On a day when Milwaukee Brewers’ manager Ron Roenicke made news by announcing that All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy is recovering so quickly from his hamstring injury that he might be ready to play in Cactus League games by the end of this week, Lucroy quietly made a more momentous impression in the life of a young Milwaukee girl.
I was on the field Monday to watch Lucroy. Knowing he was coming back from injury, I was interested to see how he looked in batting practice. Watching the ball jump off his bat as he drove line drive after line drive into the right-center field gap, I thought I had my story. Then he ended his first round of hitting with a quick practice bunt, walked out of the batting cage towards the first-base dugout, and beckoned to someone in the dugout to join him on the field. I turned to see a shy little girl with a long blonde braid hanging down from beneath a Brewers hat. Lucroy encouraged her again, and as she came out to join him, I saw that she was wearing an oversized number 27 jersey in honor of her favorite player, Carlos Gomez, but instead of “Gomez,” her jersey said “Wunschel.”
Kelci Wunschel is nine years old, and she has battled cystic fibrosis her entire life. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys and intestine. There is no cure, and the average life expectancy is between 37 and 50 years in the developed world.
Kelci and her parents, Dewey and Karen, have been active in the effort to find a cure for CF, participating in runs and bike rides to raise awareness. They have also caught the attention of the Make-A-Wish® Foundation. Make-A-Wish started in 1980, when some police officers helped to make 7-year-old leukemia patient Chris Grecius’s wish come true by making him an honorary fellow officer. That experience changed the lives of the officers involved, and several of them formed Make-A-Wish, a non-profit organization dedicated to making wishes come true for more children like Chris. They had their first official Make-A-Wish kid in 1981, and have made dreams come true for over 226,000 children since, including about 14,000 last year. The foundation has grown to 61 chapters in the U.S. and operates in 45 other countries through 38 affiliate offices.
One of those 226,000 children is now Kelci Wunschel, whose wish was to come to Spring Training in Arizona to see the Brewers play. Through a joint effort of the Wisconsin and Arizona chapters of Make-A-Wish, Kelci and her family flew from Wisconsin to Arizona for a few days of sun and baseball. Kelci was able to meet her favorite player, Gomez, who presented her with her personalized jersey. She also spent quite a bit of time during batting practice with another favorite, Lucroy.
As a catcher, Lucroy is very dependent on his legs, so he could have been forgiven for focusing more on his recovery and rehab than on Kelci, but he didn’t. He stood and talked with her while his teammates took their swings in the cage, often crouching down so he could talk with her at her level. When it was his turn, he would step back into the cage, take his cuts, and then head back to Kelci. In one round, he hit a home run to left field, then turned and gave Kelci a little grin.
When Lucroy’s group finished hitting, Kelci joined the players in gathering up the baseballs from the infield. She left the field with a bat, a ball, and a look on her face that mixed awe and elation.
Less than an hour later, it was 46 degrees in Milwaukee and 75 degrees in Phoenix, where Kelci Wunschel stood in front of the mound at Maryvale Baseball Park, the spring home of the Brewers since seven years before she was born. Her new friend Jonathan Lucroy crouched down behind the plate as she delivered the pregame first pitch.
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) March 9, 2015
Kudos to Lucroy, Gomez, and the entire Milwaukee Brewers organization for making a special memory for young Kelci. To learn more about the Make-A-Wish Foundation or to donate to the cause, Wish.org.