Fairfax senior team manager Drew Bonner had not batted since he was 11 years old, when his Duchenne muscular dystrophy progressed to the point that he could no longer play his favorite sport.
On Monday night at Fairfax for “Drew Bonner Night,” the former pitcher-third baseman got his first and likely only high school at-bat, a ceremonial plate appearance in the bottom of the first inning that brought out legions of students, teachers and community members eager to cheer on one of the most popular students at the school.
A video clip of the occasion has been making the rounds online, and most viewers likely have provided their own soundtrack of sniffles.
After a short biography of an introduction by long-time Fairfax baseball announcer Bob Cavalieri – “No. 2 on his back, No. 1 in our hearts” – and amid cheers of “D-Bo!,” Bonner drew a four-pitch walk off Madison junior Nick Brady and scooted down
to first base in his chair before being mobbed at the bag by the visiting players and then mobbed again by the Rebels back at home plate.
“It was a lot of fun and brought back some good memories from when I used to play,” Bonner said Tuesday afternoon. “I wasn’t nervous, but I was pretty excited. I can remember playing baseball all my life and it’s just one of the things that I really love to do.”
Any thought of taking a swing at one of the pitches?
“I don’t know,” Bonner said. “I was kind of ready for anything. If they were close enough in, I would have taken a poke.”
The ceremony occurred in an otherwise forgettable 9-0 victory for No. 2 Madison, the school where Bonner first served as a team manager, in seventh grade, after he could no longer play. So the Warhawks, who presented Bonner a signed ball, were the hand-picked opponent for the event, bumped from Friday by rain, which enabled the Fairfax junior varsity players to make the event.
“It was perfection,” Bonner’s mother, Jan, said. “It captured the sportsmanship, the love, the whole team, the school and even [Fairfax County]. The other team as well was just fabulous. It epitomizes what great sportsmanship is all about.”
Fairfax Coach Rick Freeman had been trying to figure out a special way to honor Bonner, a manager for three Fairfax sports teams, Eagle Scout and homecoming court member who will study computer science at the University of Virginia on an academic scholarship.
What better way than a ceremonial at-bat for the four-year baseball manager who keeps statistics, advises the coaches on pinch-hitting moves and even corrals balls with the wheels of his chair during practice?
“We want guys to leave with memories of high school,” Freeman said, “and I don’t think anybody will every forget that moment there last night and also honoring Drew for what he’s done for our program inspirationally. He’s a leader in our program.
You don’t get that many opportunities to create moments that kids will ever forget. This was a moment that was created by Drew because of how he is.”
“I said to my husband [Neil], ‘Turn around and take a picture of the stands,’” Jan Bonner said. “They were just filled with parents, mostly kids and teachers and people that normally don’t come out to these games. Then all of a sudden a group of lacrosse players comes in and fills in right up against the fences because there was no room left in the stands. It just overwhelmed me. The community there is just unbelievable. To be so supportive of Drew, it just takes my breath away.”
As much as Bonner wanted to take his first at-bat since he was 11, Jan Bonner was not sure her son would go for such a ceremony because in youth baseball he chose to play in the mainstream league and not in the one for boys with disabilities.
“He loves and lives off the competition,” Jan Bonner said, “and he’s always felt that he’s a normal kid. So I was a little concerned that he might feel this was a little not regular sports in that he didn’t want it to be a big show. I think they found the right mixture where they honor him for his sports knowledge and what he’s been able to contribute to the team.”
Bonner was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive degenerative disease. He walked until he was 14 and then began using a wheelchair full-time.
“It doesn’t slow him down at all,” Jan Bonner said. “He exhausts me.”
In youth baseball, as Bonner’s condition worsened, he would need other players to run for him. It was such a popular task that a rule was established: Whoever made the last out gets to do it. Now stop squabbling.
The event Monday was one in a series of memorable baseball moments for Bonner in his post-playing career. His Make-A-Wish Foundation choice several years ago was to spend the day with then-Chicago White Sox player Jim Thome, a former favorite in Jan Bonner’s native Cleveland.
Bonner also threw out the first pitch for a Washington Nationals game when the team still played at RFK Stadium. Bryce Harper signed the headrest on his wheelchair last year when Harper (now on Bonner’s first-place fantasy baseball team) helped with a camp at Fairfax.
But the at-bat Monday night was something else entirely.
“It was a great feeling,” Bonner said, “to get back in the box again.”