A journey of hope

A sin­cere sen­ti­ment: Base­ball agent Bri­an Mc­Caf­ferty talked about his vis­it to New­town with Chica­go White Sox pitch­er Hec­tor San­ti­ago. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— Bri­an Mc­Caf­ferty, a Fath­er Judge alum who now works as a pro­fes­sion­al base­ball agent, re­cently traveled to New­town, Con­necti­c­ut along­side one of his play­ers.

To hear Bri­an Mc­Caf­ferty tell it, on the sur­face it was just a road sign, just like any of the thou­sands of oth­ers spread across the coun­try to aid mo­tor­ists in get­ting from Point A to Point B.

Un­til two months ago, the sign greet­ing vehicles ex­it­ing Route 84 in this quiet corner of south­west­ern Con­necti­c­ut wouldn’t have war­ran­ted a second thought.

New­town to the left, Sandy Hook to the right.

Sud­denly, this once for­get­table road sign served as the per­fect am­al­gam of re­mind­er and heart­break for one of the worst tra­gedies this coun­try has ever ex­per­i­enced.

And just like the events that took place in­side Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary School the morn­ing of Dec. 14, Mc­Caf­ferty struggled with the words to de­scribe the hor­ror of it all after a re­cent vis­it, which is no more un­der­stood now than it was that fate­ful Fri­day morn­ing.

Mc­Caf­ferty is a 1986 gradu­ate of Fath­er Judge. His fam­ily owns the James A. Mc­Caf­ferty Fu­ner­al Home at 6709 Frank­ford Av­en­ue in May­fair, but even grow­ing up so close to death couldn’t ad­equately pre­pare him for Amer­ica’s new­est Ground Zero of sad­ness.

“I thought it was fit­ting that we stopped to take a pic­ture of that sign,” Mc­Caf­ferty said af­ter­ward. “After we passed it, we knew we were walk­ing in­to a place that had ex­per­i­enced blood­shed of the most hor­rible kind.”

The “we” in ques­tion in­cluded a small trav­el­ing party that Mc­Caf­ferty was a part of on Jan. 18. Formerly in­volved in the bank­ing and fin­an­cial in­dustry, he has been a full-time pro­fes­sion­al base­ball agent since 2008. He rep­res­ents a slew of play­ers, most of whom are minor leaguers hop­ing to break in­to the big leagues.

One of those cli­ents, 25-year-old Chica­go White Sox pitch­er Hec­tor San­ti­ago, caught his break last year, pitch­ing in 42 of the team’s games. The Ne­wark, N.J., nat­ive has al­ways had a char­it­able side with an ul­ti­mate goal of one day open­ing an in­door sports com­plex for kids in his ho­met­own. After watch­ing the World Trade Cen­ter smolder and crumble from his classroom as a 14-year-old, San­ti­ago vowed to make a dif­fer­ence one day. So it was no sur­prise to Mc­Caf­ferty when his cli­ent reached out to him and asked about the pos­sib­il­ity of vis­it­ing kids in the New­town/Sandy Hook area.

San­ti­ago is not Derek Jeter or Chase Ut­ley. Even the biggest of base­ball fans don’t know much about him, so suf­fice it to say his even­tu­al audi­ence of about 200 school­chil­dren at St. Rose of Lima Church — just over a mile from the school where Adam Lanza ex­tin­guished 26 lives in a mat­ter of minutes — didn’t know who San­ti­ago was. Some of them prob­ably couldn’t loc­ate Chica­go on a map. That didn’t mat­ter.

What did mat­ter, to Mc­Caf­ferty and many oth­ers who have been im­pacted by the play­er’s un­so­li­cited vis­it to the town, is the over­all sig­ni­fic­ance of San­ti­ago’s trip.

“When we con­fron­ted that road sign, we had to stop for a second,” Mc­Caf­ferty said. “You know once you make that turn, you’re walk­ing in­to a place where hell vis­ited Earth for a day. It sounds me­lo­dra­mat­ic, but it’s not.

“Hec­tor just wanted to do something for the kids. There was no ul­teri­or motive. He was go­ing up there re­gard­less of wheth­er any­one knew about it. He’s a spe­cial kid.”

In the days lead­ing up to the vis­it, and the hours in the car ride on the way up, Mc­Caf­ferty and San­ti­ago knew noth­ing could pre­pare them for what they were about to enter. The St. Rose young­sters — some of whom were close friends with the Sandy Hook vic­tims — had already been through so much. Thus, Mc­Caf­ferty’s ad­vice to his cli­ent was simple.

“I told him to talk from his heart,” he said. “We walked in­to a lot of emo­tions, but it was good for the kids. We just wanted to say “Hi” and keep push­ing the pos­it­ives on them. You have to move for­ward and keep fight­ing.”

Mc­Caf­ferty has over­come sev­er­al obstacles to be­come suc­cess­ful in his own field, and he be­lieves in giv­ing back when ready and able, something he preaches to his cli­ents.

However, he didn’t need any help in per­suad­ing San­ti­ago, who is so gen­er­ous with his time and money that it’s sur­pris­ing he has any of his own left over. After ad­dress­ing the chil­dren, he opened the floor for ques­tions; when he fin­ished an­swer­ing them all, he auto­graphed a photo for each and every child. From San­ti­ago’s per­spect­ive, it was an op­por­tun­ity to give shattered chil­dren a reas­on to smile; from Mc­Caf­ferty’s, it brought up a much big­ger ques­tion.

“What I want to know is, where are the guys mak­ing $15-20 mil­lion a year?” asked Mc­Caf­ferty, who is fath­er to an 8-year-old son, Cole. “You’re telling me they don’t have the time? Our goals for this trip were simple: of­fer the kids a break from the un­speak­able emo­tions they’re ex­per­i­en­cing, and raise some aware­ness. What these kids want and need is in­ter­ac­tion. For­get the money … they just want your time.”

To be fair, San­ti­ago isn’t the first ath­lete to vis­it New­town since the shoot­ing, but he is the first known one to do so on a school’s prop­erty. In Mc­Caf­ferty’s opin­ion, that’s where those with in­flu­ence need to vis­it if for no oth­er reas­on than a school is where the seis­mic tragedy oc­curred. 

As Mc­Caf­ferty said, “You don’t take any­thing for gran­ted after ex­per­i­en­cing something like this.” The im­ages from that day are forever in­grained in his head, from the tears in Monsignor Robert “Fath­er Bob” Weiss’s eyes at the church while listen­ing to San­ti­ago speak, to the po­lice cars and or­ange park­ing cones that blocked any in­quis­it­ive parties from check­ing out the road that led to scene of the shoot­ing.

But noth­ing Mc­Caf­ferty and San­ti­ago en­countered came close to what the res­id­ents of the once idyll­ic com­munity have gone through, something they kept in per­spect­ive.

“I just wanted them to have fun,” San­ti­ago said by phone from the Ne­wark home he still shares with his fam­ily in the off­season. “I didn’t want to up­set or of­fend any­one, be­cause they’ve already been through enough. I wanted them to know there were still people fight­ing for them. To meet them and spend time with them, to see the smiles and hear their laughter … that made my day.”

And des­pite its low-key nature, San­ti­ago’s vis­it has cre­ated a re­ac­tion around the na­tion. New fans are com­ing for­ward, wish­ing to thank San­ti­ago for his kind, self­less ges­ture. He’s already talk­ing about re­turn­ing for an­oth­er vis­it next year without any cam­er­as or re­port­ers present. A vis­it from a pro­fes­sion­al ath­lete with no ties to the town or any New Eng­land-based team is the dom­ino ef­fect Mc­Caf­ferty hoped to get out of the trip, and so far, it’s work­ing.

“What’s so dif­fer­ent about this is that the team didn’t set it up, nor was it a planned event,” said ES­PN.com seni­or base­ball writer Jerry Crasnick, who ac­com­pan­ied Mc­Caf­ferty and San­ti­ago on the trip. “It was just this ball­play­er from Ne­wark who was driv­en to go up there and do something good. It was a very valu­able vis­it, and the re­ac­tion he got from those kids blew me away.”

Even Crasnick, whose job is to con­vey facts and emo­tions through his words, was struck by how im­pact­ful the trip was on all parties in­volved.

“You just see the pic­tures of some of these kids and hear their stor­ies and your heart breaks for them more and more,” said Crasnick, who lives in the Phil­adelphia area. “When the kids in that church went home that day and saw their par­ents, they got to talk about something pos­it­ive. I think that hu­man ele­ment hit home for all of us, no ques­tion.”

Above all else, the events that oc­curred in a town bet­ter suited for a Nor­man Rock­well paint­ing than the epi­cen­ter for na­tion­al gun con­trol de­bate have left more ques­tions than an­swers. Mc­Caf­ferty isn’t sure that will ever change, but be­cause of the po­s­i­tion he’s in, aware­ness beats apathy in a na­tion con­stantly de­sens­it­ized by vi­ol­ent crime.

“The big­ger point I’m try­ing to make is we can do more,” he said. “I think there are people mak­ing a lot more money (than San­ti­ago) that could have a big­ger ef­fect, be­cause let’s face it, those kids aren’t OK. That town is a mess.”

Mc­Caf­ferty also spoke of how hard it was to leave those chil­dren be­hind after spend­ing just a short amount of time with them. While he, San­ti­ago and Crasnick re­turned to their reg­u­lar lives after the vis­it, the chil­dren in­side that church — as well as any­one who lives in town — no longer have that lux­ury. The sleep­less nights and weight loss be­set by trauma are only just be­gin­ning, and Mc­Caf­ferty has im­plored any­one will­ing to listen not to for­get the people of New­town as time marches on. 

With ath­letes like San­ti­ago pitch­ing in to lift spir­its in any way pos­sible, the cause is head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion.

“I don’t know how much good we brought, but I’m glad I got to be a part of their fight for a couple hours,” Mc­Caf­ferty said. “Kids need to know that schools are where they should want to go every day to bet­ter them­selves, not be scared for their lives. People, es­pe­cially kids, love ath­letes. The ef­fect they can have on kids can be big. They won’t for­get this day, and hope­fully they re­mem­ber how it made them feel.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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