NOBLESVILLE — Maddox O’Connor is going to be the first Major League Baseball player to take the field with a feeding tube and an ostomy bag hidden beneath his jersey. Just watch him. He says it so matter-of-factly that the terminal disease he is battling doesn’t seem terminal at all.
Maddox is a feisty, kind, determined 12-year-old boy who was born with mitochondrial disease and who grew up loving baseball, idolizing his older brother Caleb, a high school pitcher who throws 85 mph.
He is a boy who has organs inside his body that have shut down and who can only play two or three innings of baseball, sleeping for hours after, sometimes until the next day, to recover.
But Maddox also has a pro baseball career to think about. And before he could become a player for the Padres, his favorite MLB team, Maddox knew he needed to play travel baseball. Real travel ball, not the rec kind that lasts a few months, but the type of serious baseball needed to get a career going.
Maddox went to his mom last fall and told her he wanted to, no, he had to play travel baseball this spring. “He wanted it more than anything,” said his mom, Shawn O’Connor.
But there was a problem and “it made me a little bit stressed,” Maddox said.
There were no travel teams that would take him due to his physical limitations, only able to play a few innings a game. Shawn called around to different teams and told them she knew Maddox would sit the bench 50% of the time.
“We’re not going to be mad,” Shawn would tell one coach after another. “And they would say, ‘Maddox is such an inspiration. We’re so happy he loves baseball so much but we want to be at a super competitive level and we don’t have room on our team for his situation.'”
Maddox was devastated. All he wanted was to be a kid with an ostomy bag and a feeding tube who could get a chance to play travel baseball like any other kid. But he couldn’t.
Not until something magical happened when a former MLB player, a mother with the kind of love only a mother with a terminally-ill son can understand, a crew of coaches and 13 baseball-loving teammates came together.
Maddox helped handpick his travel baseball team, named USAthletic 12U, a group of players that have dreams of winning but know they probably won’t. A team that has perseverance and grit.
Many of the boys are first-time travel players, some have never learned how to bunt, some can’t afford the fees to play travel baseball, but all of them have a passion and love for the game.
“It’s going to be very tough for them to compete. We have, basically, ‘The Bad News Bears’ of baseball right now,” said Shawn, who is head coach of the team. “When we did our tryouts, instead of looking at players that were the best, we looked at players who really just loved baseball. I can work with that. I can teach you how to hit a ball with a stick, but I can’t teach you how to love baseball. That comes from inside.
“We wanted to give all of these kids a chance.”
Not just Maddox.
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‘This was not about winning or losing’
Maddox is just one player on the team. His mom wants to make that clear. This team, without Maddox, is a beautiful, inspiring group.
“I know that Maddox is the driving force behind it because of his situation,” Shawn said. “At the end of the day, what came out of the situation, is so much more than Maddox.”
There is pitcher Luke Olson, who Shawn calls “the quiet strength of the team.” There is Bryson Anderson, “who has never said a negative thing about a human being. It doesn’t matter if he’s up by 10 or down by 20, he’s cheering everybody on.”
There is Guy Mattingly “who would have never gotten picked by a travel team,” Shawn said. “He’s the size of a 9-year-old, but he is the toughest catcher, who is giving it 110% all the time.”
There is Jerome Scheidler, a twin born prematurely, weighing three pounds “who has been fighting his entire life. He is out there every single play saying, ‘Coach, what can I do?’ That kid doesn’t know the words ‘give up’ or ‘quit.'”
And there is Maddox, the player on the team who is fighting for his life.
By the time Maddox was eight weeks old, “it was very obvious,” Shawn said, that something was wrong.
Maddox couldn’t eat. He would turn blue because he couldn’t breathe and eat at the same time. He couldn’t hold food down. He was what doctors called “failure to thrive.”
The only way to save Maddox, doctors said, was to put a feeding tube in. Maddox was diagnosed with the rare, terminal mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder that occurs when mitochondria, the energy that feeds all the body’s cells and organs, fail to produce enough energy for the body to function properly.
“Maddox doesn’t produce mitochondria at the same rate as we do, so he can’t produce enough energy to run all of his organs in his system at one time,” said Shawn. “And as he gets older, he produces less and less but his body gets bigger and bigger and needs more. So his body starts shutting things down.”
Maddox has been “lucky” so far, Shawn said. He hasn’t had any major organs shut down. But his bladder doesn’t work, so he has an ostomy bag. And he is fed 19 hours a day by a feeding tube.
There is a wide prognosis for people with mitochondrial disease and “Maddox falls into this weird kind of category because he does have organ failure but he’s still alive,” Shawn said.
Maddox was recently put on palliative care, a way to improve quality of life for people diagnosed with chronic, terminal illnesses.
“Basically, we prioritize his quality of life over quantity of time,” said Shawn. And one way to prioritize quality of life was to get Maddox playing travel baseball with his friends.
“Whenever I get hurt, they come over and help me and that makes me happy that I have people that care about me, other kids that care about me,” Maddox said of his team. “This was not about winning or losing. It’s just having fun with my friends and having the best time of your life.”
‘They’re going to have to work twice as hard’
How the best time of Maddox’s life came together started with his mom and Wes Whisler, 2001’s Indiana Mr. Baseball and former pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, who owns The Strike Zone in Noblesville.
Whisler has known the O’Connor family for years, working with Maddox’s older brother Caleb who plays at Hamilton Southeastern and is on USAthletic’s 17U team. Shawn came to Whisler with Maddox’s dream of playing travel ball and with an idea to form a 12U travel team with USAthletic Baseball.
“I said, ‘I’m all in for it,'” Whisler said. And then he met the team — and he was even more in.
“They’re all their own characters,” he said. “And Maddox, he is just a ball of energy. He goes, goes, goes. He shows up early to lessons and he is just ready to go. He just looks so forward to it.”
As the team’s practice began Sunday at The Strike Zone, Maddox was smiling from ear to ear in a huddle with his teammates.
“You have to put in 100% effort, OK?” Shawn told them. “We still have six weeks. That’s it until opening day and we have to be ready to compete.”
As the players dispersed to their stations, Shawn said she knows what they are up against. “They’re going to have to work twice as hard to keep up with the other teams, because a lot of these teams, at 12 years old, they have been playing together since they were eight,” she said. “But we have this spirit and this fight.”
Maddox’s teammates come from every socioeconomic background and from all over Indiana. There are players from Marion, Ind., Lawrence, Fishers, Middletown, Noblesville and McCordsville. And there are players with a gamut of skill sets.
“But I would take these kids over the top kids any day,” said Shawn. “It’s not about being the best. It’s about teaching these kids, ‘You are enough. I want you guys to believe you are as good as I know you are.'”
‘I don’t want to lose a teammate’
Assistant coach Drew Dial isn’t sure there has ever been a team like this one. By the time USAthletic 12U formed, all the other local travel baseball teams had been filled.
“There is not a team like this established that I’ve come across,” Dial said. “Obviously, we are competitive and want to win. But if we end up winning two or three games this year and are good teammates, that’s what matters.”
That attitude was key as the team held tryouts. Baseball skills were evaluated, but there also were interviews.
Dial pulled the players aside one by one and asked questions: “In your opinion, what makes a great teammate?” and “What does the word ‘accountability’ mean to you?” and “Do you agree to “have a positive attitude, have fun and put ‘team before me.'”
Player Clay Heater said the questions made him a “little nervous.” But he passed them with flying colors and made the team. Others did not.
“There were some really good, qualified kids that we didn’t offer a place on the team,” Dial said. “Their goals just didn’t match our goals.”
After all, making the Little League World Series was not this team’s mission and neither was getting the players college scholarships.
“My drive and my passion for this is wanting to teach them how to be teammates and hard work and discipline and that transition to middle school sports and the expectations in high school sports,” Dial said. “I want these guys to grow into young men.”
And, of course, all the players want to be there for Maddox. The team may not be all about him, but the players think a lot about Maddox.
“He works so hard and sometimes I would think he might want to give up,” said teammate Brandon Dannel. “But then he keeps working and trying his hardest to keep going.”
Guy Mattingly said he “feels good being able to play on this team with him. I think about (his disease), how he has that and I don’t want to lose a teammate.
“Because I’ve never lost one before.”
‘We can’t fail if we’re choosing kids for the right reason’
Maddox has been playing baseball since he was three years old. He couldn’t talk until he was four, but Shawn would say to him, “What do you want to do Maddox?” He would always run and grab a ball and bat.
“He absolutely loves baseball,” Shawn said. As he grew older, Maddox started playing rec ball, but because of his disease, he never got a full season playing travel.
“We always told him, ‘We’re sorry you’re in the situation, but you are not a victim of it,'” Shawn said. “He was so adamant about playing travel baseball because if he didn’t play baseball anymore that meant (the disease) had won.”
When Maddox and his mom decided to form a travel team, he knew immediately who he wanted by his side.
“He is naming these kids who aren’t necessarily the best players, but who love baseball and he is naming their strengths,” said Shawn. “He had been paying attention to what matters.”
At USAthletic 12U practices, every single time without fail, teammates rally around one another. If some players have to run, all the players run. If some players fall behind, the other players slow down to run beside them.
“This is not something we told them they had to do,” said Shawn. “They just do it. They are really great kids.”
The coaches are realistic. They know, this team may not win many games. And that doesn’t matter one bit.
“We can’t fail if we’re choosing kids for the right reason,” Shawn said. “Anybody can go out and find the fastest pitchers and the best shortstop and the player who can hit the farthest, but are you really winning?
Maddox says no, not unless you have a team like his.
“I wanted to create a baseball team for my friends and me so I can be happier and have friends and play with my friends that I know,” he said. “It makes me happy that I have friends that care about me. And I can just play baseball.”
Meet the USAthletic 12U team
Bryson Anderson, 12, sixth grade, Forest Glen Elementary: “My favorite part of being on the team is the players because the players have good energy and a lot of talent and we all have a lot of chemistry.”
Brandon Dannel, 12, sixth grade, Fall Creek Intermediate in Fishers: “I’m happy to be on this team because there’s a lot of good people that help me get better and that I can build around and make friendships.”
Dawson Dial, 12, sixth grade, Forest Glen Elementary: “I was excited because last season I was on a team with a couple of these people. I knew how they play. (Our goal) is to win one of our tournaments and all of us just get better.”
Zayne Frieszell, 12, 7th grade, Eastbrook in Marion, Ind.: “The last two teams I was on, we didn’t do too well. I think it will be pretty fun this year.”
Sampson Harper, 12, sixth grade, Mt. Vernon Middle in Fortville: “It’s fun and we’re like family and we take care of each other.”
Clay Heater, 12, sixth grade, Eastbrook in Marion, Ind.: “Everyone has good sportsmanship. Maddox? He’s good, yeah.”
Dezmond Jordan-Jackson, 12, sixth grade, Mt. Vernon Middle: “It’s fun. I play any position they need me to play. I like my teammates and just having people to talk to instead of just sitting at home all day.”
Guy Mattingly, 11, 6th grade, Shenandoah Middle School: “I feel good being able to play on this team with him. I think about (his disease), how he has that and I don’t want to lose a teammate because I’ve never lost one before.”
Maddox O’Connor, 12, sixth grade, Fall Creek Intermediate in Fishers: “I wanted to create a baseball team for my friends and me so I can be happier and have friends and play with my friends that I know. It makes me happy that I have friends that care about me.”
Luke Olson, 12, sixth grade, Holy Cross Lutheran: “I like that I have good teammates and they’ll help me and that they’re nice to me and not disrespectful.”
Jerome Scheidler, 11, 5th grade, St. Luke Catholic: “I like the players and the team. They’re really nice and I like playing baseball.”
Chester Turben, 12, 6th grade, Forest Glen Elementary: “I think most of us are pretty positive. We always keep each other up. We never put each other down. I think it’s just about being a good teammate.”
Alex Weddell, 12, sixth grade, Noblesville East Middle: “We’re hard working. We have a lot of potential and the coaches are really good.”
Help Maddox’s team and his passion
To help with the expenses that come with travel baseball (food, uniforms and travel) go to Paypal.com and make a donation to the e-mail: 12u.USAthletics@gmail.com
Maddox also is passionate about helping the homeless, and years ago formed a group called Maddox’s Mission.
“I understand what they feel. I understand what it’s like to live in a world I never asked to live in,” Maddox said of helping people who are homeless. “I don’t want people to define them by being homeless and I don’t want people to define me with mitochondrial disease.”
Donate to his homeless mission.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: email@example.com.
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