The growth of John Cronin’s charitable whiffle ball tournament forced the teenager to move the event from his family’s backyard to a nearby West St. Paul park. Along with supplying the white plastic balls and skinny yellow bats, Cronin also brings an item to remind all players of a bigger purpose.
A brick with the letters M and B honors the memory of Michael Brandt, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and spent the last few years of his life dedicated to raising money for finding a cure. Inspired by Brandt, an uncle of his sister-in-law, Cronin was 13 when he started the tournament in 2013 to increase awareness of the disease and raise money.
The disease attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, destroys muscle function and eventually paralyzes victims. Brandt, who lived in Eden Prairie, died in January 2014 at age 51, months after attending Cronin’s first tournament.
Why a brick?
“It has some weight to it,” Cronin said.
So does Cronin’s memory of Brandt, sitting in his wheelchair watching the games that first year in cold and rainy conditions. Afterward, Brandt and Cronin shared a brief conversation.
“He thanked me and told me to keep up the hard work,” said Cronin, now 20 years old. “I took it to heart.”
Saturday marks the seventh annual tournament, which started with seven teams. Last year, about 30 teams of three to five players raised more the $4,000 for the ALS Association Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota Chapter. Former Minnesota Twins great Kent Hrbek, along with wife Jeanie, helped form the chapter. Kent Hrbek’s father, Edward, died from ALS in 1982.
After the inaugural tournament, Cronin received a baseball Hrbek signed.
“I was super-pumped up about that,” said Cronin, who played baseball for Henry Sibley. “And just to have the ALS association say, ‘You’re making a difference,’ means a lot.”
Hrbek’s No. 14 is one of six “retired” numbers on the green fence of Cronin’s “Shed Field” in the backyard. The fence replaced the string tied between two trees that indicated whether a hit counted as a home run.
No. 4, worn by Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, also adorns the fence. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS killed Gehrig in 1941. Brandt read Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech before Twins games at Target Field for three years. His fundraising campaigns generated more than $250,000.
Cronin raises fewer dollars but as ALS association representatives have said to tournament goers, even the smallest donations go a long way.
“Five dollars can help get a special fork for someone who is wheelchair-bound to help them eat,” Cronin said.
Cronin, who played on Sibley’s baseball state championship team in 2016, added former math teacher Steve Lufkin as a tournament inspirations. Lufkin is battling ALS.
“My main goal of this tournament is definitely awareness,” said Cronin, now a University of Minnesota student studying strategic communications. “The first year or two it might have been more about the whiffle ball, but as I’ve grown up, it’s more about the awareness. I had no idea what ALS was before I started this.”