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A SIGNATURE ON A BALL BRINGS BACK MEMORIES OF THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF JOEL STEPHENS (2021-10-14)

By Lance Larcom
Southern Tier Sports Report
I walk past a lot of photographs in my house everyday. Don’t we all?

I enjoy all of the pictures that I have displayed, and the various paintings and canvases that comes from having three artistic and creative kids. All of the photos have meaning to me, obviously. And, like the one I’m writing about today, each of them spark distinctive memories.

If I wanted to be dramatic, overly-insightful and get all “deep”, I’d say that there’s nothing very special about this particular photo, except to me. That only I can see the “true meaning” and be inspired by it. Well, that’s a tough thing to claim, since in the picture, I’m holding my 3-year old son … standing next to a Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher! That’s very special, even without knowing the backstory!

There’s me, a baby-faced 26 year old, holding my boy on my left side, between myself and THE Mike Mussina! I’m going to refrain from listing all of Mussina’s many baseball accomplishments for the sake of space, but for those unaware - Mussina is from Montoursville. At the time this picture was taken, he was a pitcher for my favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles. He’d later pitch for some team in New York City, and in retirement, he has recently served as the head varsity boys basketball coach at his alma mater.

Suffice it to say, in 1998, before the days of cell phones and selfies, this was a pretty cool photo to get. But, like a lot of good stories go, and good pictures, there are unseen circumstances involved .. a feeling or memory that only this picture illicits .. that makes this picture so much more meaningful to me than just my kid and I getting to stand next to a famous athlete.

There was another athlete there that dreary January day when we had the photo taken at Williamson High School. He was the reason that every person in attendance was there, and his name was Joel Stephens. To reduce Joel by describing him as just “another athlete” may be lazy on my part. He was, and continues to be, a true hero.

I admittedly, perhaps ignorantly, did not know this in 1998. I knew of Joel’s high school prowess in both baseball and football while he attended Elmira Notre Dame. I had read about him often - a gaudy number of rushing yards, nearing 5,000 - and had followed his post-high school decision in awe. He had full scholarship offers to play football at Syracuse, or baseball at Clemson, or BOTH at Maryland! I remember reading about him being drafted by the Orioles. “Nice! My O’s”, I remember thinking. A kid from Tioga, Pa could end up playing with the reason I was an Oriole’s fan, Cal Ripken Jr!

I kind of lost track of Joel after that. I do remember seeing an article here and there as he moved through the O’s farm system. He seemed right on schedule to get to the big show someday, hopefully before Cal retired!

But then, nothing for a while.

Around this time, my brother Ryan was teaching at Williamson High School. He told me

that they were having a benefit auction/spaghetti dinner in order to raise money to help Joel. I didn’t know Joel had been diagnosed with colon cancer. I certainly wasn’t aware of the gravity of his condition, and how little time the doctors had given him.

My family happily attended, honestly thinking that we were contributing something, however small, to a kid that had a huge hurdle to overcome on his way back. But, I thought at the time, it was a hurdle that he would surely clear. I simply did not know just how sick Joel was.

So we went. We ate spaghetti, along with three thousand other attendees throughout the day. We paid five bucks and got that photo taken with Mike Mussina. He and other members of the Orioles organization had filled the place with memorabilia to be auctioned off, as had others in the community.

We had a baseball with the Orioles logo on it, which Mussina gladly signed for us.

Then, we stood in a line that led to a small table where Joel was seated. He was signing away. Smiling. Engaging EVERY person who walked up to him. As we got closer, it became sadly obvious, this young man was very ill.

Although, you sure wouldn’t know it by his demeanor. As my son sheepishly handed the ball to him, a wide smile came across Joel’s face. “Hey buddy”, he said to my boy, not breaking eye contact. “Thank you so much for coming out today. Did you meet Mike Mussina yet?”

My boy nodded kind of nervously, but smiled at Joel. I’d find out later that there wasn’t anyone who Joel didn’t make smile.

As Joel looked down at the ball, his smile turned into more of a grin, as he said, “You did meet Moose!”

My boy couldn’t help but mimic Joel’s grin as he again nodded.

Joel leaned just a bit further forward and asked my son, and me, I think, “Are you sure you want me to ruin this ball buddy?”

His glance came off of my boy as he looked up toward me as he finished asking, looking for some sort of permission to sign his name on a ball with a future Hall of Famer’s signature already on it.

I nodded, and heard my son mumble, “mm hmm”. That’s three-year old for “yes, please”.

“Ok”, Joel chuckled, almost warning that someday we may regret it! “I’ll do it, but we do have other baseball’s here if you want me to sign one of them?”

My son looked at me and I shook my head and pointed at the Mussina ball.

“Uh uhh”, he uttered, shaking his head. That’s three-year old for “No, thank you”.

Joel smiled, signed the ball and handed it back to my son. He again thanked him for coming and said, “God bless you buddy”.

And that was that.

My son has no recollection of the interaction. He sees the picture of us with Mike Mussina, knows the story behind it, but he doesn’t remember the meeting. He also doesn’t remember the time 10 months later when I told him that Joel had passed away.

The ball was proudly displayed inside a clear acrylic cube in my son’s room for a long time. Eventually, as my son grew up and went to college, it made it’s way to my room, joining other random pieces of memorabilia we’d collected over the years.

I thought of Joel often. I tried to honor him, his memory, in my own small way, by stressing to my kids and to the kids that I coached, the importance of being well-rounded. Specialization in one sport was becoming more and more prevalent, and I used Joel’s overwhelming success as a multi-sport athlete as an example to kids who were drifting towards focusing on one sport.

In 2019, Mike Mussina was elected into the MLB Hall of Fame. Upon hearing this news, my thoughts went directly to the ball. No, I wasn’t going to try and cash in on his name by selling it! But I did think that his having been bestowed this honor may just open up an opportunity.

Surely the Baseball Hall of Fame would love to have a ball with Mussina’s signature on it to display, right? And, by accepting this ball, signed over 20 years prior, they would have something from his time with the Orioles. Plus .. and this was my true motivation for donating the ball to the Hall of Fame .. by doing so, Joel’s name would be IN the Hall of Fame! At least on an item in the Hall. It was a win-win in my eyes.

Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame never responded to any of my messages. I wasn’t just going to ship it off to Cooperstown, so I stopped attempting to contact them. This was fairly disappointing. I really thought it would be an awesome piece for their museum. Not only because it had Joel’s signature on it. Not only because it had Mussina’s autograph either.

I truly thought it served as a tribute to both of these men. To Joel, because of everything good in the world that he had come to represent to so many people. And to Mike Mussina, who didn't HAVE to attend this benefit back in 1998. He’d won 19 games in a season twice already in his career, was a perennial All-Star and golden glove winner. He was smack dab in the middle of a Hall of Fame career, and he came to Lawrenceville, Pa in the middle of winter to support a “teammate” that he hadn’t ever actually played with.

I thought it showed a ton of character on Mussina’s part. It really is a shame that he sullied all that by going and finishing his stellar career with those bums in New York! I kid, obviously. The guy paid $7,500 for a ’76 Corvette auctioned off that day in Lawrenceville. He was responsible for a lot of the $30,000 total raised, just by being there. I don’t care who he ended his career with.

My next thought was, let’s see if the Orioles would want it to display. They have their own Hall of Fame, and if they would accept it for inclusion in their museum, I’d be happy to have Joel’s baseball on display there. The Orioles were very quick in responding, and very cordial. However, they indicated that “at this time, we are not accepting donated items for display”. They also said that - and this is me summarizing - that they already have a ton of Mussina stuff.

They were even decent enough to respond to me when I stressed that it also had Joel Stephen’s autograph on it. They appreciated the gesture very much, but stated that they also had several pieces of memorabilia displayed as a tribute to Joel.

I couldn’t be upset about that at all. That was the goal, to get the ball somewhere that people could see it and be inspired by Joel’s story. The Orioles were doing that.

Still, I wanted the ball to be somewhere that was a big part of Joel’s life. That led me to contacting Joel’s alma mater, Elmira Notre Dame, where Joel’s story did not necessarily begin, but definitely where it was bolstered.

Not only were they very appreciative of the offer, and proud to accept and display the ball prominently, but they also passed my information on to the man who knew Joel better than most, Coach Mike D’Aloisio.

The legendary ‘Coach D’ had coached Joel in football and basketball, was his mentor and friend, and authored the inspirational ‘5 C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story’. In it, D’Aloisio expounds on the true heroism that Joel showed throughout his life, after his diagnosis, and long after his passing. It details how Joel lived the values of the five C’s - christianity, courage, compassion, character and commitment.

Upon receiving a heartfelt ‘thank you’ from Coach D’Aloisio for donating the ball, and several back-and-forth communications with a man I and all others consider a legend in the Southern Tier, I was immediately thankful myself.

I’m thankful that Cooperstown never responded, and I’m thankful that the Orioles politely passed.

I’m thankful that a major league icon like Mike Mussina had compassion, care and the realization that he could benefit a sick young man and his family by showing up.

I could not be more thankful that, on that day way back in 1998, a young man - riddled with a horrible disease - would display each of those five C’s in a brief moment of human connection with a little boy who he didn’t know, and who didn't yet know him.

Thank you, Joel. For all that you did, for all that you stood for, and believed. For how you lived your life, and for how you continued to live it as you faced its’ physical end.

And thank you Joel, from the bottom of our hearts, for “ruining” that ball.



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