The inspiring story of Oakland A's outfielder Stephen Piscotty, a cardboard cutout and a fan living with ALS

Oakland A's created a section of right field for ALS treatment with fan cutouts, but they never imagined the impact. (6:51). BRIAN MULHERN clicked on the link to begin reading. It was about his favorite team of baseball. He loved one of his favorite players. It was a similar story to this one, about Stephen Piscotty of the Oakland A's. The account was at first devastating. It was a tale of an incurable illness, death, and sadness. Mulhern was trapped in an apartment he didn’t like during the coronavirus pandemic. The story ignited something in him. Then he bought a cardboard cutout. This cutout would launch a series seemingly impossible events that even the most experienced oddsmakers couldn't predict. A sinker at 94 mph. Unexpected phone call. Mulhern was a local hero, who had been sat there for over two decades on the blurry edges until it all came crashing down in Section 107 at the Oakland coliseum. Brian Mulhern's cardboard cutout. It "sat" in right field foul territory at Oakland Coliseum last year during the MLB season that was cut short by the pandemic. Deanne Fitzmaurice, ESPN YOU CAN SAY IT ALL STARTED with the cutout. It all started 26 years ago, when Brian Mulhern did something for him that was frightening. He signed up as an usher at A's games at the now-called RingCentral Coliseum, Oakland, California. SC Featured on SportsCenter Sunday, February 12, 2020 The Oakland A's created a section of cardboard cutouts for fans during the 2020 season in order to raise funds to fight ALS. On "SportsCenter," watch "Cutouts for a Cure". Mulhern states, "I wasn’t a real gregarious person." He found he enjoyed the camaraderie of his job. He enjoyed meeting new people at every game and greeting season-ticket holders as old friends. Mulhern was 6 years old when he became an usher. Stephen Piscotty and his brothers Nick, Austin, and Austin nabbed so many foul ball that he doesn't know how many he can claim as his own versus those of his brothers. Piscotty said, "We have them in a small case at home." As a child, we treasured these things." Pleasanton, California was home to the Piscotty family. It is located about 35 minutes from the coliseum. Mike and Gretchen Piscotty had season tickets for Section 220. Stephen Piscotty recalls, "We'd run through all the sections." Although no one can be certain, the facts and dates likely place Mulhern and Piscotty in the same spot at the same moment. Mulhern recalls Piscotty running past his knees as an early usher. Mulhern could have been one of the ushers who watched over Piscotty and Gretchen as they chased foul balls. Mulhern may have met a young Stephen Piscotty when they chased foul balls at Oakland coliseum. Deanne Fitzmaurice, ESPN PISCOTTY was, of course, a great ballplayer. Mike was the coach for all three of his boys, while Gretchen captured their talent behind the lens. Piscotty recalls, "She was always there." "She loved to watch us and had one of those foldout chairs. His brother Austin shared the following statement with ESPN: "Her go to saying was always, ‘Knock out of it.’" Piscotty, a senior at Amador Valley High School was named the East Bay Athletic League's Most Valuable Player in 2009. Piscotty was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers from high school in the 45th round. He chose not to sign with them and instead decided to go to Stanford. Piscotty was an All-American, and he played college summer league for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. He was then selected No. 1 by the St. Louis Cardinals. 36th overall in the first round 2012 MLB Draft. Piscotty was sent to the minors by the Cardinals to develop, and he was moved to the outfield. Piscotty was an all-star at the Palm Beach Cardinals, before he made his major league debut on July 21, 2015 with the St. Louis Cardinals. ESPN's Mark Saxon described him as the "most voracious student in the clubhouse" in 2017. He was referred to by the Cardinals' pitching coach as Piscotty, who said that he eagerly absorbed all he could about pitching and hitting for power. Piscotty was just about to sign a long-term contract with St. Louis when his parents called him. He says, "I picked up my phone and it was my mother." "She informed me that she had been diagnosed with ALS." Lou Gehrig's Disease is also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, named after the New York Yankees' first baseman. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder which causes the muscles of the body to weaken and sometimes very rapidly, but the mind stays intact. There is no cure. Piscotty states that ALS is "brutal." It's relentless. Gretchen's doctor informed her family that he had never seen a case move as fast as hers in his entire life. Piscotty states, "I don't have a lot of criers but I haven’t cried so often in my entire life." "I wanted my mom to be there." The Cardinals realized that their outfielder was suffering from inability to support his family from far away. Piscotty was able to return home after they made a deal with the A's. Piscotty was returning home from the ballpark where his foul balls were caught as a child. He was returning to Brian Mulhern's world. Stephen Piscotty (right) with his brothers Austin and Nick (center), and dad Mike (left), holding their A-'s jackets together with Gretchen at their Pleasanton home, California in January 2018. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images WHILE PISCOTTY WAS a child, Mulhern grew up and went from a newbie to a veteran usher. Mulhern worked in the coliseum at Oracle Arena for 22 years. He also played the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors games. At 61, his back began to wear out. He tried to convince his self that it was sciatica at first. Mulhern was then able to see himself unexpectedly on TV in May 2019. In Game 5, the Western Conference semifinals, the Warriors were playing against the Houston Rockets. Mulhern recalls Bob Weir singing the national anthem that evening. "I had the opportunity to speak with Bob Weir!" Mulhern recalls that as a teenager, one of my first visits to the Oakland Coliseum was to see The Grateful Dead. "Talking with Bobby could have been my greatest Oracle moment." Mulhern was assigned to the VIP section of the arena court floor, which allowed him to meet one his idols. Mulhern was responsible for keeping people from Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN analyst, after the game. Smith also recorded his postgame hit on "SportsCenter." Smith, a man in yellow with a shirt and a hat, walks past the usher as he expresses disappointment at Durant's performance. The camera is not able to see the usher's face, but it is obvious that his awkward, painful-looking gait is evident. Mulhern viewed a video of Smith's game, and saw him behind Smith shifting from left to right, with his arms waving awkwardly. He realized that he couldn't fool himself into believing it was sciatica. Mulhern says, "When I try and walk like normal it's more painful." "I thought that I was better at hiding it by my gait and how I moved. It was obvious that I was in poor health." His sister had been urging him to see a doctor. He finally made an appointment, and spent five months going through scores of tests. He says, "I had a million MRIs" and "a few X-rays". They stick a cattle prod into you and measure how long it takes for electricity to reach your muscles. Mulhern was finally diagnosed by doctors on Jan. 3, 2020. Mulhern was diagnosed with ALS. "It felt like I had done something to deserve this kind of thing." Mulhern said. The disease advanced quickly during the many months of testing before doctors could offer intervention. Mulhern states that the initial prognosis for me was very grim. "I was in a downward spiral and was beginning to lose my ability to walk." He knew he would need an elevator that could lift a wheelchair. He was moved out of the attic apartment he had lived in for over 30 years by a good friend. While his sister was washing the laundry, other friends delivered milk and groceries which were too heavy to lift. He reluctantly resigned from his position with East Bay Municipal Utility District earlier than he had intended. He quit being an usher. He never had the chance to empty his locker. COVID-19 was born. Mulhern quit his job as an usher and resigned after he was diagnosed in January 2020 with ALS. Deanne Fitzmaurice, ESPN CARDBOARD CUTOUTS will be the iconic image of sports during the coronavirus epidemic. These huge heads of rigid plastic are seen looking out at strangely quiet ballparks from above. They served as a reminder of how much fun we had lost and the terror we tried to hold on to. Mulhern said that they were "a bit of happiness in a very dark time". Cutouts originated in the United States. Cutouts and mannequins were first used by the Rakuten Monkeys of Taiwan. The idea was picked up by Germany's Bundesliga, who propped up fan photos inside its stadiums. Major League Baseball adopted the idea in July 2020, when players returned to certain ballparks. With pandemic-era sports, cutouts were commonplace. Nearly every team offered the chance to take part while also making a small profit. The A's were the most daring of all. Steve Fanelli, vice president of ticketing at the A's, says that there are cutouts and then there are cutouts. Fanelli and his team did the usual stuff, offering cutouts at $49 for season-ticket holders. He recalls, "But we didn’t know how long it would take us to be like that." "We thought, "Let's do something fun and engage our fans." There have been many local legends, such as "A's Guy", a fan who wears an enormous letter "A" costume. It's so large that he can't even sit down. A cutout of their favorite wild animal could be purchased by animal lovers. All profits will go to the Oakland Zoo to feed their real-life counterparts during the closure of the zoo. Oakland's "Mt. Davis, the nosebleed section with 20,000 empty seats that Oakland fans hate and which is covered with a tarpaulin. It serves as a constant reminder of the city’s failure to stop the Raiders leaving. Even Tom Hanks called the team! Fanelli says that he was a hotdog vendor back in the day. He asked to be a part of the cutout programme. We took an image from his high school yearbook, and transposed it onto a hotdog vendor. Hanks shared with the team that he used shout "Hot dogs!" Hot dogs! The team included Hanks' recording of his signature call in its TV and radio spots. Fanelli jokes that you'll think it's Woody in 'Toy Story' if it's played. "To hear Tom selling hot dogs and his voice, it felt like, "How is this possible?" Fanelli says that this is something that no one could have imagined. He was always selling hot dogs from his perch behind home plate all season. It was almost common to see him back there. Piscotty was one of the many players who found themselves in that bizarre COVID season. He was amongst the cutouts from former players and all-time great A’s players at home plate. Piscotty recalls that COVID protocols required us to be in the stands and that we were intermingled with other cutouts. "During the game, you'd see several former players as you walked up. "Ex-all-time great A's" "It was the legends. Fanelli says that the A's uniform was a symbol of pride for many men. It wasn't always the greatest superstars. Connie Mack was also there. Rickey Henderson was also present. Different types of impact were made by different men." It was a hit with Piscotty's family. They also bought a cutout from their cat Bubs. Piscotty laughed and said, "Bubs was there." "Ollie was my brother's dog. It was great fun. It was amazing." Fanelli states that there were horses, cats and cows. "People submitted any animal they could think of," Fanelli said. They were all authenticated as official MLB fan for the 2020 season. These were our fans in a year without fans. Fanelli decided to "gamify" some cutouts. Fans could purchase a cutout from Sections 125 to 129, which is the foul-ball zone located in left field, for a little more. The team would return the ball to the fans who were able to "catch it" if it slammed into their corrugated plastic faces. In less than 10 days, the zone was gone. What could the A's do about the foul-ball zone located in right field Sections 106 to 107? Fanelli realized that they could make money selling these seats based on the events in left field. What could they do with all that money? He wanted it special. He wanted it to have meaning. Stephen Piscotty, Oakland A's right-fielder, stands beside the ALS Cure Project Foulball Zone. Courtesy Oakland A's MULHERN WAS ALONE NOW, and he sat alone in his apartment during the peak of the pandemic. He searched the internet for information about ALS and found articles about those who had been affected. He found Gretchen Piscotty's article online. He knew that the Piscotty family came from the East Bay. Mulhern had seen Piscotty play. Mulhern didn't realize that his beloved right fielder, who was 55 years old, had died from the disease until he got his diagnosis. He read and realized that her decline was incredibly rapid. She died in 18 months. He was particularly struck by Gretchen's last game at the coliseum. Mulhern said, "It was almost like you could see it in their eyes." Mulhern says that she was so grateful for her sons and didn't want them to be troubled. It was obvious she was happy, feeling it and how difficult it was for herself. But I also saw how no mother wants her children to feel burdened. Mulhern signed up quickly when the A's announced that the ALS Cure Project Foul Zone was being created. Mulhern says, "I think I'm not going back to the baseball park ever again." "But, you're right, I could send my cardboard cutter." Piscotty's family and A's wanted to make something extra special for those who were willing to pay three times as much for a cutout in their section. Mulhern received a signed photo by Piscotty and a place in Sections 106 to 108. This is the foul-ball zone near where Piscotty used to play outfield. Piscotty would sign any foul balls you caught before they were mailed to you. Mulhern believed that such a thing was unlikely. Mulhern bought his cutout to fund the ALS Cure Project, a family foundation established by the Piscottys after Gretchen's passing. Piscotty said that while she was suffering and sick, she wanted to make use of the platform she had through the A’s and St. Louis to do something that could help. "When she passed, there was a lot attention to it, so I was wondering if that would sort of fade away." Piscotty had returned from bereavement leave in May 2018 and the family received more attention than ever. He says, "I recall being exhausted." "Really, just trying to get through this night." Piscotty's first at-bat since his bereavement, he fought off a third strike before hitting a homer over Fenway Park’s Green Monster in right field. Piscotty recalls that Boston night three years ago, and says that he doesn't know how he hit the ball as well as he did. "I thought immediately of her and put my hand on mine. This was what she would do for guests who visited her. She couldn't speak. This was her way to say, "I love you." Piscotty scored a run in his first game back from bereavement leave. He also said that he placed his hand on his chest to remember his mother. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images The OAKLAND COLISEUM, which has doubled as both an NFL stadium (and an MLB ballpark), is the last hybrid park. Players have a greater chance of catching foul balls because the outline of the old football field provides a buffer between first base (the stands) and second base. Fans have a very slim chance of ever catching a foul ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there were 1,445 foul ball hits in RingCentral Coliseum in 2019, which averaged 42.5 balls per match. This is the second-lowest number of foul balls in MLB, behind T-Mobile Park. Oakland has a mere 0.2% chance to catch a foul ball, even if you don't take the hybrid border of the coliseum into account. This is a testament to how unique the Piscotty brothers are. They have collected so many foul balls since childhood that they lost track of how many each brother could claim. Most fans consider catching a foulball a Holy Grail experience. It's something you dream of as a child, and it is still something many people long for. Michael Fanucchi lives approximately one mile from the coliseum and says, "I've been a A's fan since 30 years." "I have been coming to this stadium since I was a kid. I sat in the seats around the stadium, thinking, hoping, and dreaming of catching a ball. In my dreams of dreams, I would catch one. Fanucchi doesn't know anyone living with ALS but sent in a picture of himself wearing the A's jersey to the ALS Cure Project foul ball zone because he admires Piscotty. You're pulling for him, knowing how important it is to him to get some attention for a disease that doesn’t get much attention. Shane Devine was just a new father, and he never thought twice about sending in pictures of anyone other than his daughter, Charlotte. Devine said that he was looking forward to taking Charlotte to a game before the season. Devine had visions of his daughter sitting in the stands wearing the green-and yellow onesie he bought her, even though she was only one year old. The pandemic made this impossible. Devine states, "So, this seemed like a cool alternative." "I knew Piscotty's story, and his mother's struggle with ALS. "I knew that they had begun the project in her honor." Chris Di Redo lost a loved one to ALS. The Fresno resident states that it didn't matter what the price was. It goes to a cause that must be addressed." Di Redo purchased a cardboard cutout of his stepson Nolan and another one for Dominic, his son with nonverbal autism. Even though the odds were against Dominic, it was the best chance he would have to catch a ball, Di Redo thought to himself. Erica George, A's communications director, would take photographs to Piscotty to sign each time a fan bought a cutout. It was only a handful at first. Piscotty said, "I was thinking that it would be a cute little item." "We'll sell some and it'll just be whatever." George kept coming back with more photos. Piscotty recalls George and Fanelli telling him that they had this section, and that it was sold out. We're going open bigger. It was even larger." Piscotty was never a complainer, according to them. He recalled thinking, "Man! This is really doing it!" George claims that she delivered 1,200 photos in total to Piscotty, before Fanelli decided there weren't any more seats that could "catch" foul balls. Fanelli states that "Fans did it not only because they were proud of the great cause," but also because of their connections to Stephen, who is a local hero. The ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone raised $76,000 to support the foundation of the Piscotty family, making it one the most successful fundraising events in its history. Piscotty was not done. Brian Mulhern was heading back to the Coliseum. From left to right: Brian Mulhern (left to right), Dominic Di Redo (right), Chris Di Redo (right), Shane Devine(right), Charlotte Devine, Chris Di Redo and Michael Fanucchi (right) wave to Piscotty who made an unexpected video appearance to say thanks. Deanne Fitzmaurice, ESPN MULHERN was initially unsure if he could get out of his wheelchair. He began to worry that he might not be able to climb the steps with his hand crutches. He was determined to take the place where his foul ball had been caught. It was September 20, 2020. It was the night that the San Francisco Giants stopped the A's clinching the AL West title by winning 14-2 during their annual Bay Bridge series. Mulhern was struck in the eighth inning by Mulhern, according to the A's. Austin Slater of San Francisco Giants hit Lou Trevino with a 94 mph pitch into Section 107. Video of a foul ball hitting the stands is rarely broadcast on telecasts, unlike with a home run. Mulhern didn't know he'd been hit until an A's box arrived at his home. Mulhern initially believed that management was sending him personal belongings that he wouldn't be able to retrieve from his locker. Surprised to discover the signed baseball of Piscotty, he was stunned. ESPN asked for a story on Piscotty’s cutout project. He was asked if he would be interested in joining the other "cutouts", who were also from the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone and had, like him, been able to "catch" a "foul ball." He couldn't miss it. Mulhern was followed by the Devines, Di Redos, and Fanucchi in May so that they could also find the seats they were looking for. Fanucchi states, "It's kinda weird that it wasn’t my physical human being." It was my photograph. It's mine. It still matters." The little group sat around Mulhern as ESPN set up cameras and joked about how a foul ball might have smashed Charlotte's face. Di Redo told the group that Dominic had been hit and his brother Nolan had also been hurt. Even though the Di Redos were placed randomly on Section 108, they now have two signed Piscotty balls. They were holding their signed baseballs by Piscotty, and sharing their stories when a voice came from the laptop on a tripod that was tucked in their camera gear. "Hey guys. "I just wanted to surprise and thank you for being part in the ALS Cure Project." Piscotty was not allowed to meet any of his fans because of safety protocol. He did what everyone knows and used Zoom to greet them. He told them, "It means a great deal to our family and I know that we have the same feelings about ALS." Mulhern responded: "I just want you to thank Stephen because it's been tough for me. In January 2020, I was diagnosed. We kind of started the year poorly here. As you can see, it's not an easy diagnosis. Nobody can predict what you face. It's a journey. It's a journey. I don’t know where my journey will take me but your mother and I were just as proud of each other. She was so proud." Mulhern was told by Piscotty that he hoped his journey would be very, very long. He cried as he recalled the emotional time he spent with his mom. "I don’t look back at those memories, even those that didn’t go as we desired, in a negative light. Mulhern said to him, "Of course not." "Just because she was sick didn't mean we couldn't have fun. We still went on trips and I have many very positive things to look at and that's what I recall. It is my hope that it will be the same for you. After getting settled, Piscotty took deep inhalations before giving Mulhern one final word of advice. "Enjoy." Piscotty states, "I don’t look back at those memories, even those which weren’t going as we wanted. I don’t look back in a negative light on them." Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images PISCOTTY SIGNED from the Zoom. The other fans departed, Mulhern sat in silence while crew adjusted the lights. Mulhern was still thinking of what Piscotty had just spoken. Mulhern stated a few moments later, "He'd made that point for him that it wasn't bad memories for me," Mulhern added. Mulhern said, "That all that time for him wasn't bad. This is what I see. It's as if this is all good fun here." Mulhern was clearly able to see that Piscotty's words were gaining ground as he spoke. He still had much to live for. He was not done. Mulhern observed, "A year ago I really believed that I wasn’t going to live five years." Mulhern reflected, "I could live twenty years without having the right moment." It's only..." He stopped as his thoughts and emotions overwhelmed him. He said, "It's about celebrating the moment at the moment is what I want to do." You want to go out and do things. Mulhern said that he appreciated Piscotty’s perspective. Mulhern said, "That all that time for him wasn't bad." That's what I see. It's as if this is all good fun here. Deanne Fitzmaurice, ESPN Mulhern stated that he was so "energized" after his trip to the Coliseum, two days later, he "actually went outside to listen to music with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in a while". He bought tickets for A to see Piscotty receive Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (on June 8), an award given annually to the MLB player who best exemplifies Lou Gehrig's giving character. Mulhern wants to make every second count, because he doesn't know how many minutes he has left. Mulhern says, "It's all chances." They tell you that it could take three to five more years. However, that's a very small chance. Only 40% of those who live beyond five years are likely to survive. Ten percent live beyond 10 years. Mulhern is a big fan of statistics in baseball and has done his own math. Mulhern explains that one in 50,000 people has ALS. Only a few cutouts have received signed balls from Piscotty, he now realizes. He believes there were more ALS patients in his section than most, but he calculated that there was a 1 out 3 million chance that a fan with ALS would catch a foul ball at the ALS Cure Project Foulball Zone. He was that fan. He says, "This is teaching my that you can beat all odds." We accept the odds and averages but we can hope to beat them. This is what I am currently trying to do. Piscotty is a good listener. Piscotty said, "Hearing this, it hits me in the core because I can relate to that and I know," "I know. I understand what he's going through. "I'm glad that I could bring some happiness to him." Mulhern is making plans that he didn't think he would make this year. Start by catching another foulball. "If the cardboard cutout can catch and ball, why can't I?" He laughs. "You can't allow the cardboard cutout to have all the fun."

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