Our Heavy Hitters & Home Runs: Big Hearts 2019 Recap

“The world says you can’t, but I say you can. Great moments are born from great opportunities..”

-Hal “Coach” Freeman, The Hipsters

When ESP began planning for Big Hearts at Bat in August of 2018, we set a goal of making the event bigger than ever; a hard task, considering how much fun we had in years past. However, an audience of thousands became instantly captivated by our performers and contestants, who proved to be the true stars of the night.

Laura Whitaker, our fearless leader, attributes the night’s success to our talented participants, hard-working families, and an endlessly supportive community.

“I wanted to take a moment to simply say thank you,” she said.

“Thank you for supporting our vision to create a world where every person has an opportunity to thrive. Thank you to our community, sponsors, volunteers and our ESP participants and families for stepping up to the plate. I invite you to be a part of our team and continue hitting it out of the park for kids of all abilities in Athens and throughout Northeast Georgia.”

On Feb. 9, 2019, magic happened at the Athens Classic Center. Here are the highlights of the night, and a few extra special moments.

The Players

It took more than a village to put on Big Hearts at Bat. Like a well-oiled machine, businesses and leaders throughout the community came together in the months leading up to the event to nail down every detail of the night.

Emcee’s Kelsey Wingert and Charlie
Emcees Kelsey Wingert and Jake Fromm make opening statements

The biggest surprise of the night came when UGA quarterback Jake Fromm appeared as the mystery emcee in the pageant. Jake lead the program along with Jake Sapp, ESP’s program coordinator, ESParticipant Charlie Lawrence, and Kelsey Wingert, field reporter and host for Fox Sports Southeast.

Fromm wasn’t the only athlete who attended the pageant. The judge’s panel featured a number of seasoned baseball players and big hitters in the community, including Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, Trevor Holder, Gordon Beckham, Kyle Farmer, David Thoms, Brooks Brown and Stephanie Davis.

However, the real stars of the night were the contestants and performers who showed off their talents at the pageant.

The Hipsters

Throughout the night, the pageant followed the inspiring story of the Hipsters, a professional baseball team who have hit a rough patch on their journey to the World Series. They spent a whole semester learning lines, rehearsing and perfecting their characters.

Coach (right) goes over the latest Hipster headlines with Adam “Speedy” Ferrera (left)

With colorful athletes like “French Fry” Ike and “Swervin’ Ervin”, each performer brought a unique twist on the team’s struggle to make it to the top. The highlight of the performance was Coach Hal’s rallying speech:

“The world will tell you that you don’t look like baseball players. That you aren’t capable of playing the game,” she said to her team, huddled in the locker room.

“You are in charge of your life and you get to say, ‘I won’t allow the world to define me; to stop me; to determine who I am.’ The world looks at you, and all they see is the pain, the struggle, and the challenges.  All they offer is sympathy for how difficult they think your life is. They don’t understand that it IS the difficulty that has prepared you for this moment. I am convinced the only three outs that matter in baseball are out hustle, out think, and out perform.”

Like a good head coach, her words brought out the best in every one of her players, who entered the decisive game of the World Series determined to seize their moment. When they hit their final home run, the stage darkened and the auditorium buzzed with wild energy as the Hipsters celebrated their win.

Jack “Firecracker” Ripkin, designated hitter for the Hipsters, steps up to the plate

The performers were a shining example of how our participants embody the theme of Big Hearts at Bat. They proved to the audience why we have a pageant every year, and how it impacts them. It also set the tone for contestants that followed:

“The world says you can’t, but I say you can,” said Coach.

“Great moments are born from great opportunities. Tonight is our opportunity, our moment, to show the world you were born to be baseball players. Now let’s get ‘em.”


The Pageant

The Heavy Hitters mark the start of the pageant

While performers inspired the crowds with their stories, the emcees, contestants, and escorts waited backstage with bated breath. The pageant began with the Atlanta Braves Heavy Hitters hyping up the crowd. Then, with Jake Sapp, Charlie and Kelsey Wingert at the head, UGA football players and glamorous pageant winners brought participants to the stage.

It was a variety show full of laughs and sometimes tears, with talents ranging from dancing to singing to art and feats of strength. There were Elvis impersonators, poets, and even goats; there was no way of knowing what would come on stage next, keeping the audience on their feet.

Sean and his baby goat, Hip Hop, make a grand entrance

The theme of baseball still permeated through every act. In between contestants, Blooper, the Atlanta Braves mascot, joined Homer the baseball and the Hipster’s own Hippo Ray to keep the audience laughing.

“Elvis” serenades the crowd

However, the contestants didn’t let anyone steal the show; like when Amber knocked down 6-foot plus football players like bowling pins for her talent, or when Adnan sang the entirety of “Burning Love” acapella-style.

Levi accepts the People’s Choice Award with his Buddy and mascots

Before the show ended, People’s Choice, a competition challenging supporters and attendees to cast a vote for individual contestants by making a donation, recognized their winner for the evening. Levi had a blast accepting his award.

The stage was full of beaming smiles and charming personalities, and every contestant was praised for an authentic and magical performance. Some contestants chose to use the platform to thank those around them; like Krissy and her moving poem:

“It’s time for us to shine tonight, and for each person to be in their own spotlight. I’m so proud of each and everyone, for shining bright and having fun. Before I go I’d just like to say, thanks to everyone who helped make this day. For ESP, the community, the people watching and all, thanks for letting this happen, and letting us have a ball.

The Banquet

When the spotlights dimmed and the participants left the stage to deafening applause, other performances might have ended the night there. But in full ESP fervor, the party transitioned from the pageant to the Big Hearts Banquet.

The banquet allowed guests to enjoy dinner and unpack the magical performance they just saw. Most importantly, as they settled into their tables, they were given a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of some of our long-time participants and their families through video.

One video depicted how participant Dakota Sykora abandons the stereotypes and barriers of disability with the support of his parents, brother, and friends. In particular, Dakota’s brother shared stories of how his brother was there at every baseball game when he was younger, and how he wants to be the one who supports Dakota at his own games with the help of Miracle League.

It was the push the audience needed to see just how ESP impacts their community and brought Big Heart’s theme in perfect perspective. Through the enthusiasm of our Banquet guests, ESP was able to raise $215,000 for the ESP Miracle League complex. This officially puts ESP over $1 million for our $1.4 million Miracle League goal and our dream of an accessible baseball field and inclusive play complex for our community.

Megan (left) parades through the banquet with the other participants

It was the perfect transition to the party, where we celebrated a successful banquet the only way we know how; surrounded by friends and dancing the night away.

The Aftermath

Days after, still reeling from the excitement and making plans for next year’s show, we are given the opportunity to think about what made Big Hearts at Bat memorable.

Big Hearts, above all, is a night of meaning. For participants, it means they got to be the stars of their own show with all of their families, best friends, and role models cheering them on. For parents, it means they have another year of strong support and respite to look forward to. And for all of ESP, it means we can continue to expand our mission of helping people of all abilities thrive.

However, the grind isn’t over yet! Take another swing at ESP’s Big 3 events by participating in Big Jump on May 11!

About The Author

Haley Lacuesta

Haley is a fourth year International Affairs & Public Relations double major at the University of Georgia.

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