NEW YORK – When Champ Pederson was born 25 years ago and found to have Down syndrome, his father, Stu, thought about that.
Stu was a ballplayer, a good one, who went to USC, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and got four glorious big league at-bats in 1985. He'd spent his life in and around the game. One day he would build a batting cage in his backyard up in Palo Alto, Calif., and coach the boys in the neighborhood, and then buy a pitching machine so they could swing until their arms gave out. His wife, Shelly, was an athletic trainer in college and knew plenty about the game herself.
Stu held his first child, a son he'd named Champ, and considered the life Champ would have ahead of him, and what his own place would be in it, and how this might have happened and then what he could do about it.
Finally, he said to Shelly, "That's all right. He'll just be a shortstop on his own team."
On Sunday afternoon, Champ sat in section 12, field level at Citi Field. Shelly sat behind him with a camera in her lap. Stu sat nearby catching up with John Franco, the retired closer.
They were in New York for the Futures Game, baseball's annual event for its premier prospects. Stu and Shelly had three children after Champ. Tyger was a Dodgers draft pick last month after playing at University of Pacific. Jacui, a sister, is an elite national soccer player. And Joc, he played left field and batted sixth for the U.S. team Sunday. He's a Double-A outfielder for the Dodgers and a good one.
Just in case, the Pedersons built a pretty good ballclub around Champ.
"You gotta have heart to play baseball," Champ was saying. "The passion they play with. Every day, playing baseball, do your best every day. You can never give up."
He was asked for a scouting report on Joc.
"What he does best, he's got a cannon," Champ said. "What he needs to work on, maybe he should wear sunglasses in the outfield."
He smiled. And Shelly smiled at him. With him. See, Champ has seen more baseball than most, and charmed more than most, and the two seem to go together for Champ. When Tyger's Pacific team was struggling midseason, Champ sent Tyger a text message. Play hard, it said. Play with energy. There were more like that. Tyger read it to the team on the bus, and the team loved it, and head coach Ed Sprague – the former big-leaguer – invited Champ to sit in the dugout and wear the uniform, and pretty soon Champ had a job.
"I was their motivational coach," Champ said. "I wrote speeches."
Before every home game, Champ read his homespun speeches to the players. Pretty soon, Champ was traveling too, rooming with his little brother, picking up bats and gear, and waking up every morning with a job to do.
"I had ideas," Champ said. "They just came to me. It was on my mind. I wanted to put it on paper."
When the season was over, the Pedersons called Sprague to thank him for being so kind to their oldest boy.
"No," Sprague told them. "We want to thank you. Thank you for the opportunity he had to touch us."
Stu paused and adjusted his sunglasses.
"I get teary every time I tell that story," he said.
Tyger stood near the first-base dugout Sunday, watching batting practice. He flew into New York on Friday, just him and Champ, who hates the takeoffs and landings but is fine with the rest.
"He's definitely an inspiration to us all," Tyger said. "You can just see how he loves his life. He's so happy all the time. That vibe, it's hard to get anywhere else."
A video was made showing Champ reading one of his speeches to the team, and the video went to YouTube, and Joc tweeted it out with hashtags that included, "downsyndrome," "inspiration," "celeb," and "proudbro." Joc is batting .296 with 14 home runs at Chattanooga in the Southern League. When Matt Kemp injured his hamstring, the conversation in Los Angeles was about the two outfielders in Chattanooga, and whether Pederson or Yasiel Puig would replace Kemp. The Dodgers took Puig, and Pederson stayed with it in Double-A, and came to New York with the other elite prospects and then waved to his big brother in the stands.
"We're blessed," Joc said. "Obviously he doesn't do everything as well as others. There've been some struggles. We've learned patience. And he's the smartest, funniest person you'll meet. Sometimes it just takes him a little longer."
When Champ went to the Special Olympics, Joc helped coach his basketball team and Tyger coached him in bowling. When Champ went off to learn how to live on his own, Joc and Tyger were happy for him. Then he moved back, and they were happier.
"We missed him," Joc said.
Champ, just by being Champ, taught them compassion, taught them empathy, reminded them that there's a world out there that has its problems, and that could always use a good shortstop. They know Champ has his moments, when he wishes it were him in the outfield, out in front of all these people, that someone else was reading the speech to him.
"That's kind of the sad part," Joc said. "Who knows what he could do if he could just play a game?
"He wants to be like us. He can't. But we don't look at what he can't do. It's not an option. I know things are harder for him. So I try not to take things for granted. It's a good reminder. We're special. But, he's special, too. Everyone's special."
In section 12 behind home plate, Shelly Pederson brought the camera to her eye, adjusted the lens and snapped a few photos. Joc was in the batting cage. She lowered the camera and smiled. She could see Tyger down by the dugout. Champ was with him. They were watching Joc.
"I do know my kids wouldn't be who they are without Champ," she said. "They are just so darned proud of him, of Champ."
You know, every good team needs a shortstop.
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