A cardboard cutout, an Oakland As outfielder and a collision of inspiring events

BRIAN MULHERN CLICKED on the link and began to read. It was about his favorite baseball team. One of his favorite players. Just like this story, it was about the Oakland A’s and right fielder Stephen Piscotty.

At first, the account was devastating. A tale of an incurable disease, death and sadness. But for Mulhern, who was stuck in a new apartment he didn’t like in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, the story ignited something inside him.

And then he bought a cardboard cutout.

That cutout would jump-start a series of seemingly improbable events even the best of oddsmakers wouldn’t have bet on. A 94 mph sinker. An unexpected phone call. And a hometown hero who’d been sitting there on the blurry edges of Mulhern’s life for two decades until everything came crashing together in Section 107 of the Oakland coliseum.

YOU COULD SAY it started with the cutout. But really, when you look back, it all began 26 years ago when Brian Mulhern did something that for him was scary. He signed up to be an usher for A’s games at what is now called RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland, California.

“I wasn’t a real gregarious type of person,” Mulhern says.

He discovered he loved the camaraderie of the job. Meeting new fans at each game while greeting season-ticket holders like old friends.

The same year Mulhern became an usher, a 6-year-old boy was running after every foul ball in the stands. Stephen Piscotty, along with his brothers, Nick and Austin, nabbed so many foul balls he’s not entirely sure how many he can rightfully claim as his versus those his brothers caught. “We’ve got them in a little case at home,” Piscotty says. “We treasured those things as a kid.”

The Piscotty family lived in Pleasanton, California, about 35 minutes southeast of the coliseum. Their parents, Mike and Gretchen, had season tickets in Section 220. “We’d run around all the sections,” Stephen Piscotty remembers.

No one will ever know for sure, but the dates and the facts likely put Piscotty and Mulhern in the same place at the same time. There’s a high probability that Piscotty was among the boys with their little mitts that Mulhern remembers running past his knees in those early days as an usher. There’s a chance Mulhern was one of the ushers watching over Piscotty’s family — and maybe even helping Gretchen — as she wrangled her three boys while they gleefully chased foul balls.

PISCOTTY, OF COURSE, became quite a ballplayer. Mike coached all three of his boys while Gretchen documented their burgeoning talent behind the camera. “She was always there,” Piscotty remembers. “She had one of those foldout chairs and a couple of blankets and I think she really enjoyed just being there and watching us.”

“Her go-to saying was always, ‘Knock the snot out of it,'” his brother Austin told ESPN in 2018.

In his senior year at Amador Valley High School, Piscotty was named 2009’s Most Valuable Player of the East Bay Athletic League. Drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 45th round, Piscotty opted not to sign and instead chose to attend Stanford. He became an All-American and played college summer league with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox before the St. Louis Cardinals selected him No. 36 overall in the first round of the 2012 MLB draft.

The Cardinals sent Piscotty to the minors for development, where they shifted him to the outfield. He became an all-star with the Palm Beach Cardinals before making his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on July 21, 2015. ESPN’s Mark Saxon described him in 2017 as the “most voracious learner in the clubhouse,” after the Cardinals’ pitching coach said Piscotty eagerly soaked up everything he could read on the mechanics of pitching and how to hit for power.

Piscotty had just signed a long-term deal with St. Louis in 2017 when he got a call from his parents. “I picked up the phone and it was my mom,” he says. “She told me that she was diagnosed with ALS.”

Known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the legendary New York Yankees first baseman who succumbed to it in 1941 at age 37, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that causes the body’s muscles to weaken, sometimes very quickly, while the mind remains fully intact.

There is no cure.

“ALS is brutal,” Piscotty says. “It’s relentless.”

Gretchen’s doctor told her family he hadn’t seen a case that moved as quickly as hers in all of his years. “I’m not a big crier but I haven’t cried so much in my whole life,” Piscotty says. “I wanted to be with my mom.”

The Cardinals knew their outfielder was quietly suffering over his inability to help his family from afar. They worked out a trade with the A’s so Piscotty could return home.

Piscotty was going home to the ballpark where he’d caught foul balls as a kid.

He was heading back into Brian Mulhern’s life.

WHILE PISCOTTY WAS growing up, Mulhern went from newbie to veteran usher. For 22 years, he worked Oakland Raiders games in the coliseum and Golden State Warriors games just across the breezeway at Oracle Arena. But at age 61, his back started to catch up with him. At first, he tried to convince himself it was sciatica. Then, in May 2019, Mulhern unexpectedly saw himself on television.

The Warriors were playing the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. Mulhern remembers because Bob Weir sang the national anthem that night. “I got to talk to Bob Weir! As a teenager in 1976, one of my first trips to the Oakland coliseum was to see the Grateful Dead,” Mulhern recalls. “Talking to Bobby could’ve been my ultimate Oracle moment.”

Mulhern had the chance to meet one of his music idols because he’d been assigned to the arena’s VIP section on the court floor. After the game, it was Mulhern’s job to keep people away from ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith while Smith recorded his postgame hit for “SportsCenter.” In a video of that moment, Smith expresses his disappointment in Kevin Durant’s play as an usher in a yellow shirt walks by in the background. The usher’s head is turned away from the camera, but his uneven, painful-looking gait is noticeable.

When Mulhern watched a recording of the game and saw himself behind Smith, shifting from right to left, his arms waving awkwardly, he realized he could no longer fool himself into thinking it was just sciatica. “When I try to walk like normal, it’s more painful,” he says. “I thought I was hiding it better as far as my gait and the way I was moving. But it was pretty obvious I was in bad shape.”

His sister had been pestering him to go to the doctor. He finally made an appointment and spent the next five months undergoing scores of tests. “I had a million MRIs and a couple of X-rays,” he says. “They stick a cattle prod in you and record how long electricity takes to get through your muscles.”

On Jan. 3, 2020, doctors finally gave Mulhern his diagnosis. He had ALS.

“It just felt like, ‘What have I done to deserve this type of thing?'” Mulhern says.

During the months of testing, before doctors were able to provide intervention, the disease progressed quickly. “The initial prognosis was pretty heavy because I was on a downward spiral at that point where I was losing my ability to walk,” Mulhern says.

He realized he would soon need an elevator that could handle a wheelchair. A good friend helped move him out of his attic apartment in a converted Oakland mansion that he’d lived in for 30 years. His sister did his laundry while other friends would deliver milk and groceries that were becoming too heavy for him to lift.

He reluctantly retired from his job with the East Bay Municipal Utility District much earlier than he had planned.

And he gave up being an usher. But he never got a chance to clean out his locker.

COVID-19 had arrived.

CARDBOARD CUTOUTS WILL be the enduring image of sports during the coronavirus pandemic. Oversized heads made of rigid plastic smiling out over weirdly silent ballparks. They were a reminder of the fun we had suddenly lost and the fear we were trying to desperately hold at bay.

As Mulhern put it, they were “a little bit of happiness during a very dark time.”

The idea of cutouts came from overseas. The Rakuten Monkeys in Taiwan first used mannequins and cutouts. Germany’s Bundesliga picked up the idea and propped up fan photos in its stadiums.

Major League Baseball embraced the idea when players returned to some ballparks in July 2020. Cutouts became ubiquitous with pandemic-era sports — nearly every team offered fans the opportunity to participate while making a little bit of revenue in the process.

But no one went all out quite like the A’s.

“There’s cutouts and then there’s cutouts like we did in Oakland,” says Steve Fanelli, the vice president of ticketing for the A’s. Fanelli and his staff did the standard stuff, offering cutouts for $49 to season-ticket holders. “But we didn’t know long we’re going to be like this,” he recalls. “We thought, ‘Let’s try and do something fun and engage the fans.'”

Local legends like “A’s Guy,” a fan who wears a human-sized letter “A” costume that’s so big he can’t sit down, began popping up in the stands. Animal lovers could buy a cutout of their favorite wild animal, with profits going to the Oakland Zoo to help feed their real-life counterparts during the zoo’s pandemic closure. Visiting fans could buy a cutout placed on Oakland’s “Mt. Davis,” the nosebleed section of 20,000 empty seats perpetually covered with a tarpaulin that Oakland fans love to hate as an ever-present reminder of the city’s failed attempt to keep the Raiders from leaving.

The team even got a call from actor Tom Hanks. “He was a hot dog vendor way back when,” Fanelli says. “He asked to be part of the cutout program. He sent in an image of his high school yearbook and we transposed it onto a hot dog vendor.”

When Hanks told the team he used to yell, “Hot dogs! Get your hot dogs!” the team incorporated a recording Hanks made of his signature call into its radio and TV spots. “You think it’s Woody from ‘Toy Story’ when you hear it,” Fanelli laughs.

“To hear Tom hawking hot dogs and his voice, it was like, ‘How is this happening?’ Like, this is something no one ever anticipated doing,” Fanelli says. “He was just perched behind home plate the entire season in his same pose selling hot dogs. It was almost normal to see him back there.”

During that strange COVID season, players like Piscotty ended up sitting in the stands near Hanks, in and among the cutouts of former players and all-time great A’s players behind home plate. “We had to sit in the stands as part of the COVID protocols and we were basically intermingled with the cutouts,” Piscotty remembers. “You’d walk up, during the game, and see a bunch of former players. Former all-time great A’s.”

“It was the legends. Guys that put on the A’s uniform we felt made impactful moments throughout their careers,” Fanelli says. “It wasn’t always the biggest superstars. Connie Mack was there. Rickey Henderson was there. Guys that made different types of impact.”

Piscotty and his family loved it. They bought a cutout of their cat Bubs.

“Bubs was out there,” Piscotty chuckled. “Ollie, my brother’s dog, was out there. People were having a lot of fun with it. It was great.”

“We had horses, cats, cows, whatever you could imagine, people submitted,” Fanelli says. “They were all authenticated as official MLB fans for the 2020 season. In a year when there were no fans, those were our fans.”

But Fanelli wanted to up the ante by “gamifying” some of the cutouts. For a little extra, fans could buy a cutout in Sections 125-129, the foul-ball zone in left field. In return, the team would send the ball to fans lucky enough to “catch” one if the ball slammed into their corrugated plastic faces.

The zone sold out in less than 10 days.

So, what could the A’s do with the other foul-ball zone in right field in Sections 106, 107 and 108? Fanelli knew, based on what had just happened in left field, they could raise money by selling seats in this section. But what could they do with that money? He wanted it to be special. He wanted it to mean something.

MULHERN WAS NOW living alone, stuck with his thoughts for days on end inside his generic apartment during the height of the pandemic.

He had read everything he could about the disease online, searching for articles about people who had battled ALS. That’s how he found the article about Gretchen Piscotty. He had known that the Piscotty family was from the East Bay. He had watched Piscotty play. But until he received his own diagnosis, Mulhern hadn’t realized his favorite right fielder had lost his mother to the disease when she was just 55.

As he read, he learned her decline had been breathtakingly fast. She was gone less than 18 months after her diagnosis.

But he was especially struck by video of Gretchen at what would be her last game in the coliseum. “It was like you could see it in her eyes,” Mulhern says. “She was just so appreciative, looking at her sons, you could tell she didn’t want to trouble her children. I could tell she was happy and feeling it and how tough it was for her but also seeing how no mother wants to be a burden on their children.”

When the A’s announced the creation of the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone, Mulhern was quick to sign up. “I’m thinking I’m not going to come back to the ballpark ever again,” he says. “But, you know, I could send my cardboard cutout.”

The Piscotty family and the A’s had wanted to create something extra special for fans willing to pay three times the price for a cutout in their section. For $148, Mulhern was guaranteed a photo signed by Piscotty, and a seat in Sections 106-108, the foul-ball zone close to where Piscotty played outfield. If you “caught” a foul ball, Piscotty promised to sign the ball before it was mailed off to you.

Mulhern thought the chances of that happening were unlikely. He bought his cutout because profits went to the ALS Cure Project, the family foundation launched by the Piscotty family after Gretchen’s death.

“While she was sick and quite frankly suffering, she wanted to use the platform we had through the A’s, and even with St. Louis and the story around the trade, to do something that could be helpful,” Piscotty says. “When she did pass and there was a lot of attention to it, I was wondering if that would kind of fade away.”

The family had received more attention than ever when Piscotty returned from bereavement leave in May 2018. “I remember being exhausted,” he says. “Really just trying to get through the night.”

During his first at-bat back from bereavement, Piscotty fought off a third strike and then hammered a home run over Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field. “I don’t know how I hit that ball as well as I did,” Piscotty says thinking back to that night in Boston three years ago. “I immediately thought of her, put my hand on my chest. That was what she would do to guests who came to visit her. She wasn’t able to speak. That was her way of saying ‘I love you.'”

THE OAKLAND COLISEUM is the last hybrid park, having doubled as an NFL stadium and an MLB ballpark. The outline from the old football field creates an extra-wide buffer between first base and the stands, giving players a better chance at catching a foul ball. And fans a really slim chance of ever snagging a foul ball.

In 2019, there were 1,445 foul balls hit in RingCentral Coliseum, for an average of 42.5 balls per game, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. That’s the second-lowest number in MLB, after T-Mobile Park. Even without taking the coliseum’s hybrid border into consideration, and by just factoring in the A’s average attendance for 2019, fans in Oakland have a measly 0.2% chance of catching a foul ball.

All of which is proof of how unusual the Piscotty brothers really are, collecting so many foul balls as children that they long ago lost count of how many balls each brother could claim. For most fans, catching a foul ball is a Holy Grail experience. Something you dream about as a child and, for many a grown-up, a wish that continues to go unfulfilled.

“I’ve been an A’s fan for 30 years,” says Michael Fanucchi, who lives about a mile from the coliseum. “I’ve been coming to this stadium for just so long. Sitting in seats all around the ballpark, always thinking, always hoping, always dreaming to catch a ball. So, I guess in my dream of dreams, it would be that I could catch one.”

Fanucchi didn’t know anyone with ALS, but sent in a photo of himself wearing his A’s jersey for the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone because he greatly admires Piscotty. “Knowing how much it means to him to fight for some attention on a disease that doesn’t get a lot of attention, you’re just pulling for him.”

Shane Devine was a brand-new father and never for a second thought about sending in anyone’s picture other than that of his baby daughter, Charlotte. “I was really looking forward, before the season, to taking her to a game,” Devine says. Even though she was barely a year old, he had visions of her sitting in the stands in the green-and-yellow onesie he’d bought her. But the pandemic made that impossible. “So, I thought this was a really cool alternative,” Devine says. “I had heard Piscotty’s story and his mother’s battle of ALS. I knew they had started the project in her memory.”

Chris Di Redo lost a family member to ALS. “It didn’t matter about the price,” the Fresno, California, resident says. “It goes to a cause that needs to be addressed.”

Di Redo bought a cardboard cutout for his stepson, Nolan, and a second one for his son, Dominic, who has nonverbal autism. Even though the odds were against him, it was still the best chance, Di Redo said to himself, that Dominic would ever have at catching a ball.

Each time a fan like Di Redo or Devine or Fanucchi bought a cutout, A’s communications director Erica George would take photos to Piscotty for him to sign. At first it was a small handful. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be a cute little thing,'” Piscotty says. “We’ll sell a few and it’ll be whatever.”

But George kept returning with more photos. Piscotty remembers how George and Fanelli told him, “‘OK, we had this section and it sold out. We’re going to open up bigger.’ And then it was even bigger.”

They say Piscotty never complained. Instead, he remembered thinking, “Man, this is really doing it!”

George says she ultimately delivered 1,200 photos to Piscotty before Fanelli determined there were no more seats left that could possibly “catch” a foul ball. “Fans were doing it obviously for the great cause,” Fanelli says, “but also because of their connection to Stephen, who is obviously a local hero here.”

The ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone raised $76,000 for the Piscotty family’s foundation, making it one of the most successful fundraising events in the charity’s history.

But Piscotty wasn’t finished. Brian Mulhern was headed back to the coliseum.

AT FIRST, MULHERN wasn’t sure he would get very far out of his mechanical wheelchair. Then he worried he might not have the strength to get down the steps using just his hand crutches.

But he was determined to sit in the seat where his cutout had caught his foul ball.

It had happened Sept. 20, 2020. The night the San Francisco Giants prevented the A’s from clinching the AL West title with a 14-2 victory during their annual Bay Bridge series. According to the A’s, Mulhern was hit at the top of the eighth inning when Austin Slater of the Giants hammered a 94 mph sinker from Lou Trevino into Section 107.

Unlike with a home run, video of a foul ball flying into the stands rarely makes it into a telecast. Mulhern didn’t realize he’d been hit until a box from the A’s arrived at his apartment. He initially thought management was sending him the personal belongings he’d never been able to recover from his locker. He was shocked to instead discover the signed baseball from Piscotty.

Then ESPN called for a story about Piscotty’s cutout project. Would he be up for joining the other “cutouts” from the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone who, like him, had been lucky enough to “catch” a foul ball?

There was no way he was going to miss it.

In May, the Devines and the Di Redos and Fanucchi followed Mulhern down the aisle so they too could find the seats where they had been hit.

“It’s kind of weird that it wasn’t my physical human being,” Fanucchi says. “But hey, it was my picture. And I’ll take it. It still counts.”

As ESPN’s crew set up cameras, the little group settled into seats surrounding Mulhern and laughed about how, in all likelihood, a foul ball had smashed baby Charlotte’s face. Di Redo revealed to the group that not only had Dominic been hit, so had his brother, Nolan. The Di Redos now have two signed balls from Piscotty, even though the boys were randomly placed on opposite sides of Section 108.

There they were, holding their baseballs signed by Piscotty and telling their stories when a voice emerged from a laptop on a tripod nestled in the camera gear sitting in front of them.

“Hey guys. I just wanted to surprise you guys and thank you guys for being part of the ALS Cure Project.”

MLB’s safety protocols prevented Piscotty from meeting any of his fans in person. So he did what we’ve all learned to do and got on Zoom to greet them.

“It means a lot to our family, and I know we share the same feelings about ALS,” he told them.

Mulhern replied: “I just want to thank you, Stephen, because it’s been a tough year for me. I was diagnosed in January [2020] and we kind of started the year badly here. It’s a tough diagnosis, as you know, because nobody can tell you what you’re facing. It’s a journey. I don’t know what my journey is going to be but you and your mother together was just, I mean, just the way she looked at you and she was so proud. She was so proud.”

“I hope your journey is very, very long,” Piscotty told Mulhern. “I think back on the time that I spent with my mom, it was emotional,” he explained as he visibly teared up. “I don’t look back on those memories, even those that weren’t going how we wanted, I don’t look back on them in a negative way.”

“Of course not,” Mulhern told him.

“Just because she was sick, it didn’t stop us from having fun and we still went and did some trips and I have some very positive things to look back on and that’s what I remember. And I just hope for you that it is the same.”

Choked up, Piscotty took a deep breath before giving Mulhern one last word of advice.

“Enjoy.”

AS PISCOTTY SIGNED off from the Zoom, and the other fans moved away, Mulhern sat quietly in his seat while the crew readjusted the lights. He was still thinking about what Piscotty had just said.

“He’d made that point that it’s not bad memories for him,” Mulhern said a few minutes later. “That all of that time for him was good. That’s what I look at. It’s like this is all good time here.”

As Mulhern spoke, it was clear Piscotty’s words were taking root. He had a lot more living to do. He wasn’t done yet.

“A year ago, I really thought that I wasn’t going to have five years,” Mulhern mused. “I could live 20 years and not have the right moment. It’s just …”

He paused as the thoughts and emotions swamped him.

“It’s just celebrating the moment, at the moment, is what I would like to do,” he said. “You want to get out there, you know, and do stuff.”

TWO DAYS LATER, Mulhern said he was still so “energized” from his trip to the coliseum, that he “actually went out to listen to music with friends, many I hadn’t seen for a while.”

He then bought A’s tickets to watch Piscotty receive the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award on June 8, an award presented annually to an MLB player who best exemplifies the giving character of Lou Gehrig.

Mulhern is trying to make every moment count because he isn’t sure how many moments he has left. “It’s all odds,” he says. “They tell you it could be three to five years. But that’s just the odds. I think only 40 percent live past five years. Ten percent live to 10 years.”

A big fan of baseball statistics, Mulhern has done his own math. One in 50,000 people have ALS, he explains. He now knows only a small handful of cutouts received a signed ball from Piscotty. While he suspects there were probably more fans with ALS in his section compared to most places, using those stats he calculates there was a 1 in 3 million chance of a fan with ALS catching a foul ball in the ALS Cure Project Foul Ball Zone.

And he was that fan.

“This is teaching me that you can beat the odds,” he says. “We accept the odds and the averages, but we can hopefully beat them. That’s what I’m now trying to do.”

Piscotty understands.

“Hearing that, it hits me in my core because I can relate and I know,” Piscotty says. “I know. I know what he is going through. I’m just glad I was able to bring some happiness.”

And Mulhern is finding happiness by making plans he never thought he’d be making this time a year ago. Starting with catching another foul ball.

“If the cardboard cutout can catch a ball, then why can’t I?” he laughs. “You can’t let the cardboard cutout have all the fun.”

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