NEWPORT BEACH — Opening Day was a special one for Newport Beach Little League.
It was a special day when the ceremonial first pitch could be thrown by a boy, Harry Dill, who just four months ago discovered he had a brain tumor. It was a special day when that first pitch could be caught by a man, Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand but went on to have a distinguished professional career.
It was a special day when another boy, Julian Dunn, who less than two years ago was given just a 20% chance of surviving cancer, could make his baseball debut.
The sun shined brightly Saturday morning at Bonita Canyon Sports Park. So did the smiles.
Abbott, the guest speaker and a Newport Beach resident, was a big part of it. The hurler, who played for the Angels, Yankees, White Sox and Brewers during his 10-year major league career, even played to the crowd.
"You know who was my favorite team?" he asked during his speech.
"Let me show you," he said, taking off his sweater to reveal an Angels jersey underneath.
The cheers were loud then. They were also loud when Dill threw out the first pitch.
"I was worried that I would miss," Dill, 12, said after the ceremony.
Better that than to be worried about a brain tumor. After his surgery in November, Harry's movement was severely limited. He could barely even put on his glove. But the sixth-grader at Andersen Elementary is doing much better now.
"His recovery was remarkable," said his mother, Amanda.
Many around the league know the story of how Dill hit home runs in two different games on a great day in November, just a day before his surgery. On Saturday, he was up to his old tricks, hitting a two-run homer back at Field No. 4 for his Majors Division team, Newport Rib Company.
Harry Dill also helped out as a Majors "buddy" to the league's Challenger Division team, the Tiger Sharks. The Tiger Sharks, in their second year in the league, are for players with physical and/or mental disabilities. It was on that squad that Julian Dunn, 8, made his debut in organized baseball.
This was a proud day for the whole Dunn family. Julian's father Rich, a longtime Daily Pilot sports editor and writer, and older brother Nolan were at the Newport Harbor Baseball Assn. Opening Day on Saturday. But they hurried back to Bonita Canyon just in time for the Tiger Sharks' game. Nolan was Julian's buddy on the base paths, helping him out after he made contact in each of his at-bats.
Julian's mother, Andrea, made sure she had the camera ready to capture the occasion. It was easy to understand why.
"In October of 2010, I didn't even think we'd get to this point," she said.
That was when the Dunns received the horrible news. The cancer they had been fighting for two years, ever since Julian was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008, had come back in his lower spine. He was given a 20% survival chance. Julian had to undergo high-intensity chemotherapy. He lost his hair and had to eat through a tube to his stomach.
Now Julian is stronger. He can eat normally, though he still wears a port-a-cath tube to his chest, used for drawing blood. He is back in school as a second grader at Mariners Christian School, and his endurance has increased so he can go nearly full-time.
Julian is still undergoing what Andrea Dunn called "maintenance" chemotherapy, and has six more months of that to go. Every other month, he needs an MRI.
"I hope and pray that we get to that point where they only have to do [the MRIs] once a year," Andrea Dunn said. "They told us originally, before he relapsed, that he'd be monitored for like 10 years pretty closely. It's a very aggressive form of cancer ... really what we do is take things one day at a time. But we're just totally thrilled with how well he's doing."
Julian wants to be a chef one day. Nolan, who dreams of making the Major League Baseball, has always been the Dunns' baseball player.
Now they have two.
"At first [Julian] didn't want to do it," Andrea Dunn said. "We kind of made him come to practice, with a little bit of resistance, but he really liked it. Coach Chris [Elliott], he's the nicest guy."
Each of the 780 players in the league hopes for a great season. Harry Dill and Julian Dunn are just two examples of players who have already won before they stepped in the batter's box.
Abbott stopped his speech briefly to play catch with a Challenger Division player, Alex Acevedo. Soon after, he provided those in attendance with a valuable life lesson in his closing remarks.
"I just want you to try to enjoy every single moment, because I firmly believe this is the greatest game in the world," Abbott said. "I firmly believe if you go out here and find your own way of doing things, make the most of what you've been given and believe in yourself — no matter what situation you find yourself [in] — amazing things can happen on these baseball fields. Amazing things can happen."
Even on day one, amazing things can and did happen.
Yes, it was a special day.