ST. LOUIS – They stand before a large room, the night’s cause admirable but the reason for it heartbreaking. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder/second baseman Skip Schumaker clutches a microphone at the edge of a stage with Sean and Jamie Stutzman nearby, the couple’s spirit aching for their sweet daughter.
They are here Thursday, at SunRise United Methodist Church in a crowded space that looks more like a concourse at Busch Stadium on a humid mid-summer evening. Fans in red jerseys and T-shirts grasp bats and balls, large posters and stacks of cards – all waiting for a scribble from Cardinals stars at three signing stations feet away. Schumaker turns toward the audience with a message about baby Reesa, an 11-month-old girl with a tragic condition who has brought them all together.
“What you guys have done is above and beyond whatever my expectations were to see this thing turn into,” Schumaker says. “This thing just grew legs. … What you guys are doing is helping my friends Sean and Jamie and their baby, Reesa, to keep her comfortable in what she’s dealing with. One hundred percent of what you guys are doing tonight is going to baby Reesa. Thank you so much.”
Claps and hollers follow. The moment shows the power of friendship, how bonds can bring out the best in us during the most difficult of times. On April 2, Reesa was diagnosed with Krabbe Leukodystrophy, a rare genetic disorder with no cure that affects the nervous system and is normally fatal before the infant is 2 years old. Schumaker organized the “Stars 4 baby Reesa” charity event, an autograph signing and silent auction that raised money for the Stutzman family.
Sean and Schumaker met when the father was 14 years old. They were baseball teammates at Aliso Niguel High in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Eventually they separated – Schumaker to UC Santa Barbara and a major-league career, and Sean to Arizona State and a job in commercial real estate.
Distance was placed between them as they evolved from carefree kids into men with complex responsibilities, but their connection was never lost. That’s why on this night Schumaker hands Sean the microphone, giving his friend a chance to speak.
“It has really blown us away that people are willing to help out so much with Reesa,” Sean says.
“She’s not going to be here …”
He pauses. A man in the crowd says, “Take your time.”
“Sorry,” Sean says, filled with emotion, after a short delay. “She’s not going to be here for a real long time. To know that in her short life she has touched this many people – that’s something that we’ll always hold onto. So thank you.”
After the speech, Sean and Jamie settle into folding chairs toward the back of the stage. To them, the turnout is stunning. A line of fans stretches to a wall on the opposite side of the room.
Their situation is a shock, and this night offers another reminder for the couple from Scottsdale, Ariz., how rewarding and unforgiving life can be. The past three months have included worry, as well as examples of friends consoling them during the lowest moments. Sean learned that a tie like the one he has with Schumaker is invaluable.
“As you grow up and become an adult, you realize that with your high school buddies, it’s not all about joking,” says Sean, 32. “People go through serious things in life. We all will, and we all do. That’s where you really need to step up for friends and do what you can.”
Schumaker moved to Orange County, Calif., from Los Angeles when he was an eighth-grader. Sean lived close by, and the two became fast friends.
Sean knew Schumaker was bound for big things after high school. The future fifth-round pick in the 2001 MLB amateur draft had a cerebral approach as a shortstop for the Wolverines. Sean admired his friend’s focus, and the traits that have allowed Schumaker to enjoy a seven-plus year career with the Cardinals were evident at a young age.
“He was a stud in high school and a great baseball player and a good guy,” says Sean, who was a catcher at Aliso Niguel High. “Even back then, he had a great head on his shoulders. He always has. We knew he was something special, and it’s so cool to see where he has taken things.”
Their connection grew stronger with time. The friends kept in touch even as their high-school days became a memory. They planned trips for each offseason, and on Oct. 18, 2008, in Fountain Hills, Ariz., Schumaker was the best man when Sean married Jamie. The couple met in the dorm they shared as freshmen in college in 1998.
Schumaker always has been someone whom Sean has relied on for support. He’s still Skip, the dedicated talent who has kept the same pre-at-bat routine since he was 14 years old. He’s still Skip, the energetic presence who devoured Boston Market before each game in high school. He’s still Skip, the versatile player who threw in the mid-90-mph range on those occasions when he pitched as a rising star in southern California.
“There wasn’t really a question of whether our friendship would last,” Sean says.
Back on the chair, Sean’s thoughts turn to a moment when he needed that friendship after receiving some of the hardest news imaginable. A conversation with Schumaker about Reesa became surreal, and a promise made that day provided comfort in a time of grief.
Reesa was born July 30, 2011. She weighed 7 pounds, 13 ounces and measured 21 ½ inches long. Sean and Jamie became first-time parents, and they considered the occasion joyous.
“It’s a love you can’t describe,” says Jamie, 32.
Healthy progression marked the first half-year of Reesa’s life. She slept through the night, ate solid foods and squealed in her highchair. She was a gift, the center of the couple’s universe, and they anticipated a long and happy life together.
Shortly after, though, Sean and Jamie grew concerned. They visited a pediatrician anticipating Reesa had a common stomach illness. However, in recent weeks they had noticed the then-6 ½-month-old girl clench her fists more than normal and develop stiffness in her limbs. They also were aware that she was behind on developmental benchmarks like rolling over.
After the couple shared those issues, the pediatrician instructed a neurologist to check Reesa. A neuro exam led to sinking news: A 20-minute clinical exam revealed the possibility of Leukodystrophy, which affects the brain’s white matter. The following weeks produced a number of setbacks for the girl, like feeding troubles and a loss of weight, as the family waited for blood-test results. The couple held out hope that the challenges would pass, but they feared the worst for Reesa’s future.
Then on April 2, the results confirmed the neurologist’s suspicion: Reesa had Krabbe Leukodystrophy. There were no words for the couple’s shock.
“The hardest thing for me is being alone with Reesa,” Jamie says. “That’s when I sit with her and think about what’s going on. When I have people around and there are things to do, it’s easier for me. But when it’s the two of us, and I look at this beautiful baby girl – who’s so innocent and doesn’t deserve any of this – that’s what’s very hard.”
It’s hard for Sean, too. He called Schumaker with the somber news in early April, as the Cardinals were finishing spring training and days before they opened defense of their 11th World Series championship in Miami.
For the father, the moment was jarring. Most of the friends’ dialogue through the years had evolved around jokes and other light-hearted conversation. To discuss a topic of such weight with Schumaker – one that involved death – was like living a nightmare.
“I’m glad I had someone to talk to, someone who has known me for a long time who is there for me,” Sean says. “It’s still kind of shocking to us that we’re going through this. People take for granted that you have kids and they’re healthy and life goes on and that’s just how you do things. But it’s not always that easy.”
Schumaker offered solace. He told Sean he would do everything he could with his platform as a major-league player to keep Reesa comfortable. Medical care for families affected by Krabbe Leukodystrophy can cost about $700,000 per year, according to the Hunter’s Hope Foundation, a group established to create awareness of Leukodystrophies.
“What amazing people,” Schumaker says of Sean and Jamie. “I don’t know if I could do it. With what they’re going through, it takes some really strong people to deal with the struggles they have to deal with day-in and day-out. Their baby daughter’s got 12 more months to live. Bottom line. We just try to make her as comfortable as she can while she’s still here. … I’ll remember the Cardinal community – that’s what I’ll remember most (about the charity event). My teammates coming together for someone they didn’t know.”
That’s the scene at the church as fans shuffle between the tables where autographs are signed. Admission for each person was $10, and tickets for autographs ranged from $15 to $30 for former and current Cardinals players, including 2011 World Series MVP David Freese.
At this time – about halfway through the four-hour event – pitchers Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan and Marc Rzepczynski join infielder/outfielder Allen Craig for their one-hour appearance. In all, 15 current Cardinals players show up as well as some men with ties to the St. Louis Rams, St. Louis Blues and University of Missouri football.
Sean and Jamie sit behind the Cardinals players on stage, amazed by the empathy. Strangers have gathered for a greater good – their welfare – and the support touches them.
The couple witnesses the bustle, all in dear Reesa’s name, and they are humbled. Their daughter’s life could be painfully short, but her lessons will live for years to come.
More autograph-seekers pass as Sean starts talking about the night’s legacy. He says he and Jamie will remember days like this forever. It goes beyond sports and fandom, trade deadlines and pennant races, baseball and superstars. It’s about something deeper. It’s about compassion. It’s about caring for a family in need.
“We’re going to have a family beyond this,” he says. “In 30 years, we’re still going to be looking back on this day, and this memorable event, and it will always keep Reesa in our hearts and in our minds.”
That’s the theme throughout the evening at the church. On a wall near the large room, there’s a white paper banner labeled, “Prayers 4 Baby Reesa!” It includes messages from visitors written in colored markers like, “God Bless you all! Cardinal Nation is praying for you! Keep the faith!” and “Stay Strong, Baby Reesa! You have so much love and support behind you, and your story is an inspiration to us all.”
There are other ways fans show support. Later in the evening, a man in a red Cardinals T-shirt approaches Sean near the top of the stage with a black cap to sign.
“Oh,” he says, “this is a first.”
The response here, online and elsewhere throughout the country has been memorable. Sean says he and his wife have seen so much good in recent months that they have become better people in the process. Sean hates living through this brutal pain – Jamie says she had never seen him cry before this spring – but Reesa has taught everyone close to her how kind communities can be.
“It really has taught me to cherish every day and every friendship and every relationship that I have and not to take anything for granted,” Jamie says.
Both she and Sean will miss the tender moments, though. Those will never come back. One of Jamie’s favorite things about Reesa is the way the daughter’s eyes sparkle when she hears her parents’ voices. Those eyes are bright blue just like her dad’s, and that smile is oh-so precious.
There are other treasures too. The way Reesa’s arms and legs twitch when she hears a familiar voice is downright adorable. And who will ever forget the way she lets out that cute growl?
“Just being a parent, watching her grow, I can’t describe the feeling,” Jamie says. “I have friends who don’t have kids, and I’m like, ‘You have to have kids, because it’s this totally different feeling.'”
Adds Sean: “We were waiting for so long for Reesa to sit up and roll over and put her hand to her mouth, and those things never happened. Those little, small things in life that a lot of people take for granted – and we would have probably taken for granted as well – were forever changed. That’s another special thing that Reesa is leaving with us.”
No, she’s not going to be here for a real long time.