A journey of hope
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org