How the death of an athlete can affect the whole team

Written By Taylor Spirito, For The Globe

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It’s Jul. 25, 2019, and UPMC Park in Erie, PA is brimming with people from all over, from loyal fans of the Erie SeaWolves or their affiliate, the Detroit Tigers to fans of their opponent, the Trenton Thunder or their affiliate, the New York Yankees, or random Erieites who decided to spend their Thursday at the ballpark. 

It’s game one of a doubleheader and left fielder Cam Gibson tripled to send home third baseman Kody Eaves. Shortstop Sergio Alcantara just struck out for the first out of the last inning (since it’s a doubleheader, the games are shortened to seven innings each).  It’s the bottom of the lineup and catcher Chace Numata is up to bat, followed by right fielder Derek Hill, who’s infamous around the ballpark for hitting home runs when they really count.  Everyone is watching Derek, hoping he would win us the game.

Instead, Chace hits a high one into left field.  It’s caught, but Cam Gibson takes off from third and dives head-first across home plate.  Cam throws his helmet to the ground and joins the rest of the guys in mobbing Chace around first base.  The crowd joins their team in celebrating a 9-8 win, their eighth walk-off win of the season.

Win or lose, there was always this sort of magic between the SeaWolves, the fans and the staff.  I was the on-field host for the past two seasons there, and there wasn’t a face in the ballpark that I didn’t grow to love.  It was the truest sense of community I have ever felt in my 20 years living in Erie.

That community was rocked when Chace Numata got into a skateboarding accident in the early hours of Aug. 30. That rock turned into an earthquake when Chace passed away from his injuries the morning of Sept. 2, hours before the SeaWolves played their last game of the season in Akron, Ohio.

Even before he passed, the team and the community were visibly shaken by their catcher being out of commission.  The team wrote his nickname “Numi” on their caps and the hashtag #ForNumi began making its rounds on social media as he was unconscious in a hospital bed.  There were four games left of the season and the SeaWolves were fighting for a playoff spot, their first since 2013.  The normally rowdy dugout fell silent as they continued to push but fell short in game three with a 5-1 loss to the Akron RubberDucks.  The next day, they shut the RubberDucks out 4-0 and learned of Chace’s passing after the game.

Making the playoffs was the long-term goal, with arguably the best pitching staff in all of minor league baseball and some strong offensive assets to back it up.  As the season came to an abrupt end that nobody saw coming, the playoffs were the last thing on anyone’s mind.  Instead, social media erupted with fans, players, and teams alike sharing stories, pictures, videos, and words of love and encouragement about Chace.

It made sense.  He was picked in the 14th round of the MLB Draft straight out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies. He started in their farm system before heading to be with the New York Yankees organization.  He signed with the Tigers in November of 2018 and was in his first year with the SeaWolves.  He spent ten years in the minors and hoped to get to the majors, like any minor leaguer, but his main driving factor was his love for the game that never seemed to falter.  His impact and his legacy everywhere he went and played cannot be denied.

It might be obvious that this stings a lot for me.  In my two years working for the SeaWolves, Chace was the nicest player I had ever met; the only one that could give him a run for that title is Tim Tebow.  I always told the kids that I talked to throughout the game to watch for “our catcher, because he’s the nicest guy on the team.”  Chace and I would discuss our plans for after the season before the game and he would go out of his way to say “hi” to me if I was in the dugout.  During the on-field promotions, he would watch the kids playing the games and cheer them on.  It was his first year with us, but it felt like he belonged, and he made you feel like you belonged too.

So yes, I was heartbroken to learn of Chace’s passing and I still am, but I would like to take the opportunity to discuss how his presence as both a ball player and a person was nothing short of special.

The only things that should be empty at the end of a team’s season are the locker room and the arena or stadium they play in.  Instead, the once lively locker room now sits with nothing but Chace’s locker left virtually untouched, a departing message from his family that reads “Mahalo, SeaWolves!” taped above where his jersey displaying the number 10 hangs.  It’s not just the ballpark that feels empty, it’s everything that feels empty.

And now, as the players, fans and staff all go our separate ways for the off-season, we all take with us the motivation to live #LikeNumi and with a piece of Chace Numata that will be part of us forever.  His heart was big enough to go around, after all.

Mahalo, Numi.

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