Lightning Victim's Team Gets Widespread Support

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

When Chelal Gross-Matos's Little League team takes the field tonight for its first game since the 12-year-old was killed by lightning, they will have the support of players well beyond Fredericksburg, including a New York team that is planning to sport Chelal's number 5 on its uniforms.

Chelal was struck by lightning June 3 in the outfield after the umpire ordered everyone off the field because of a gathering storm. He was tossing a ball around with an 11-year-old teammate as they made their way off the field, and the massive charge appears to have jumped to the younger boy, whose name has not been released. Officials said yesterday that the boy remains hospitalized in critical condition in Richmond.

After Chelal's death, the Spotsylvania County Little League suspended all activities, but games resumed Wednesday, two days after his funeral. The ceremony was attended by almost all of Chelal's teammates, who acted as honorary pallbearers, flanking his coffin as it exited the church, team parents said.

Support has come from far beyond Spotsylvania, where the league has set up a support fund for Chelal's family, Little League officials said. Leagues from across the country have contacted Little League International to ask how they can help, and the Schuyler County Little League in Upstate New York has decided to get Chelal's number embroidered on their all-star uniforms as the postseason approaches.

"Little League volunteers are like anyone else -- they tend to circle the wagons when something like this happens," said Lance Van Auken, spokesman for Little League International.

Chelal's father, Robert Matos, who is the team's manager, said he will be at the game tonight. Chelal's 11-year-old brother, also on the team, wanted to play, Matos said, and he will wear Chelal's number and bat leadoff in his place.

Matos said the widespread support the family has received has been "ridiculous, and I mean that in a good way. . . . As far as how it's going, this is as good as can be expected. We're having our moments."

Van Auken said that Little League International is investigating the accident to determine whether anything could have been done to prevent it, but that it appears the umpire acted correctly: He ordered the players off the field at the first sign of lightning and then ordered them into their cars.

He said there is no standard policy for how to address lightning at games, partly because the organization spans more than 70 countries with a range of climates. The league makes guidelines from weather experts available and is considering adding them to the league rule book for easier access, Van Auken said.

The last Little Leaguer killed at a game was a 9-year-old in New York who was hit with a thrown ball in 1993, Van Auken said. He said Chelal was the fifth Little Leaguer to be killed by lightning in the organization's 70-year history; the last death occurred in 1976.

Chelal's grandfather, Chester Gross of La Plata, said he last saw the boy at a family cookout days before he died. He said Chelal was fiercely loyal to his friends and was coming into his own as a ballplayer.

"He loved baseball," said Gross, 63. "He loved his family most of all."

Melody Seay, the team mom, said Chelal's death has put everyone on high alert for unusual weather.

"Now, if we even see anything a little funny, we're off the field," Seay said.

Seay said that after all they have been through, she thinks it is important for the kids to go out and have fun at the game tonight, which will be at Chancellor Middle School, where Chelal was in sixth grade.

"They all need that," she said.

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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