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This spring and summer, one team in the Shelby County Parks & Recreation’s youth baseball system had its teammate’s back, literally.
The Cardinals of the Parks & Rec’s 8-year-old and under Instructional League showed their support for teammate Blake Hundley, who is battling brain cancer, by sporting the hashtag #TEAMBLAKE on the backs of their jerseys.
While Hundley took on the deadly disease, his teammates not only had Hundley on their backs, they also had him in their hearts and thoughts.
“We were playing as hard as we could for Blake,” Collin King, one of the team members, said.
The Cardinals did more than just play for Hundley, though, they won for him. Beating the odds, as a No. 5 seed, they captured the Instructional League’s postseason tournament earlier this month.
“It was amazing,” Cardinals Coach Sean King said.
Hundley, whose family (which includes dad, Adam, mom, Kelly, and 3-year-old twin siblings, Olivia and Bryson) lives near Mount Eden, was first diagnosed with cancer in July of 2012 after a tumor was discovered on his brain stem.
“He was healthy before everything happened,” Adam Hundley said. “It just hit us all at once.”
Blake Hundley underwent a lengthy surgery to remove the tumor followed by aggressive chemotherapy treatments. They appeared to work – a year after his diagnosis, Hundley was cancer free. He returned to his normal life, attending school at Heritage Elementary, spending time with his friends - particularly his best friend, Michael Jones - and playing sports. This past winter, Hundley and Jones played on a Parks basketball team that lost only one game and finished first in its division.
Shortly after basketball ended, however, the Hundleys received some bad news – Blake’s cancer had returned.
Even though he was unable to play baseball, due to his cancer treatments, Hundley was placed on the Instructional League’s Cardinals along with Jones and a couple of others who had played on the same basketball team with him in the winter.
Wanting to pay tribute to Hundley, the Cardinals’ coaches, King and Kathy Jones (Michael’s mother), asked the Parks Department if the sponsor name on the back of their jerseys could be replaced by #TEAMBLAKE, which had become a way of identifying Hundley supporters early in his cancer fight. The Parks agreed and even waived the sponsorship fee for the squad.
The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams (most of their players were 7) in the league and were definitely the smallest, according to King. Their youth and inexperience – it was the first year of machine-pitch for most – showed on the field early in the spring. As the season went on, though, the team began to make strides. Still, the highlight of the Cardinals’ regular season was Hundley’s appearance at a game.
Although he wasn’t able to play, Hundley did get to cheer on his team then, after the game, receive six pitches from King.
“He didn’t strike out,” teammate J.J. Purvis reported.
“It was awesome,” teammate Wyatt Shafer added. “He got to hit the ball after the game. He did pretty good.”
The team also celebrated the birthday of Jones that evening with cupcakes. In the lower right-hand corner of one photo from that night is a bald Hundley. While his teammates are hamming it up, mugging for the camera, Hundley is doing what he does in almost every picture taken of him (especially those posted on the “Prayers for Blake” Facebook page), he’s smiling.
Hundley, however, was about to begin arduous stem-cell transplant treatments. Then, in the second-to-last weekend of June, the news got worse, the cancer had spread to more of Hundley’s brain.
That was just about the time that the on-the-come-up Cardinals, who finished the regular season 5-5-2, began postseason play as the fifth seed in the nine-team Instructional League double-elimination tournament. They won their first game, beating the No. 4 seed, then their second (over the No. 1 seed), then their third. Suddenly the Cardinals were in the finals against the second-seeded Reds.
“Our team just came together and played great,” King said. “If you would’ve told me we’d be in the championship game at the beginning of the year I’d have been ecstatic. We were definitely the littlest team in the league, but we had more heart than any team. It was a joy to coach them, playing for Blake just made it ten times better.”
The Reds beat the Cardinals in the first game 23-16, but showing the “heart” that King mentioned, the Cardinals bounced back with a 16-12 triumph in the winner-take-all championship game July 1. Afterward, Shafer turned to his teammates and announced: “Yay, we won this for Blake!”
“They just turned it on in the tournament,” Allison Shafer, Wyatt’s mother, said. “We went from the Bad News Bears to champions, and the fact that they won, and won for Blake, was even sweeter.”
Afterward, the team posed for pictures with their trophies, including one with all their backs turned to the camera to show off the #TEAMBLAKE on their jerseys. That night when they returned home, Collin King told his father: “The reason I didn’t get out [in the championship game] was because I was pretending to be Blake.”
Last Tuesday, the Cardinals and their families – who King credited for his team’s success too - gathered at the Shelbyville Country Club swimming pool to celebrate their season, and their championship. They took turns jumping off the diving board, they splashed each other, they ate pizza and Rice Krispies treats.
“They all knew who they were playing for, they were playing for Blake all year long,” Sean King said. “You can’t put that into words.”
One of his teammates tried, though.
“[Blake], he has brain cancer,” Purvis said. “I really wish he didn’t, so he could play baseball with us. I think he would probably be really good.”
Even though he was missing from the party, Hundley wasn’t far from his teammates’ thoughts.
“We have a trophy for Blake and I’m going to give it to him,” Michael Jones said.
That might be awhile, however.
Hundley will be in isolation at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville for at least another month, according to his father, before he can move to the Ronald McDonald House, where he will continue his convalescence. After that, Hundley will have to stay home, virtually confined there, for a year so as not to incur any infection, or illness.
“He can’t be around anybody, he can’t go to school, he’ll pretty much be in a bubble,” Adam Hundley said.
Until then, Adam Hundley asks that people, “just pray, and hope for the best.” And while Adam Hundley takes care of the twins (who turn 4 on July 23) at the family home, Kelly Hundley keeps vigil at her eldest son’s bedside.
In an update posted July 8 on the “Prayers for Blake,” Facebook page dedicated to Hundley, Kelly Hundley described her son’s current condition:
“We are at day 20 in the hospital. Day +10 in transplant. Blake is in a lot of pain! He’s on a pain pump that I sit and press every 15 min. The dr said his mucusitis is one of the worse they’ve seen. His little mouth is just full of blisters and it goes all the way down his digestive track. His lips have blisters on them. He has a rash that is unimaginable. Drs aren’t sure what it’s from. Could be burn from the chemo or from the wipes we use to bathe him with. There are no new treatment plans right now. He has to get through this.”
The latest update post, from Wednesday night, reads: “Blake developed a fever today… It is very important that he doesn’t get sick at this time. Please pray this fever goes away. #teamblake”
In this game it’s not just the Cardinals, it’s the entire community that has Hundley’s back.