By Jean DePlacido
---- — Jacoby Catanzaro loves baseball.
Danvers Little League helped make his dream of playing the game come true.
The Danvers National 8-and-9-year-olds recently won the Manchester-Essex District 15 Invitational recently, and Catanzaro played a big role. He took the mound in the championship game, a 4-2 victory over Middleton. The nine-year old southpaw also had a couple of big hits in that game, and previously pitched the opening game of the tournament, an 11-3 win over Hamilton-Wenham.
What makes this a truly amazing story is that the youngster, who has severe medical problems, was able to successfully make the enormous leap from the Challenger program to a standard Little League team a year ago.
Catanzaro showed such talent and made so much progress that he was chosen for the all-star squad this summer, where he once again excelled despite all of the obstacles the youngster from Gloucester has had to overcome to be able to compete.
The fact that he is able to play defies all expectations doctors had for this special youngster, who continues to beat all odds.
Two years ago Catanzaro began playing baseball in the Challenger program in Danvers, where youngsters with physical and mental limitations are able to enjoy the game of baseball. Calvin Mansfield was assigned to be his “Buddy”, and the two hit it off immediately.
“Calvin was fantastic, and Jacoby looked forward to having his help at the games,” said David Catanzaro, his father. “Jacoby had just started to like sports and was involved in Special Olympics. He had fun playing in a soccer program, then we found out about the Danvers Challenger program from some of the other parents. We weren’t sure he could do it, but he loved it.
“We never thought he would be able to play regular baseball, but Karen Devaney — who runs the Challenger program — worked hard to make his dream come true. I can’t say enough about people like Karen, who do so many kind things behind the scenes. What she has done to make this possible is nothing short of a miracle. It flies under the radar.”
Never giving up hope
David and Heather Catanzaro have spent thousands of dollars traveling to medical facilities all over the East Coast trying to find the best care for their son, who began having infantile spasms when he was a year old. He was initially diagnosed with West Syndrome, and last year autism was added to the list of medical issues — including several food allergies that require him to have a special diet.
“He had hundreds of seizures, and we were told he would never be able to do anything in life,” said David.
“We were devastated, but that was only the beginning. He started dropping his head down a lot and had to be rushed to Children’s Hospital, where he had to stay for several weeks. They decided to try the drug ACTH, which was not FDA approved but without it he would have been brain dead in a short time. There were severe side effects, and he blew up like a balloon. He was like a stroke victim, dragging one side of his body around.
“At age three Jacoby was diagnosed with Landau Kleffner Syndrome, which has a wide range of severity from unresponsive wheelchair bound to less severe symptoms. Jacoby is one of only two cases of dual diagnosis in the country.”
The Catanzaros began working with early intervention specialists, knowing their son was behind other children his age. The part of his brain that was affected by the seizures controls language development and processing.
Since he was a year old, Jacoby has had to undergo testing every 3-4 months. At one point the family was told by doctors it was surprising their son could even walk.
But they never gave up hope or stopped seeking better treatment.
Taking him all over to see specialists was exhausting for Heather Catanzano until David was able to help out after fellow probation officers and other co-workers donated their time so he could be with his son.
The family heard about a facility in Connecticut that was the best in the country for dealing with seizures, and for the past three years David and Jacoby have traveled there every Monday.
“He is still cognitively disabled, and the seizure activity has increased at night when his brain relaxes,” said Jacoby’s father.
“When he regresses we treat him, so what has been happening is he goes in and out of losing language. He started to make progress physically and goes for therapy five days a week. We do all kinds of therapy, including riding horses, and I do exercises with him every day.”
Baseball is the miracle drug
As soon as he was introduced to baseball, Jacoby Catanzaro took to it immediately. It quickly became his first love.
“Baseball for Jacoby is like medicine,” said George Xerras, who coached Catanzaro on his Dodgers Little League team, as well as on the Danvers National all-stars. “Jacoby pitched and played first base for us. He’s the nicest kid in the world, and his is an amazing story.
“He was one of the best pitchers on the all-stars and usually batted first. He’s having a blast and looks forward to baseball day and night. I wish I had a team full of kids like him; it is such a pleasure to see him succeed and do well. His parents are really nice people, too, and I know they’ve been through a lot.”
Jacoby eagerly looks forward to seeing the Red Sox on TV; hearing the name of Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury announced allowed the youngster to begin identifying with him. When asked what his name was, he told the nurses at Children’s Hospital it was Jacoby Ellsbury.
“He’s like a sponge and remembers the number of any player he’s seen on TV,” said David Catanzaro.
“He loves the Red Sox and Jacoby Ellsbury more than life itself, and mimics their moves on the field. When he’s playing first base, his stance is just like a pro. He also does the call of the game and sounds just like Don Orsillo (the Red Sox’ TV play by play announcer).
“Last year on his birthday, Children’s Hospital sent Jacoby to a Red Sox game. He wore his full Sox uniform and they beat the Yankees, 4-3 on a walk-off hit by Ellsbury. It couldn’t have been any better. Of course, my Jacoby would love to meet Ellsbury.”
Young Jacoby had a bad experience at a baseball camp two years ago when other kids began calling him cruel names. David and Heather were heartbroken, and understandably were very nervous when Devaney talked about moving him to a regular team.
“We lived and died at every game because he’s a hard time emotionally when things don’t go well for him, especially when he’s pitching,” his father said. “A year ago he wasn’t a good hitter, but just when we began to think he couldn’t keep up with the other kids mentally, he started to hit a lot better halfway through the season.
“Initially he had a hard time with his emotions, crying in the dugout. I help out as one of the coaches because he needs that extra support. George has been wonderful, and his teammates have also been so great.
“After they won the championship there was a pool party, and we were worried he would feel out of place. In a baseball setting he knows what he’s talking about and the kids look to him as a leader, but he is very immature. It all turned out fine, though, and the kids had a great time in the pool and playing wiffle ball.
“Baseball has been phenomenal for him,” continued his father.
“Jacoby still can’t read and he doesn’t understand a lot of what you’re saying, because all the damage is on the left side of his brain where language processing takes place. He will say ‘yes’ all the time even when he doesn’t always understand.”
Special waiver to play in Danvers
Since Gloucester Little League also plays in District 15, Catanzaro was able to participate in the Danvers Challenger program. But in order to move him to a standard Little League team, Devaney needed to contact the national headquarters in Williamsport, Penn. for Catanzaro to get a waiver, and Gloucester had to sign off on it.
“Jacoby thinks he was traded to Danvers,” said David Catanzaro.
“Last year he went to the Challenger event in Rhode Island, even though he wasn’t playing in that program any longer. He doesn’t see the difference; it’s baseball. The only thing he did notice was that they call everybody safe, which doesn’t happen any longer on the teams he plays for. He still participates in Special Olympics track, basketball, and soccer.
“Everyone with a special needs child loves and appreciates them as they are. But for these moments, when we see him out there with those other kids, we start to think anything is possible for him. Those magical moments are so wonderful for us, and the people that make them possible are angels.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle; his story could be a Hallmark movie. We’ve been though a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs; this is a huge blessing. I’m grateful to be a part of it with the wonderful people in Danvers Little League, who have gone out of their way. Without them this would not have happened.”