KANSAS CITY -- On Aug. 2, 2011, the Royals held a major news conference at Kauffman Stadium to unveil the 2012 All-Star Game logo, which is now omnipresent throughout this city. Toby Cook, the Royals' vice president of community affairs and publicity, was several miles away at Children's Mercy Hospital with his wife and their then-8-month-old daughter, Caroline.
Caroline had undergone successful heart surgery about 10 days before that and was in recovery, and in that time, Cook became friends with parents of other hospitalized children.
Fast-forward to Friday, at the same hospital, on the first official day of All-Star Week, with Cook part of a contingent from the Royals, Major League Baseball and the Starlight Foundation that presented the hospital with a Starlight Fun Center mobile entertainment unit for young patients.
Also on hand were Wil Myers, the Royals' Triple-A phenom and a participant in Sunday's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game; two-time All-Star and Royals Hall of Famer John Mayberry; MLB Goodwill Ambassador Vera Clemente, widow of the great Roberto Clemente; Dan Derian, MLB vice president of research and strategic planning; Dr. Charles Roberts, executive medical director of Children's Mercy; Chloe Vollenweider, a Children's Mercy patient and Teen Advisory board member; and Sluggerrr the mascot.
"I think what this would have meant to her if she were older," Cook told a crowd that included many parents and their kids, all relating to Caroline's story. "I mean, she would have just licked it or tried to kiss it or something. She's doing great now, a year later. But for these kids to be able to take a little time and take something off their mind during those strenuous times, believe me, for the parents as well, it's something special."
Caroline has Down syndrome and was born with a heart defect, somewhat typical with a child who has Down syndrome. Although children sometimes require another surgery when they reach 21, "They think they got enough of it repaired that she probably will not need surgery again," Cook said. "Who knows right now?"
The irony for Cook is that one year ago, before his daughter's surgery, he landed in Phoenix with a delegation from the Royals that was tasked with scouting the 2011 All-Star Week and learning how to stage the most successful event possible one year later. And the first community event he attended in Phoenix was a presentation of a Starlight Fun Center by MLB and the D-backs at a similar facility.
"The interesting thing about Children's Mercy -- and I think about children's hospitals in general if they are as good as this one -- is that more often than not, you ... remember how good you felt there, not how awful you felt at that time," Cook said. "Because they take such good care of you, it almost gives you kind of a warm feeling when you get to come back and visit. Our daughter had pneumonia in January, and she's a little more susceptible to it than other kids. We were back here, and we were just talking about how this isn't a creepy place, this isn't a place where you start to feel that same old feeling. It's like, wow, this just makes you feel good."
That was the whole point of Friday's event, one in a series of community initiatives that will leave a lasting legacy long after the 83rd All-Star Game is said and done.
The Starlight Fun Center is now a very traditional presentation item at MLB's jewel events, having the same impact everywhere. The unit includes a Nintendo Wii gaming system, a TV and a DVD player, and it can roll right up to the side of a young patient's bed or anywhere else in a hospital.
Caregivers report that use of the Fun Center often results in a reduced need for pain medication.
"It's really neat for them," said Jeremy Rinehart, who was in attendance with wife, Sherri, as their son, Randy, played with the Fun Center. Randy's right leg was in a cast, having broken it when he lost control of an ATV and rolled it, but fortunately he'll be going home soon. "It's something to take the kids' minds off what's going on here, give them some happy time during the day. It's a great deal."
Myers thought so, too. Myers is expected to be called up from Omaha soon, as he leads all of professional baseball with a combined 27 home runs, 72 RBIs and a .327 average over the last 48 games. Seeing him at an event like this, it was easy to visualize him as a community fixture in Kansas City.
"It's definitely cool to be out here with all these kids, to be able to help in the community, so right now it's a cool experience for me," Myers said. "It's humbling to see all these kids right now, going through what they're going through. I just wish them all the best."
Myers has gotten to know Mayberry over past Spring Trainings, and he enjoyed being part of a natural transition of baseball history at this event. Here you had the literal future of the Royals, alongside a man who played in the last All-Star Game held in Kansas City in 1973. Mayberry doubled off Wayne Twitchell of the Phillies in that game and still considers it his most memorable hit.
"It was an experience that you really can't put into words," Mayberry said before trying. "It was my first All-Star Game, right here in Kansas City, in front of my hometown fans, and just to be around great players who I've admired all of my life. Now I'm on the same field with them, taking batting practice with them -- I'm talking about Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Johnny Bench and [Pete] Rose. On my team we had Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson and just so much excitement in the air. A lot of trash-talking. We just had a lot of fun, and I was watching every step those guys made."
Roberts said it was a "personal thrill" to see Mayberry at the event, and said that the ribbon-cutting of the Fun Center fit right in with Children's Mercy Hospital's mission. There are nearly 500,000 outpatient visits every year, 17,000 operations and 15,000 admissions.
"We think it's one of the world's finest children's hospitals, and we're proud that Major League Baseball, the Royals and the Starlight Foundation have taken the opportunity to come down here and visit the hospital and continue what we are trying to do," Roberts said. "One of the things that is so important to us here is the social aspects of the care that we provide. ... So the donation of the Fun Center is right in synch with what we are trying to do."