Wish granted with a strike

CHARLESTON — Though he’s a fan, Justin Easter never played competitive baseball. His wife Sarah helped him practice for the 60-foot, 6-inch throw he got to make.

 

Then, when the moment came, it was up to Sarah to tell him how the people watching reacted because, he said, “I kind of blacked them out.”

That might be easy to understand, as Easter’s toss came Saturday afternoon at the home of his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, throwing out the first pitch before that day’s game with the Chicago Cubs.

“I took a second to take it all in,” Easter said. “I couldn’t believe I was on the pitcher’s mound at Busch Stadium.”

It was an unforgettable moment, though the underlying reason why he got the opportunity might be something Easter would like to forget ever happened.

Easter’s a Charleston guy who worked as a jail corrections officer at the Coles County Sheriff’s Office for most of the last 13 years until early this year. He said he was “having problems” in May 2011 when he went to the doctor and later had a colonoscopy that found a tumor on his colon.

Surgery that June confirmed he had cancer, which had also spread to his liver. Though the prognosis “wasn’t great” at that point, he said, he beat it.

There are still spots on Easter’s liver and adrenal gland. They’re shrinking and the outlook’s good, but he still needs chemotherapy every two weeks, and that’ll continue the rest of his life.

Wednesday was Easter’s 39th birthday. Today, his favorite baseball team plays its first game in the playoffs. Maybe timing’s on his side now.

Some people who know Easter heard about an organization called 3 Little Birds 4 Life. It’s based in the St. Louis area and has a Mattoon chapter, and its mission is to grant wishes for cancer patients ages 18-40.

Easter completed an application online. He said all he wanted was to go to a Cardinals game and spend a weekend in St. Louis with his wife.

It ended up that a St. Louis-area company that has a longtime relationship with the Cardinals provided the game tickets.

But the company, Vinson Mortgage, also works with 3 Little Birds 4 Life. Company president Shawn Vinson was scheduled to throw the first pitch but wanted someone associated with the group to have the honor instead, according to information from the mortgage company.

Tracy Valinevicius volunteered with the Mattoon chapter of 3 Little Birds 4 Life after learning about it. Local chiropractor Jim Filipiak started it after he contacted Ashley Swip, who founded the organization in honor of her late brother.

Valinevicius and volunteer Jennifer Harp took on the roles of “wish designers” for Easter’s wish. They were able to arrange a stay at the Four Seasons hotel, meals at St. Louis restaurants, passes to shows at the St. Louis Zoo and more.

Also among the gifts Easter received was a jersey from the 2011 World Series worn by Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who won the series’ most valuable player award.

Valinevicius is a counselor at Charleston Middle School. Easter’s brother Jason is a paraprofessional at the school and she didn’t know Justin before working on his wish. Still, she said she was glad to get to know him and help him and his wife have a weekend to enjoy and maybe not think about his cancer.

“It was an amazing experience, an opportunity for Justin,” said Valinevicius, who also made the trip to St. Louis.

The Mattoon 3 Little Birds 4 Life chapter has now granted seven wishes but Easter was the first local recipient, Valinevicius said. The organization assigns wishes to any chapter that wants to try to grant them, and it’s now granted more than 50 in the year-and-a-half it’s been in place, she said.

Valinevicius said anyone interested in helping with 3 Little Birds 4 Life can learn more on its website, www.3littlebirds4life.org.

Easter said he became a Cardinals fan when he was a kid, picking the team because his brother liked the rival Cubs and he had do the opposite. He usually attends four or five games each year but had to cut down this year because of his chemotherapy.

Vinson and Swip were among the people who spent time with Easter on the Busch Stadium field during the first pitch ceremony. The stadium announcer told the crowd a little of Easter’s story before he went to the mound.

The Cardinals traditionally conduct several ceremonial first pitches before each game and Easter’s was the second that day. He threw to Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong, who then autographed the ball and gave it to Easter to keep.

As for the pitch he threw, Easter said it was “pretty good.”

“It could have been a strike,” he said.

By DAVE FOPAY

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