Mary Waite The writer, Mary Waite, is a resident of Kennesaw. These are the words of Louis Presutti, Jr., the founder of Cooperstown Dreams Park in Milford, New York. He dedicated both his professional and personal life to coaching young baseball players in the sport, as well as in life. Lou’s extraordinary coaching skills, as well as his human compassion, helped our family deal with an overwhelming crisis.
This is the story of a child’s perseverance against terrible odds, but it is also the story of one man’s love of family and his belief in the immortal tradition of baseball.
In January of 1999, my then 11-year-old son, Danny, developed a slight paralysis on the right side of his face. Neurological tests revealed a brain-stem tumor, and Danny would require immediate surgery. The prognosis was grim, and our family was devastated. My husband, Doug, was head coach of Danny’s traveling baseball team, and he had committed the team to play baseball this summer at Cooperstown Dreams Park. We had heard about the park from another Cobb County team, which had played there last year. Money was being raised, and the boys were looking forward to the trip. Then came the dreadful news about Danny’s brain tumor. As head coach, Doug knew he would be unable to follow through with his team's commitment. Life-changing phone call He telephoned Lou Presutti, the owner of the Dreams Park, to withdraw from the tournament. That phone call changed our lives. Doug began to tell him our frightening story, breaking down often. And suddenly, with the grace that only comes from one’s own tragic experiences, Lou gently started guiding Doug through the panic and confusion. His words of faith and hope were astonishing; more than that, they were full of truth. Lou refused to accept Doug’s withdrawal from the summer tournament, and he promised that Danny would somehow make the trip – although it was still six months away. Six months that can only be described as a roller-coaster ride. Danny’s surgery in early February was successful, through the incredible efforts of the pediatric neurosurgeons at Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center. The first day out of intensive care, Danny received a surprise visit at the hospital from Lou Presutti and his wife Linda. They had driven to Atlanta from their home in Salisbury, NC, to meet Danny and to see for themselves how he was doing. Lou conspired with the nurses to lure me out of Danny’s room for a few minutes. When I returned, there was my beaming boy, sitting up in bed, wearing a Cooperstown Dreams Park baseball cap and jersey, and holding a baseball! I was too stunned to speak. Then, from behind the door, stepped the smiling Lou and Linda Presutti. We embraced for a long moment, and I managed to find my voice. This extraordinary and inspiring man had traveled many miles to see us; I was overcome with gratitude. Lou’s motto is, “Life, like baseball, must be coached.” Lou sequestered himself in Danny’s hospital room, along with Danny, Doug and Tim, our 14-year-old son, for a coach’s pep-talk. “No women allowed in the dugout,” he said. So Linda and I were relegated to stand in the hallway, where she quietly told me the remarkable story of Lou’s father’s dream of a baseball park near legendary Cooperstown where any child in America could come to play. Together with their son, Louis III, Lou and Linda were realizing that dream – and Lou was here at Danny’s side to make sure that Danny would share that dream. When Linda and I were allowed to return to the room, I found Danny sitting ramrod straight, with his legs dangling over the side of the bed, facing Lou, who sat in a chair several feet away. Lou began gently tossing the baseball back and forth to Danny – from different angles, overhand, underhand – and Danny was catching it! Only two days following his five-hour brain surgery. Through tears of joy, I realized that Danny had not lost his hand/eye coordination during the surgery. Lou was showing us our first miracle. The Presuttis returned home that day, and Danny continued to recover. He was released from the hospital the next day, and the prognosis was good. We kept in touch with Lou by phone, and he rejoiced with us as Danny returned to school and dreamed of playing baseball again. Then, in late April, a follow-up MRI showed that Danny’s tumor had returned – and we were once again plunged into panic and despair. But Lou was there for us, with his calm reassurance that Danny would not only survive another surgery – he would still come to Cooperstown in July. Doug and I were despondent, but we held fast to Lou’s inspiring words. “Life, like baseball, must be coached.” Lou was coaching two desperate parents, Doug and me, through the most terrifying time of our lives. He refused to let us quit, and we gratefully allowed his strength to guide us. A second miracle At the skilled and blessed hands of our neurosurgeon, Danny’s second surgery was successful. His own indomitable spirit kept him in the hospital only two days this time. It was our second miracle. How many would we get? We prayed that they weren’t running out. Danny endured six debilitating weeks of radiation therapy, attending school as much as possible during that time. Radiologists at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta took excellent care of him, and they seemed confident of the potential outcome. Every day Danny fought to reclaim his old life, and rejoining his baseball team was a priority to him. He kept the cap from Cooperstown Dreams Park on his dresser, and he looked at it every night before he went to sleep. Danny finished his radiation treatments just two weeks before our team was to go to Cooperstown. He had lost about 10 pounds, and his balance was a little unsteady. The doctors had noted some vision problems that would keep him from playing baseball safely, and they cautioned against it. But Danny’s heart was strong, and his spirit was undefeated. He was determined to play baseball – to be a part of his team once again. Gathering his strength, Danny began to throw the baseball with his brother, Tim, in the backyard. He threw hard, I thought, and straight. More importantly, he was able to see and catch the ball when Tim threw it back to him. Doug said he would consider letting Danny play one inning in right field once we got to Cooperstown. That would be relatively safe, compared to batting or playing an infield position. Remembering Lou’s sage advice, Doug and I agreed not to hold Danny back – to let him live his life, making the most of each and every day. We arrived at Cooperstown Dreams Park on Saturday, July 17, a hot, sunny day – a day made for baseball. Danny and his teammates delighted in their “clubhouse,” with rows of bunk beds for the players and coaches. The 10 playing fields were beautiful, plush and green, better than any Little League park we had ever seen. It was thrilling to see how Lou and his son had brought life to his father’s dream. There was something magical about the place – the way the picturesque mountains arose to frame the park – as if it just might be the perfect setting for a miracle or two. Opening ceremonies were a celebration of life. Music, dancing and skydivers wowed the crowd. Forty-eight teams from all over the country and Canada marched in grand formation around the stadium before the cheers of families and friends. My heart leapt at the sight of Doug, Tim and Danny among the procession of coaches and young athletes. Lou had kindly invited Tim to participate as a coach, since at 14 Tim was too old to be a player. It was almost more happiness than I could bear – all three of my boys at Cooperstown Dreams Park – just as Lou had predicted back in February. The next day, Sunday, the games began. Our team, the Shaw Park Sharks, lost its first game. Danny did not get to play, as Doug hoped to win the first game and would not let Danny jeopardize that. Doug felt he owed something to the team, to win as many games as possible, while including Danny whenever he could. Danny understood, and he sat patiently on the dugout bench. Our second game that memorable day was against a team from Bloomfield, Mich. We were behind and the boys seemed very discouraged. Doug was edgy, pacing back and forth, headed, it seemed, for his second loss of the day. Suddenly, Lou Presutti showed up to watch our game. He began to tease that the Sharks were really goldfish, and losing goldfish at that! About that time, one of our sluggers hit a two-run homer, and the Sharks came to life. Soon, another hitter smashed a three-run homer, giving the Sharks the lead. You would have thought we were playing in the World Series for all the excitement in the dugout and at the spectators’ seats. In the next inning, with two outs and two runners on base, Doug sent Danny to the plate to bat. Stunned that Danny would have a turn at bat, I squeezed Lou’s shoulder, grabbed my camera and ran to the dugout for a better view. Danny stood at the plate in his old, familiar stance – smaller, perhaps, than before, but very determined. He fouled the first two pitches – but he somehow got hold of the next pitch and drove it down the first-base line, past the first baseman and into right field. He dropped his bat and began to run – a splendid moment – and easily reached first base, scoring two RBIs in the process! I began to cry, overwhelmed at the miracle I had just witnessed. Doug was crying too, as were the other coaches and parents on our team. This moment had touched our hearts. And over there on the sidelines was Lou Presutti, taking it all in with tears of joy in his blue eyes. I went over to him, barely able to speak, and said, “Lou, this is why it’s called a dreams park. He nodded and smiled. Meanwhile, Danny, bold as brass at first base, took a big lead toward second, and the pitcher threw to first, trying to pick him off. Danny dived headfirst back to first, with outstretched hands – and made it before the tag. We all cheered. The next batter got a single, and Danny ran to second base. Then came the final out, but no one cared. Danny returned to the dugout amid the heartfelt cheers of his teammates, coaches and fans. His little face was radiant with triumph and jubilation. Our Danny is a fighter – fighting to live and to reclaim his carefree childhood. Finishing the tournament We continued to play baseball for the remainder of that wondrous week. In one game, Danny caught a pop-fly over his head in right field, something we had thought impossible with his vision limitations. He was ecstatic, jumping up and down, forgetting that it was only the first out of the inning. Two runners scored before Danny remembered to throw the ball to the pitcher. His excitement was contagious, and the Sharks began to play better baseball than they had in months. We finished the tournament in sixth place, out of forty-eight teams, proud of our accomplishment as a team. Closing ceremonies were held Thursday night. Each team, coach and player was introduced and individually received the magnificent Youth Baseball Hall of Fame ring to wear with pride. The Shaw Park Sharks were introduced as the “Miracle Team from Marietta, Georgia.” Danny had long anticipated the moment in which Lou would present him with the ring. When his turn came, Lou handed it to him with a smile and a hug, and Danny strode away with the precious symbol of his achievement. It had indeed been an amazing week for Danny Waite. Coach Lou, at his persistent and inspiring best, taught us to believe in ourselves and to meet the challenges of life with courage. We all witnessed that philosophy during our “miracle summer of 1999.” We saw it in the glowing face of one very determined little boy, who came to Cooperstown Dreams Park to make his own dreams come true. Twenty-three years have now passed since that incredible summer. Danny went back to school, while continuing with regular check-ups and constant monitoring by his oncology and surgical team at Children’s. He played baseball at Shaw Park, still coached by his Dad – and we all kept in close touch with Coach Lou at the Dreams Park. Danny finished high school at Kell High, joyously participating in the usual activities of teenage boys. He learned to drive a car, another amazing accomplishment for him – and he was proud to announce to Coach Lou that he had been accepted at Valdosta State University following his senior year at Kell. He loved his newfound independence at college, as he embraced the adulthood that we had all prayed he would eventually reach. Sadly, Coach Lou passed away several years ago, leaving the Dreams Park in the capable hands of his family. Today Danny is happily married to the love of his life, Melissa, and they are the proud parents of precocious little Michael. It is our hope that one day Michael might have the privilege of playing baseball at the Cooperstown Dreams Park – and that he will be touched by the enchanted legacy of Coach Lou Presutti that lives on to inspire future generations. Marietta Daily Journal: A lesson in life - Play ball