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StarBulletin.com

Purple jersey a reminder of a courageous child


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POSTED: Sunday, August 09, 2009

For our right-hander Brett Scarpetta, life is truly a bowl of sunshine.

No matter the day, the time, the weather, the circumstance, Brett always has a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. At first glance, he can seem aloof, especially on the field, where he is always relaxed and confident to say the least.

It is common for professional pitchers to be absolutely zoned in on their start days, stalking the clubhouse in silence for hours before their start, iPods on at max volume, preparing their death stare for the mound.

Not Brett. “;Scarp”; will bounce into the clubhouse on his scheduled start days, smiling, joking, laughing, trying to work his way into every conversation going on in our clubhouse.

Even on the field doing his warm-up routine and pregame long toss and pregame bullpen, Scarp remains the same. At the start of the season, I wondered how he would compete on the mound, whether he could flip the switch when the lights came on. Heck, the kid does a shuffling jump over the foul line whenever he enters the field and is always laughing as he walks off the mound back to the dugout.

For the better part of this season, Scarp has competed well for us near the top of our starting rotation, taking us deep into ballgames with a chance to win. Brett's 88 to 89 mph fastball, 12-6 breaking ball and changeup have kept him among league leaders in ERA most of the year.

A long, lean and wiry 6-4, 190 pounds, Brett competes like few others on the mound, reaching back for the big pitch time and time again with the game in the balance. In this line of work, his confidence serves him well. On a typical trip to the mound to talk to Brett, he always laughs and assures me he's fine, and tells me he will get the next guy out.

More often than not, he's been right.

Early in the season, I noticed a kid-sized purple and gold baseball jersey hanging from Scarp's locker. Knowing Brett, I just assumed it was some kind of gag jersey he may have worn on a Halloween years ago, or a remnant of a bet lost with one of the clubhouse guys.

I never gave it much thought. I also noticed that Brett always brought the jersey with him on road trips. On our last trip to St. Louis to play the River City Rascals, I saw the purple jersey again. This time I had to ask Scarp what it was all about. My curiosity had the best of me.

For the first time this season, Scarp's face changed as he began to tell me about the jersey. He started to tell me that the jersey was from the batgirl from his college baseball team.

Brett pitched at Bellevue University in Nebraska, an NAIA powerhouse near Omaha, going 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA as a senior for the Bruins. But before that season began, he met Tanner Lusk, a spirited little 7-year old who would win over the hearts of Brett and his college teammates.

Tanner's road to becoming a part of the Bruins team began when Bellevue head coach Mike Evans saw a story on the local news about a local family's fundraiser for their daughter, who was battling cancer.

According to the Lusk family's Web site, Tanner was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a childhood form of cancer, in 2003. Years and years of surgeries, chemotherapy, and stays in a number of different hospitals, prompted the family to uproot from California to Omaha for treatment. The cancer attacked her brain.

Brett told me that it started out with the visit to his team's practice. Coach Evans heard that Tanner loved baseball, so he invited the Lusk family out to a workout in the fall. Shortly before the visit, Brett had strained a muscle in his throwing forearm, so he was held out of action that day, and therefore became Tanner's unofficial host for the day. They hit it off, and became instant friends.

On Tanner's eighth birthday, the Bellevue baseball team came over to her house to celebrate with her, and brought with them a little purple-and-gold No. 1 jersey with “;TANNER,”; printed on the back of it. She was made an honorary member of their team, and was even listed on their team roster the rest of the year.

A youth softball player herself, Tanner came out to a few games and hung out in the dugout with the boys, and would often toss the ball around and take ground balls and hit with Brett.

In March, Tanner threw out the first pitch at Bellevue's home opener. That season, Bellevue went 39-13, and advanced to the NAIA World Series, finishing eighth in the final national poll.

But soon after the season, Tanner's health turned bad. She did not make it to her ninth birthday, dying in September 2007. The team attended Tanner's funeral, where her parents gave Brett their daughter's beloved jersey. The team retired her jersey at Bellevue, and Brett vowed to always keep it with him, and he has.

Brett taught her some things about baseball, but in the end she taught him a lot more.

“;Tanner gave me a lot more than I ever gave her,”; Brett said. “;She was so strong, and never felt bad for herself, and I think she was a pretty talented little player, too. I bring the jersey with me everywhere to remind me that a lot of kids will never have the chance to play this game again. That's why I play the way I do, just in case it's the last time I get to play.”;

Knowing the story on the little purple jersey hanging from Brett's locker, his demeanor, his approach to the game, his outlook on life makes sense. This strong professional athlete plays with the passion of a kid and with the memory of a little girl with the heart of a giant.

 

Brendan Sagara, who played baseball for Leilehua and UH-Hilo, is pitching coach for the Southern Illinois Miners.