An important member of the California softball team was absent when the Golden Bears faced Washington for a berth in the College World Series last weekend in Berkeley. Barbara Wiggs, better known as Bebe to her friends—which is to say, to everyone who's ever met her—had a previous engagement at Disneyland, but her teammates didn't hold it against her. Bebe is only five years old, and besides, the Bears feel that she's with them even when she's not.
Last Friday, the day before the opener of the best-of-three series, Bebe was on the phone with assistant coach Tammy Lohmann, giving her a pep talk to pass on to the players. She wanted them to stay strong and be sure not to get discouraged even if something somehow went wrong (which wasn't likely, considering that Cal, the top-ranked team in the nation, entered the series with a 54--5 record). The Bears took the words of their honorary teammate seriously because Bebe has a 50-year-old's wisdom in her five-year-old soul. "When she talks about strength and about not giving up, it carries more meaning," says pitcher Jolene Henderson. "If there's anyone who knows what it takes to keep fighting, it's her."
Bebe's fight is against a rare form of brain cancer. When she was two, doctors discovered a tumor that occupied more than 25% of the space inside her skull. More than 17 hours of surgery could not remove all of the growth, and she has since endured 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation as well as the accompanying nausea, hair loss, mouth and throat sores and loss of appetite. Twice during the last three years Bebe's parents, Geoff and Nancy, were told that the outlook was hopeless. "They said we shouldn't worry about long-term treatment because there wasn't going to be a long term," says Geoff, an attorney from Half Moon Bay, Calif., "but I'm stubborn, I guess."
So is Bebe. What's left of the mass hasn't grown; her soft dark hair has come back; and as her strength has returned she has made the Bears stronger, which is funny because they thought it was their job to support her. Bebe, who loves popcorn, the color pink and Disney princesses, is "an insanely positive child," her father says. She has become a de facto assistant coach in charge of attitude, cheering in the stands when she's not on the field pumping up the players. "I hope we've given her half the inspiration she's given us," says coach Diane Ninemire. The Bears, who wear Bebe's initials on their batting helmets, have given her a locker in their clubhouse, complete with a pint-sized recliner, and last Saturday some of the players tapped the chair for good luck before taking the field.
Bebe and the Bears found each other through the Friends of Jaclyn foundation, a nonprofit organization that pairs children suffering from brain tumors with teams, primarily college. The charity, with its motto, Live in the moment ... Play in the moment, was inspired by Jaclyn Murphy of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., who was nine and a budding lacrosse player when she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2004. Northwestern women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller heard about Jaclyn's illness, and the Wildcats did for her what the Bears now do for Bebe—made her an honorary member, invited her to games, visited her and generally loved her like a little sister. When Northwestern won the '05 national title, Jaclyn was in the middle of the celebration.
While Jaclyn was being treated at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2005, a young patient in the bed next to hers asked about all the calls and text messages Jaclyn was getting from Northwestern players. Jaclyn explained, and later that day she said to her father, Denis, "You have to get her a team." They did, and they have been finding teams for other sick children ever since. Jaclyn, now a healthy high school senior, has seen more than 300 kids get adopted by teams in 25 sports, from Syracuse men's basketball to Amherst field hockey, Marquette men's lacrosse and UNLV softball. All over the country seriously ill children and strong young athletes are giving each other support and inspiration. Cancer isn't the only thing that spreads.
But the disease isn't easily beaten either, and some of these sweet stories have sad endings. "We're optimistic but also realistic," Geoff says. The family knows that patients with Bebe's form of cancer have only a 10% to 15% long-term survival rate. "But why can't we be part of that 15 percent?" he asks.
Bebe was fast asleep by the time Cal finished its 5--0 win over Washington in Game 1 on Saturday night, but she was thrilled to wake up to the news that Henderson, one of her closest friends on the team, pitched a four-hit shutout and struck out 11, and that player of the year finalist Valerie Arioto and senior Jace Williams hit first-inning home runs. Even before the Bears clinched a spot in the World Series with a 2--0 win on Sunday, the Wiggs family was checking plane fares to Oklahoma City to keep cheering them on. There is no telling what the future holds for the Bears or their beloved Bebe, but they will live in the moment and play in the moment and, best of all, share the moment, and nothing else really matters.
ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SERIOUSLY ILL CHILDREN AND STRONG YOUNG ATHLETES ARE GIVING EACH OTHER SUPPORT AND INSPIRATION.