You might have seen on Page A3 of Wednesday's print edition that the Post-Bulletin sports team won several awards in the 2010 Minnesota Associated Press Sports Association contest.
Individual awards were taken by Donny Henn for his story on the Honkers' Mitch Caster, who was killed in a car accident in Iowa on his way back home to Kansas after the baseball team's final game last August; and by Brett Boese for his piece on Esubalew Johnston, the beep baseball player who was blinded as a child in Ethiopia.
We thought you might like to recall those articles, so here they are; first, Donny's:
There are defeats and there are losses, and the Rochester Honkers college baseball team suffered both on the final day of the 2010 Northwoods League season.
The Honkers were defeated by the Eau Claire Express 9-1 in the third and deciding game of the League Championship Series on a warm mid-August Sunday evening in Wisconsin.
Hours later, the Honkers lost a teammate when Mitch Caster, a 21-year-old pitcher from Wichita State, was killed in a car accident in Iowa on his way back home to Kansas.
Caster pitched two innings of middle relief in Rochester’s season-ending defeat, allowing two hits and an earned run. Following the team’s long bus ride home, Caster and Honkers teammate Jimmy Waters, from Kansas University, left Rochester around midnight in a two-car caravan for home.
West Des Moines police reported that Caster was traveling southbound on I-35 before crossing the center line and hitting a northbound semi head-on. Waters, following in his car, witnessed the horrible, fiery crash.
“They really to this day do not know what happened,” said Mike Caster, Mitch’s father, in a recent telephone interview.
“It could have been a deer or something that distracted him; he just went over the median. I know he didn’t fall asleep, because he and Jimmy had stopped for some fast foot and had just gotten back on the interstate.”
News of Caster’s death reached coaches and teammates at different times and places, but they were all stunned.
“That was definitely a first for me; it hit the team pretty hard,” said field manager Ryan Ruiz, who had the emotional task of calling and breaking the news to many of the players.
Pitcher Phil Haig, who was the winning pitcher in Game Two of the LCS in Rochester, was back at Florida International University when he got the call, from his host family.
“I was actually walking across the campus to my first class of the year, and the news just made me stop in my tracks,” Haig said. “I turned around and went back to my room and just cried. I couldn’t go to classes that day.”
Haig said he usually sat with Caster on the team’s long bus trips. “We were good buddies,” he said.
Besides seven players expected back from last year's team, including Haig, Ruiz also drafted a pair of University of Kansas players with a connection to Caster; pitcher Jordan Jakubov and infielder Jake Marasco both played Little League ball with him.
Gone but not forgotten
Caster would have been a senior this year at Wichita State, which is 15 miles from his home in Goddard, Kan. He played in 74 games over three seasons for the Shockers, and was popular with teammates.
“Ever since I got here as a freshman, Mitch was one of the more talkative, friendly guys,” said Brian Flynn, a red-shirt sophomore at Wichita State who pitched for the Honkers in 2009 and will play here again this season.
“He was the first older player to come up and talk to me; he went out of his way to be nice.”
Wichita State had a memorial service for Mitch, and the baseball team made sure he wouldn’t be forgotten. Mitch’s uniform was hung in the dugout for every game this season, and his number 20 was ‘retired’ for the season.
The Schockers uniforms had a black patch with Mitch’s number, and a 5x5-foot ‘20’ was also cut into their home field, down the right field line between right field and the bullpen, where Mitch spent most of his time.
“Mitch would have been one of four seniors on the team, and on Senior Day a few weeks ago they honored him right along with the others, as if he was still here,” Mike Caster said. “That was pretty special.”
The Honkers also will retire Caster’s number (23 with the Honkers) for this Northwoods League season, and a picture of Caster will be on every season ticket, suit and patio ticket throughout the season, according to team co-owner Dan Litzinger.
On the bright side
Mike Caster said at first Mitch’s death was “very difficult” for his family, which includes his wife Susie and their adult daughters, Melanie, 25, and Melissa, 22, who is Mitch’s twin.
“As a parent, it’s one of those things that you wouldn’t want anyone else to have to go through,” he said.
The Casters have been buoyed by the outpouring of support from their community, from Wichita State, and even from Mitch’s adopted home in Rochester, where his parents said he had a great experience staying with his host family, Kevin and Angie Lash.
“We have taken the position that God had a reason to take him,” Mike said. “We’re focused on the positive things now. Mitch accomplished a lot in his 21 years and lived life to the fullest.”
Mike and Susie are looking forward to happier times, with both daughters getting married this year, Melissa in October, and Melanie in December. “I’m gaining two son-in-laws,” Mike said happily. “We’re very blessed.”
The Casters aren’t playing the ‘what if’ game -- what if their son had not gone far away from home for the summer to play ball, what if the Honkers’ season hadn’t ended on a Sunday evening, and what if he had waited until the next morning to make the long drive home.
Mike said he and his family have no regrets in that regard.
“We know how much Mitch loved playing up there,” he said. “He was a baseball player, and he literally had the opportunity to chase his dream.”
Now Brett's story:
Slumdog Millionaire, the surprise hit movie of 2008, is loosely based on a true story. Had it been set in Ethiopia instead of India, Esubalew Johnston could have been the main character.
Johnston, who might be the best player on Colorado Storm's Beep Ball team, was born in a very remote village in the Ethiopian hills. When he was about 5 years old, his mother agreed to send him off to the capitol with strangers offering to enroll him in school.
Two days after leaving everything familiar behind, he was taken into a secluded woods where he was held down by the same men who promised to educate him and blinded by chemicals.
"I flailed and screamed and yelled, but I was just a 5-year-old boy and no one could hear me," he said. "I lost."
He spent nearly three years begging on the streets for that group, often enduring beatings when he didn't return with enough money. He was rarely fed and had no energy to protest his dire circumstances.
An anonymous American couple managed to sneak him out of servitude and enroll him in classes to learn braille, but that relief was short-lived. He was stricken with tuberculosis and hospitalized for the next three months.
Upon recovery, he was taken to an adoption house. An Indianapolis woman soon added Johnston to her brood of 25 children, which includes 21 adoptees. The young boy, who had lived through such a traumatic childhood, didn't speak a word of English and had no idea what to expect.
"I come from the Ethiopian countryside," he said. "I thought America was another small town in Ethiopia."
Despite a painful adjustment period as he learned the language and culture, it wasn't long before he began referring to himself as a first-round draft pick of his adopted family. He now calls America "the best place in the world."
His Beep Ball team, which finished 10th Friday in the World Series, marvels at that infectious positive attitude.
"It's definitely surprising," said Tim Walker, a Colorado Storm coach. "He's just got a tremendous appetite for life to be able to overcome all that adversity and really (restart) his life."
Johnston, who's between 21 and 25 years old, just wrapped up his third year of college at the University of Colorado. He's got three semesters left before earning his degree in communications, though he's been giving motivational speeches for years.
However, he was struck speechless last summer.
Karla Reesleve, a woman who lives in Oregon with two Ethiopian adoptees unrelated to Johnston, managed to track down Johnston's mother. Reesleve shared that stunning information with him over the Christmas holidays of 2008 before joining him on the journey abroad 14 months ago.
Johnston's family had not heard from its lost child in about 16 years. Most assumed he had died. His return to the small village sparked a 72-hour celebration that lasted throughout each night — to make sure he didn't sneak off. The whole experience was filmed by a friend of Johnston who is currently working on a documentary of his extraordinary life.
He remains in monthly contact with his family, who trek hours to the nearest city in order to find a telephone.
"It's kind of like the Ethiopian Slumdog Millionaire story," said Jimmy Peng, Johnston's Beep Ball coach and roommate at the University of Colorado. "He always says it's ironic because despite everything that happened to him, he did find that better future."
Soon, he hopes to begin returning that favor. After graduating, he intends to spend at least two years back in Ethiopia to further establish his non-profit organization called Door of Hope. The work will focus on helping local youth — particularly blind ones — find a better future, often through adoption.
"The hardest part for me was handing out money to blind people," Johnston said of his first return to his homeland. "It felt like we switched roles. Out of 1.5 million blind people (in Ethiopia), I got lucky.
"I want to take what I know now and bring it home. Just show them that being blind isn't the end of the world."