There exists a plethora of Derek Jeter fans and they all want an autographed baseball. One young Baltimore boy didn’t have much time left to get one … he was dying from leukemia.
Two weeks ago, when president Chris Federico of the Cool Kids Campaign called Joe Gorman’s dad, Gregg, to ask how young Joe was faring, the bad report told of a relapse – the chemo wasn’t taking. Then the six words were uttered that no one wants to hear about a person they love, let alone a kid, “There’s nothing more they can do.”
“It was hard for Gregg to hold it in,” said Chris, who asked him if the Cool Kids Campaign could do anything.
“Well, I know Joe would really like a Ferrari,” Gregg joked, even with a broken heart. “Or anything signed by Derek Jeter – or a chance to meet him. But Joe doesn’t have much time left.”
“I can help with that,” said Federico, who had grown to love the kid. “I’ll call Ken Singleton.”
Ken serves on the board of this organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for pediatric oncology patients – and their families – experiencing the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatments.
When Ken learned of the situation, he said, “I’ll take care of it,” knowing he could ask Derek to sign a ball when next he saw him at Steinbrenner Field. Somewhere around the batting cages, Ken approached Derek with a practice ball and explained the request from young Joe.
“Sure, I’ll sign it,” said Jeter, “but go get a brand new one from the equipment manager in the clubhouse.” Derek didn’t want to send a dirty ball to Joe.
On Monday – the day before Joe’s birthday – Ken and Chris drove to John’s Hopkin’s Children’s Center in downtown Baltimore to deliver the much desired autograph. Joe was unconscious.
His dad tried to wake him up, “Hey, guess what? Your wish came true. Derek signed a ball!”
But it was too late. The ball placed in the young man’s hands stayed for a few minutes, then rolled out.
“I didn’t get a chance to talk to him,” said Ken when he arrived home. “He wasn’t coherent.”
He and Chris had a good visit with Joe’s parents and an uncle, “Nice people, who were extremely appreciative that Derek and I took the time to get the ball for their son,” said Ken. “They were obviously in pain but were upbeat. They knew the situation that Joe wasn’t going to be around much longer.”
One day after his 15th birthday, Joe Gorman died.
Rest in sweet peace, Joe Gorman
March 8, 1996 – March 9, 2011
9711 Monroe Street
Cockeysville, MD 21030
The Cool Kids Campaign is embarking on a groundbreaking venture, The Cool Kids Learning Center, a blend of tutoring facility and activity center – a place to keep kids with cancer up-to-date on their school curriculum. Until now, there hasn’t existed a place for kids to go where they can stay germ-free, meet other families, and have a place to hang out where they are just like everyone else.
On an off day in Spring Training, Ken took time to enjoy one of his favorite pleasures – to watch professional golf at a PGA Tournament in Palm Harbor, Fla., about 30 minutes from Steinbrenner Field.
If you have ever attended a pro golf tournament, you’re familiar with how quiet is the atmosphere – a courtesy extended by fans so golfers can focus and eventually sink miniature white balls into tiny cups in as few strokes as possible.
What amazes Ken is the difference between the hushed atmosphere of a golf tournament versus the deafening one of a baseball stadium.
“Quiet applause is accepted after a shot,” said Ken. “Very few fans shout comments, and if they do, it’s mostly encouraging. In baseball stadiums, some things that fans yell are not so encouraging and can include disparaging comments about your family members.”
In Minnesota on Mother’s Day some years back, Oriole Ken was in the on-deck circle warming up when a Twins fan shouted, “It’s Mother’s Day and even your mother doesn’t love you!” Ken went up to bat, hit a home run, and on his way back to the dugout, addressed the guy, “Now even your mother loves me.” That elicited a hearty laugh from the fan’s friends.
What people do not realize, Ken said, is that players use the discourteous comments as incentive to play well against the opposing team. “When you’re on the road and fans say bad things, you really want to do something to shut them up. Then they might learn to leave you alone.”
Ticket takers at pro golf tournaments take more than your entrance fee at the gate – they confiscate all cell phones, too. This is so phones do not ring during play and so people aren’t tempted to chat and make business calls.
So when it was time for Ken to receive a scheduled phone interview from a Montreal radio station, he was forced to step outside the gates where he could talk Yankees in a comfortable tone of voice without disturbing the quiet on the links (first having to retrieve his cell phone from the front gate staff).
Could you imagine if a Yankee Stadium PA announcer whispered, “Shhh, all quiet please … Derek Jeter’s up to bat.” Or if a vendor at a golf tournament screamed, “Get your beer here!”
The hype and rowdiness of attending a baseball game is half the fun – no – make that all the fun. And who cares if anyone’s yakking on a cell phone? We can’t hear them anyway over the roar of Yankees fans.
Two different sports, two different atmospheres. The notion supposedly, is that golfers would not be able to concentrate if fans were able to scream at will.
If a pro makes a good putt to take the lead in a tournament, then people get excited. But only after the fact. While a putter is in pendulum motion, no one’s clapping and shouting “C’mon! Sink the putt!”
I asked Ken what’s the difference with baseball and why doesn’t the noise bother Major Leaguers?
“You just have to concentrate and put all the sounds behind you,” he said. “You can hear the crowd but it’s almost like a buzz in the background because you’re so focused. Even years later, I can remember specific pitches, sequences, what it felt like to hit a baseball and how I swung … all because my concentration was so keen. Not to mention that if you don’t concentrate, you can get hurt while batting or playing the field.”
While comments from fans and the overall racket were challenging to a player, Ken said the noise and excitement is part of the game. “It’s easy to get pumped up in front of 50,000 excited fans.”
Quiet please. Ken is going to go hit golf balls now.
Nine-year-old Nicholas Ziff with the nifty crew cut announced confidently to Ken at a Bernie Williams’ performance in Longboat Key, Fla., Sunday night, “One day I’m going to play first base for the New York Yankees.”
“Keep practicing, Nick,” encouraged Ken, kneeling next to him on the beach to snap a photo, as he has uttered to other little boys who have shared their dreams of playing professional baseball. Hey, you never know. A dream – of any caliber – begins with a passion, an idea and certainly a declaration. When something invades your soul, gets into your veins and plants itself permanently, there’s no reason on earth why it cannot materialize.
Little Nicholas may change his mind about playing baseball as he grows up, or maybe not. Surely many a Major Leaguer had declared the same sentence of confidence during their Little League days. Williams had the passion to play baseball and music – and has done both beautifully. Derek Jeter wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees when he was a little boy, just like Nicholas – and we know the rest of that story. Ken knew his baseball future at age five.
With enough diligence and hard work, dreams can transform into reality. Anything can begin with a strong affirmation. If Nick repeats that sentence enough times, and believes in his baseball talent and the ability to make it happen … mark his words. Maybe one day we will see Nicholas Ziff, a Yankees fan from Sarasota, playing first base in Yankee Stadium.
It’s all about holding the vision. Keep practicing, Nicholas – and keep affirming your dream.
Although as a player Ken has experienced three All-Star games (1977, 1979, 1981), he had the unique opportunity to broadcast the 1998 game in Denver for Major League Baseball International.
I tagged along on the excursion, sucked into the city’s energy as it pumped out baseball adrenaline. Every nook and cranny was filled with souvenirs, activities and keyed-up baseball fans in full celebration mode, clearly thrilled to be in such close proximity to their favorite Major Leaguers, and to taste the flavor of Denver.
I met Derek Jeter for the first time during the enormous outside/inside All-Star gala sponsored the evening before by the Colorado Rockies and Major League Baseball. Quite impressive that gala (and Derek, who had brought along his sister).
Being the host of an All-Star game gives a city a chance to strut its stuff, so you can envision how many bells and whistles were included that night … an evening to celebrate Major League Baseball’s finest and most popular players and their families, and a chance for the host team to throw the party of the year.
“It’s not only about the game,” says Ken. “Cities want to put on a good show. They want people to come back.”
On game day, working in the booth alongside Gary Thorne (now a Baltimore Orioles play-by-play announcer), Ken’s challenge was to deliver the All-Star game to listeners in more than 200 countries around the world, most of whom are not familiar with the sport.
“We had to explain things well,” said Ken. “We couldn’t take for granted that people knew what we were talking about. When doing regular games, we know that fans are more aware of what’s going on.”
E-mails flowed in during the telecast for Gary and Ken to address as they announced the 69th All-Star Game from Denver’s Coors Field.
“We received a lot of questions about strategy,” remembers Ken. “Such as, ‘Why does a player sometimes bunt and sometimes not?'” The duo would address questions on-air as thoroughly as they could in between plays, to explain the American game to foreigners in New Zealand, Australia, China and around the world.
Ken had the special opportunity to further announce for MLB International, a championship game in 1997 between the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins; the World Series the same year between the Marlins and the Cleveland Indians; and in 1998 the World Series between the Yankees and the San Diego Padres (which the Yanks of course won in four consecutive games).
Since Minor and Major League players come from far and wide (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Korea, Netherlands, Italy, South Africa, to name a few) and baseball’s popularity continues to grow around the globe, the role of Major League Baseball International (formed in 1989) focuses on worldwide growth of the sport through broadcasting, special events, sponsorship, licensing, etc. They have offices in New York, London, Sydney and Tokyo.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” said Ken, “to know that people around the world were enjoying and learning the game.”
I cannot envision the magnitude of fan mail and requests for autograph and auction items which must pour in for the extremely popular baseball players such as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera – not only to the Yankees office, but to the players themselves.
Comparatively, Ken probably receives a hundredth of that as a former Major Leaguer, however, the requests do appear fast and furious. Not a week goes by that an auction item isn’t solicited by a group or individual via e-mail, letter, phone, or verbally. And not a day passes that our Maryland mailbox doesn’t contain fan letters mixed in with the junk mail. At least 3-5 envelopes arrive every day from all around the country requesting Ken’s autograph – and this after all these years – he retired from the field in 1984.
We’ve given away autographed baseballs, bats, cleats, duffel bags, programs, scorebooks, baseball cards, postcards, lithographs, 8x10s, a stadium seat, posters, hats, personal photographs, and golf shirts … you name it, Ken has signed it and I’ve mailed it or dropped it off. We’ve doled out these donations to schools, nonprofit organizations, dances, bull roasts, libraries, golf tournaments, little leagues, churches, baseball programs, and friends and neighbors … for this cause, that cause, the best cause, the littlest cause, and for no cause at all.
Honestly, we’re running out of items for Ken to sign. It’s not like we stockpile an inventory of bats and balls in a sporting goods warehouse attached to our house. The only thing we keep on hand because they’re requested so often is 8×10 autographs of Ken in action in Orioles uniform. We still have a few old pieces of O’s memorabilia like programs and posters in the basement, but nothing to draw big money in a silent auction.
As the unofficial Ken Singleton secretary, at times I’ve had to get a bit creative when promising items to people. I’ve created photo albums from our personal stash, such as our 2007 trek up to Cooperstown for Cal Ripken Jr’s Hall of Fame induction. I snapped close-ups of Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Brooks Robinson, and a bunch of other Hall of Famers. Add a little caption-writing and Ken’s autograph, and ta-da … the baseball decorated photo albums thrilled several bidders as they wrote checks at fundraisers.
Sometimes I stick under Ken’s nose used scorebooks to autograph which I extract from the pile in his home office and send them as auction items. They’re filled with Ken’s left-handed slant as he diligently keeps score during Yankees games. These have proved to be well-liked; we witnessed one earn $400 at a fundraiser.
And when I can’t locate any more big ticket items around the house, I give away Ken himself! When we belonged to a local golf course, I would create an attractive certificate on the computer for A Round of Golf and Lunch with Ken Singleton. These go over well also, as Ken remains a popular Baltimore sports celebrity.
So when the question is lobbed my way – “Does Ken have a baseball he could sign?” I suggest to autograph seekers if they supply the ball I’ll gladly get him to sign it. For the nonprofit organizations, I do my best to find an item to donate.
Notice I get the question rather than Ken; usually people are too chicken to approach him. Just like in public. A fan may spot Ken, but s/he approaches me instead, “Do you think your husband would autograph this?” I redirect the anxious person in hubby’s direction, “Ask him,” I say. “He’ll do it, and he doesn’t bite.”
Not to be discourteous, but I get no agent fee (wink), and if someone wants Ken’s autograph badly enough, I figure they should be bold enough to ask him for one.
But they better find a piece of paper or something, because sorry fans, the Singletons are fresh out of autograph items.