As the West Region champ from Chula Vista, Calif., took the field Friday for its first game of the 2013 Little League Baseball World Series, there was no one in the stands of Lamade Stadium cheering louder than 11-year-old Daniel “DJ” Villarreal.
The cross-country trip to support the team was not only a dream come true for DJ, an avid baseball fan whose favorite player is hometown legend Adrian Gonzalez, but a way of thanking the players of East Lake Little League and the community for supporting him during his life-long battle with cystic fibrosis – a genetic disorder that affects about 30,000 Americans and impacts the lungs and digestive system.
Every day DJ takes a variety of medication and goes through a number of other measures because of his condition. But baseball and his teammates are his escape from the many hospital trips that he’s experienced since birth.
“This group of kids is great. Whenever (DJ is) admitted, spends some time in the hospital, these guys come out and spend some time with him,” said Adam Villarreal, DJ’s father. “Whether they’ve been on his team or not, they know him and see him around town – and not only them but their families. What makes it extra special is to come out and return the favor and support them in their journey. They’re there for us in hard times.”
DJ, who made the trip with Adam, mother Maggie and sister Alyssa, plays left field and second base for his Little League team, and it was through the league that the trip to the World Series was possible.
A local coach shared DJ’s story with the league’s president, who planned the trip. Adam explained that the trip was booked before the East Lake team, with many of DJ’s friends, had punched its ticket to South Williamsport.
DJ and his family attended all of the team’s games throughout the sectional and regional tournaments, cheering them on hoping that they would join them in South Williamsport.
And it was during that run in the tournaments that the family saw just how much DJ meant to the team. Maggie explained that Charly Peterson, who started in right field for the team on Friday, wore a T-shirt from one of the family’s fundraisers under his jersey during a game earlier in the summer.
“We had a game a couple hours after the walk and he decided, ‘I’m going to wear my T-shirt under my jersey.’ (Peterson) hit a home run that game. So it has become a good luck charm for him,” Maggie remembered, smiling.
The family is grateful for the opportunity to see the Series that they only ever saw on television and have been taking it all in since they arrived on Tuesday. They attended the ninth annual Grand Slam Parade in downtown Williamsport, took a slide down the Lamade Stadium hill and watched all the baseball they could.
“We’re just trying to take it all in. They brought cardboard boxes and they’ve been sliding down the hill. That’s stuff you see all of the time and you think, ‘Maybe one day.’ And now it is one day, and we’re here,” Adam said.
For Maggie, the trip is a rare and welcomed change to the pace of their daily life. She explained that during hospital stays, she goes with DJ while Adam stays with Alyssa at home.
“As a family, it’s exciting to do things together. We do a lot of things apart because of his hospitalizations. They break us up (for) a short amount of time. So to be here together is incredible,” she said.
Adam admits that it hasn’t been easy for the family, but as Maggie always reminds him, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.”
“That’s our only choice and so that’s who we are,” Adam explained. “The first few years were kind of tough to take in. We used to say, ‘Why us?’ But then it started turning to, ‘Why not us?’ We’re going to give him the love and support that he’s going to need. God only gives you so much that you can handle. We take it day by day. It’s certainly hard to plan things out two months, three months from now because we don’t know where we’re going to be. So we live in the moment rather than down the road. So we live for today and see what happens tomorrow.”
Adam went on to explain that the support the family receives goes “beyond baseball” as community members send meals home while DJ is in the hospital and supports them in any way possible.
The family headed back home Saturday, but will keep tabs on the team by watching on television. And when asked who he thinks will win the World Series, DJ slyly smiled and answered, “Maybe them,” as he pointed to his friends warming up on the field.
Win or lose, the family will support the team as it has supported DJ.
“This has been a dream come true,” Maggie said. “I think, as a parent, this is what you wish and hope for your own child. So although my child isn’t on the team playing, these kids are our family. They are our supporters. So I’m equally as excited as if they were my own.”