For McGehee, giving thanks is personal

For McGehee, thanks is personal

MILWAUKEE -- As a breakthrough season on the baseball field makes way for a quiet holiday season at home, Brewers infielder Casey McGehee doesn't have to look far to see what he's most thankful for.

His 2 1/2-year-old son, Mackail -- friends call him Mack, and Mack has a lot of friends at Miller Park -- has cerebral palsy, in incurable brain disorder. It hinders Mack's use of his arms, legs and abdominal muscles but it can't dim his spirit, and young Mack has become the force that drives dad on the diamond.

Brewers fans got a glimpse of that special relationship in June, when Mackail and McGehee combined for one of those moments that tug at the heartstrings. Five months later, it still gives dad goose bumps.

"Looking back on the season, I remember that more than any of the other things that happened," he said. "You couldn't ask for anything better than that."

It was July 29, and Mackail was asked to take part in a ceremony before the Brewers-Nationals game with a local chapter of United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), an organization that serves more than 176,000 children and adults with disabilities every day. The Brewers Wives had raised $50,000 for UCP of Southeastern Wisconsin -- $45,000 from a jersey raffle and $5,000 more from Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and his wife, Debbie -- and Mackail was picked to throw a ceremonial first pitch. Using a gold walker to get to the pitcher's mound with a hand from his buddy, Prince Fielder, Mack threw a strike to his dad, whose night was just getting started.

Six innings later, McGehee came off the bench to deliver a go-ahead, two-run home run that kept the Brewers atop the National League Central. Teary-eyed after the game, McGehee told Mackail's story.

"When I hit the home run, I honestly didn't think anyone else would think anything of it other than we won," McGehee said. "But then Trevor [Hoffman] came to me with the baseball from his save and asked me to sign it and write something about Mack throwing out the first pitch. That's when it hit me that maybe other guys were touched by it, too.

"That's one of the things I love about this team. We care about each other, and I might be wrong, but I don't think that's the case with every club."

In September, McGehee teamed with Brewers Charities for another fundraiser. The "Casey Goes to Bat" ticket program offered tickets to a game and an autographed bat, with a portion of the proceeds going to UCP. With help from Palermo's Pizza, which donated $10,000, an additional $14,752 was raised.

The total from the two events -- nearly $65,000 -- represented about 20 percent of UCP's fundraising this year, according to the organization's executive director, Fred Hesselbein. Later in September, the McGehees also helped the organization promote its annual "Joe's Run, Walk & Roll," another key fundraiser.

"They've just been spectacular," Hesselbein said. "They've helped us get tremendous public exposure that we would otherwise not have gotten, because we can't afford to buy ads. With Casey's and [wife] Sarah's support, the turnout for Joe's Run was about 20 percent better than we've ever had, and they were so generous with their time. We have a big party after the event and they went around and talked to everybody, and it was a real thrill for our participants.

"Lots of families were so pleased to learn that Casey and his family shares something in common with them in terms of some challenges that they have. The McGehees care. They added so much to that day. They stepped into the community and made immediate and strong connections. We just think they're very special people."

What was most special to McGehee, who came to Milwaukee from the Cubs as a waiver claim in October 2008, was how those around him embraced his cause. It was Dana Suppan -- the wife of Brewers pitcher Jeff -- who suggested donating the funds generated by the jersey raffle to UCP. After McGehee's go-ahead homer, a member of the Brewers' consumer marketing department proposed the ticket program.

"When I met Mack he just melted my heart," said Dana Suppan, who became a mom last month when she gave birth to a daughter named Finley. "He touched me, so when we were doing 'Shirts Off Your Back' [the name of the jersey raffle] and deciding what we should put the money toward, I suggested United Cerebral Palsy.

"We never knew it would become as big as it did. The best part about it was the way the fans came forward with their support."

McGehee finished the season with a .301 batting average, more RBIs (66) than any other Major League rookie and, best of all, a foot in the door for 2010 after eight years spent mostly in the Minors. He's the frontrunner to begin next season as Milwaukee's starting third baseman, and McGehee is planning to use his newfound job security as a springboard to do more for CP.

McGehee and his wife have been brainstorming ideas.

"It's something we feel strongly about," McGehee said. "The more established I get, I figure the easier that will be to execute. I see it as something we could do for a long, long time, even after I'm done playing."

After that win over the Nationals in July, the McGehees started getting noticed around Milwaukee. Sarah got supportive messages via Facebook. Casey also began to receive letters at Miller Park.

"It ranged from just kind of a thank you letter to one woman who wrote saying that her son was 18 years old and had cerebral palsy, and if me or my wife had any questions or just wanted to talk, she would be glad to," McGehee said. "It was like we developed a little support system."

Mack had a number of breakthroughs during therapy sessions at a clinic in New Berlin, Wis., over the summer and continues to do well, dad said. Mack will turn three in February, just as McGehee prepares for the start of Spring Training.

"It's really hard not to smile when you see him," Casey said. "He's not even 3 years old, and he's already had to overcome some stuff just to walk as well as he is. For him to be thriving the way that he is, it makes you sit back and think. When you're in a bad mood after taking an 0-for-4 or botching a ground ball, he makes you think about what's really important.

"In that way, he's really an inspiration because he encourages me to keep going."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.