Thomas Truncale’s mind often flashes back — with joy and gratitude — to the day in September 2009, when for two hours he was the most important person in Griffey’s world.
When Ken Griffey Jr. is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in less than two weeks, he will be rightly lauded for his baseball exploits, nearly unparalleled in his era.
But to Thomas Truncale of Odessa, Fla., who turned 18 last Saturday, his memory of Griffey will be far more personal. Truncale’s mind will flash back — as it does often, with joy and gratitude — to the day in September 2009 when, for two hours, he was the most important person in Griffey’s world. And when his own world changed inalterably.
Truncale was a Make-A-Wish kid, having endured more medical challenges than an 11-year-old should have to. Suffering from severe hemophilia, a disorder that impairs the body’s ability to form blood clots, he listed Griffey atop his list of celebrities he wanted to meet for his wish. A baseball fanatic, Truncale admired Griffey’s skills, his joyful attitude and the fact that he did it all without the taint of steroids scandal.
So Truncale, his parents and three siblings flew to Seattle, where the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Washington and Alaska made it happen. But mostly, Griffey made it happen. Griffey remains legendary with the local Make-A-Wish folks for the way he would throw his entire heart and soul into each wish he fulfilled — and there were dozens over the years. Griffey never said no, except maybe when it was time for the youngster to leave, and Griffey lobbied for a little more time.
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“When he was with the kids, he treated them like there was nothing more important he had to do,” said Donna Verretto, chief operations officer for Make-A-Wish of Washington and Alaska. “His full attention was directed to the child and making the wish unforgettable fun.”
With Truncale and Griffey, it was perfect chemistry from the start, the talkative youngster and the wisecracking superstar. And now, as Truncale starts his freshman year at the University of Tampa after graduating from high school last month, he looks back at that day at Safeco Field as a pivotal one in his life.
“When I met him, he helped me grow and almost molded me into who I am,’’ he said. “It brought to life to me that a person like him can be generous. He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life.
“I think he definitely made me more confident in myself. For two hours, I felt like a quote-unquote normal human being. I built off that day. I realized that what I had doesn’t make me any different than anyone else.”
This is a side of Griffey that deserves to be highlighted as much as the 630 home runs and highlight-reel catches. His kinship with Make-A-Wish dates to his rookie season of 1989, when the Mariners’ then-PR director, Dave Aust, approached Griffey with his first proposal from Make-A-Wish, which was then a fairly new and obscure organization, having started in Washington just three years earlier. The concept — granting wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions — is one that has proven to have a value far beyond the few hours together.
Griffey accepted immediately, and the first meeting was arranged — a dinner atop the Space Needle with a terminally ill 8-year-old. Griffey seemed nervous, Aust recalled, though he still bonded with the youngster. At one point, Griffey excused himself and said he’d be right back.
Everyone assumed he was going to use the restroom, but five minutes became 15, and then 30. Had Griffey bailed out? But just when Aust was going to apologize on Griffey’s behalf, Junior showed up, bearing a bat and jersey for the youngster. He had driven home to his apartment because he felt bad he didn’t have any gear to give him.
Postscript: The boy died a few months later and was buried wearing the jersey Griffey had given him. Such can be the legacy of a Make-A-Wish visit, which provides hope, strength and indelible memories to families at a time they desperately need it.
Certainly, the Griffey visit has become part of Truncale family lore. At Thomas’ recent graduation party, they showed slides from his youth, including several with Griffey at Safeco Field.
“I think what made the whole day special for us was how personable he was,’’ said Thomas Truncale Sr., a physician specializing in pulmonary and critical care.
‘All about them’
As Aust pointed out, “Ken has always had the knack of being able to connect better with kids than adults, especially in those days. He wouldn’t just give them 10 or 20 minutes. He’d spend hours, to the point we’d have to say, ‘Ken, you’re up next. You need to let these kids go.’
“He loved doing that and really felt for those kids. It was definitely genuine, no question about it.”
Aust added that “it just wasn’t a fly-by, either.” Griffey would check up on the kids and ask for follow-ups. In the book “Wish Granted,” by Don Yaeger, which chronicled a number of athletes with involvement in Make-a-Wish, Griffey talked about his mindset.
“I tell the child that the wish is not about me or any other athlete. Even though we were the ones who have been ‘chosen,’ the focus of the day should not be that they get to meet us, but that we get the opportunity to make our time together all about them.”
Griffey also said, “The second thing I do is tell the child that the only thing he or she can’t take is my glove. Everything else is there for the asking.’’
On one legendary occasion, a Make-a-Wish youngster admired the Nintendo game at Griffey’s locker that the two had been playing, and explained to Griffey that his had been stolen.
“Fifteen minutes later, Ken came running back out,’’ Verretto recalled. “He had torn his Nintendo out of the wall. He handed it to the kid, cords dragging. It was hilarious.”
The postscript is that when his dad asked if he was looking forward to playing Nintendo, the boy replied that he was going to seal the game away as a keepsake.
Truncale scored a bat, batting glove, hat, baseballs, golf balls and cleats, all signed by Griffey — and all framed for display once he returned home. But far more than the material items are the memories, such as when Griffey took Truncale into the Mariners clubhouse to get them away from the hubbub on the field. Thomas had been miked for sound by Make-A-Wish, but Griffey pulled it off once they were alone.
“I don’t want anyone to hear our conversation,’’ he told Thomas, who says now: “He made it feel more of a reality than this crazy day. We talked baseball in the clubhouse. He showed me his locker, took me around the clubhouse. Then he took me back to the field, and I had to put the microphone back on.”
Setting the standard
Summing up the day, Truncale said, “I can’t explain the joy and nervousness at the same time. It made me forget about everything. I remember it all. It was like a whirlwind. Time passed faster than you can imagine. It’s something I’ll be grateful for my whole life.”
One other aspect of Griffey’s Make-A-Wish commitment is that it trickled down to the other players on the team, including his buddy Jay Buhner. Griffey set the standard with Make-a-Wish that the Mariners try to uphold to this day.
“The experience brings us joy. It really does,’’ Griffey said in “Wish Granted.” “It reminds us that we aren’t playing ball because ballgames really matter that much. We are doing it because it provides people with something to root for, to get excited about, to help them forget their troubles for a little while.
“Meeting with Wish children puts it all into perspective. Our game matters only as much as it matters to the fans, and those kids are the most important ones.”
Though Thomas hasn’t had a chance to talk to Griffey since his Seattle outing, he is hoping to see him in Cooperstown at next year’s induction (they couldn’t make this year’s ceremony because of a conflict). He would love to show Griffey his Instagram page, called “Our Planet Daily,” which Truncale started with a partner. It features nature photos and has drawn 1.6 million followers.
As for Truncale’s hemophilia, it’s something he’ll have to deal with his entire life unless a cure is developed. Truncale says that with medication, it’s “definitely manageable,” though he had to quit playing baseball, his passion, because of ankle and joint issues and concern about getting hit by pitches.
“He wasn’t able to participate in activities most kids are able to do,’’ Truncale’s father said. “He’s overcome that. He’s got a very positive outlook.”
Truncale is eyeing a business and psychology double major at the University of Tampa with the thought of going into clinical psychology to help kids. (“You can understand a little about where that comes from,’’ Thomas Truncale Sr. said.)
Thomas said he wants to give back to his community and help young people who, like him, have had “dark moments” in their life.
Seven years ago, through Make-A-Wish, Ken Griffey Jr. helped do just that for an 11-year-old who has never forgotten.