to get out there and do stuff.”

TWO DAYS LATER, Mulhern said he was still “energised” from his visit to the coliseum and “actually went out to listen to music with friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in a while.”

He then purchased A’s tickets to see Piscotty receive the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award on June 8, an award given annually to an MLB player who best exemplifies Lou Gehrig’s giving character.

Mulhern is trying to make every moment count because he doesn’t know how many there are. “It’s all chance,” he says. “They say it could take three to five years. But those are just the odds. I believe that only 40% of people live past the age of five. 10% live to the age of ten.”

Mulhern, a big fan of baseball statistics, has done his own math. According to him, one in every 50,000 people has ALS. He now knows that only a few cutouts received a signed ball from Piscotty. While he suspects there were more fans with ALS in his section than in most, he calculates that there was a 1 in 3 million chance of a fan with ALS catching a foul ball in the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone using those stats.

And he was that supporter.

“This is teaching me that you can overcome adversity,” he says. “We accept the odds and averages, but we hope to outperform them. That’s what I’m attempting now.”

Piscotty is aware of the situation.

“It hits me in the gut because I can relate and I know,” Piscotty says. “I understand. I understand what he is going through. I’m just glad I was able to spread some joy.”

Mulhern is finding happiness by making plans he never imagined he’d be making a year ago. Begin by catching another foul ball.

“If the cardboard cutout can catch a ball, why can’t I?” he asks, laughing. “You can’t have all the fun with the cardboard cutout.”

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