Chester mom honored for continuing to embrace baseball after her son’s death

People deal with tragedy in various ways.

Toni Perrigan’s method – pouring herself into the place where her 13-year-old son, Gerald, suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009 – has earned her the recognition of Little League baseball officials.

When Perrigan receives the Little League baseball Southeastern Region Volunteer of the Year award Saturday in Warner Robins, Ga., it will be an acknowledgment that she returned to the Chester baseball complex just two weeks after Gerald suffered the heart attack on Field Three that took his life two days later. And it will be recognition that during the five years since the tragedy, she hasn’t stopped volunteering in the sport her son adored.

“I don’t do it for the attention, I don’t do it to be recognized,” said Perrigan. “I love doing it.”

‘His body, his life’

Gerald Perrigan became involved with baseball as a four-year-old bat-boy for Troy Roberts’ team. Roberts, a gregarious Californian who runs the Chester Little League, watched Gerald and his brother, Alex – two years and two months older than Gerald – rise up the league’s ranks.

Roberts joked that Gerald ran like “he had rocks in his pockets.” But Roberts knew Gerald was running as fast as he could. The boy was born with a heart condition called bicuspid aortic valve, which means his aortic valve had only two flaps to regulate blood flow instead of the usual three. When blood pumped through Gerald’s heart, it didn’t flow smoothly; Perrigan said it squirted like a garden hose with a finger stuck in the opening.

Gerald, an honors student whose test scores placed him in the top 3 percent in South Carolina for his grade, pitched or played first base because running wasn’t safe. The league had to get permission every year from a cardiologist for him to play, and he was the only player in the league with special consent to be replaced by a pinch-runner anytime he got on base. Roberts remembered Gerald “scared the heck out of me” whenever he played because his face would turn beet-red.

The last full year that Gerald played, 2008, he almost wasn’t allowed. He’d had a few worrying spells at school. Gerald was finally given the OK, and halfway through the season decided he wanted to run. Roberts asked Perrigan if her son could, and she consented.

Toni said she and her husband, Tim, never hid any of the details of their son’s condition from him, and never over-protected him on a baseball diamond.

“It was his body, his life,” she said. “He knew what his limits were. But I couldn’t take it away from him, he loved it so much.”

First day of practice

March 17 was the opening day of the 2009 baseball season, and Gerald and his team were practicing on Field Three. After a warmup lap around the field, Gerald slumped against the fence on the third base side of the field.

Alex, who was warming up for his Chester High School game at a nearby field, saw his brother start walking midway through the lap. “He was a big boy. He wasn’t too terribly in shape, but he wasn’t that bad out of shape. We just figured he was slowing down.”

Gerald was plopped against the chain-link when his mom approached. Perrigan asked her son if he was okay and he said “I’m fine.” But Gerald’s face was pale and his skin was clammy. He wasn’t fine.

Perrigan walked toward first base to tell the coach she was going to take Gerald to the hospital. When she returned to her son, he’d lost consciousness. Gerald had suffered a massive heart attack.

Perrigan called 911, while Alex tracked down local pediatrician Logan Gibbons. He performed CPR on Gerald, who wasn’t breathing and had no heart beat. When the emergency services personnel arrived, they used a defibrillator on Gerald immediately.

Perrigan hated “they did that in front of all the kids.” It was the first day of practice with almost 300 youth baseball players at the complex.

Gerald’s heart started again, and he was rushed to Chester Regional Medical Center. The Perrigans and family and friends waited there until about midnight, when a helicopter flew Gerald to Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina hospital.

Gerald had just seen his cardiologist two weeks prior to the heart attack; she came down to Charleston the next day, profusely apologizing and noting that she’d seen no signs of unusual trouble in her teenaged patient.

The morning of March 17, Gerald had written in a journal: “Jesus is Lord. Everybody goes to heaven sometime.” As Perrigan said, “he knew something was wrong.”

Gerald never woke up. He died on March 19, two days into baseball season.

Ballpark therapy

Two weeks later, Perrigan was back at the park working in the concession stand. Alex, a 15-year-old Chester High junior varsity player at the time, had practice. There was never any conversation between Toni and Alex, just tacit acknowledgment of what they had to do.

“We knew we were going back,” said Alex, now 21. “We knew he’d want us to keep going.”

That didn’t mean it would be easy.

“It was very awkward when (Alex) pulled up because they were practicing on that field,” said Perrigan, referring to Field Three. “He came up and had this look on his face like, ‘I gotta go back.’ I told the coach, ‘I don’t know if he can go out on that field or not.’ They let him practice with the varsity that night” on a different field.

The next few weeks were no more comfortable. Gerald was well-known in the town. That led to an uneasy quiet at the ballpark.

“People were afraid to say something,” said Perrigan. “They didn’t know what to say. . . . A lot of them, I had to go up to them and confront them.”

While the regulars at Chester’s baseball complex grappled to find the right words, Perrigan set about the process of moving on. She plunged into volunteer work with the league, which had paid for her family’s hotel rooms in Charleston during Gerald’s last days. Perrigan, who has been the office manager at Chester Dental since the early 1990s, did what she does best: manage. Gradually, she took over operation of the concessions stand for the Little League and the Chester High baseball program.

Roberts thinks being at the park helped Perrigan retain a connection with Gerald.

“It keeps her where she feels like she’s closer to Gerald,” Roberts said. “This is a place where we all saw him a lot.”

Dealing with Gerald’s death didn’t get easier. But confronting the ballpark on a nearly daily basis eventually sanded off the edges of Perrigan’s pain.

“You never get over it; you learn to live with it,” she said last month. “I’ve been through a lot in my life, just growing up and having faith.”

Perrigan was at the park three weeks ago, working the concessions as Chester hosted the Little League 13- and 14-year-old state tournament. Chester and Irmo were playing. She was the only Perrigan at the complex that night.

“It affected Tim differently. Tim comes over here and I think it makes Tim sad,” said Roberts as the nearby crowd cheered for a base hit. “He comes every once in a while, but it doesn’t do the same thing for Tim. It’s not therapeutic.”

Memorial for Gerald

There is another reason Perrigan comes to the park.

At the closing ceremonies of the 2009 Chester Little League season, the one Gerald never finished, Roberts and his fellow board members surprised the Perrigans with a memorial for their son.

“It was really nice,” said Roberts. “There weren’t too many dry eyes.”

The squat brick wall overlooks Field Three and bears a plaque with Gerald’s likeness etched in it, the years of his life, and the words “Gone But Not Forgotten.” He wears a hat with an “R” on it, short for Roberts, who sponsored the team. If Perrigan is ever in doubt about her decision to continue helping Chester Little League baseball, Gerald’s memorial reminds her why she keeps coming back.

“He wouldn’t want me to give it up because of him,” she said, a hint of emotion finally peeking through her stoicism. “I think he would want me to come back.”

Hints that something was up

Perrigan, now a Chester youth baseball board member, knew something was up in May when she caught wind of Roberts emailing other board members about possible Volunteer of the Year nominees.

“I had the gut feeling, but no, I did not know,” she said, a wry grin creeping across her face.

Roberts’ wife, Alexa, suggested Perrigan.

“We sat down and thought about the things she had done over the last 14, 15 years, and what she’s done this year. She’s taken on about four different hats,” said Roberts. “Not only did she manage the concessions for us, but she also did it for the high school at the same time. Did all our uniforms; if kids were signing up late, she was trying to sign kids up and keep the teams even. She was over here a lot.”

Roberts’ emails weren’t the only clue.

At a Chinese restaurant two months ago, Perrigan got a fortune cookie that read: “You will be recognized and honored as a community leader.” She stashed it in the ash tray in her truck, until Monday, July 14, when Roberts told her she’d won the Southeastern Region Little League volunteer award.

Now it’s in Perrigan’s iPhone case.

Why did she keep the strip of paper two months ago?

She shrugs her shoulders and smiles.

15,000 volunteers in the region

Perrigan isn’t one for big spectacles or lots of attention. But she’ll get both in Warner Robins on Saturday when she’s presented her award ahead of the South Carolina team’s 4 p.m. game.

Matt Weber, the Southeastern Region assistant director, said Perrigan “was selected based on her tireless service and commitment she has shown to her league and its participants. She embodies what a Little League volunteer is as she wears many hats and can be counted on by the members of the league day in and day out.”

Weber estimated there are at least 15,000 volunteers in the eight-state Southeastern Region, which includes West Virginia, Florida, the Carolinas and Alabama. Still, Perrigan doesn’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about.

“I don’t think she realizes how significant it is,” said Roberts. “I think she just thinks she got a Volunteer of the Year award. I don’t think she understands the magnitude of it yet.”

Baseball volunteering has proved a symbiotic relationship for Perrigan and Chester youth baseball; she’s coped with her suffering, and the town’s baseball community has reaped the benefits of her tireless efforts.

“I never thought her volunteering would win her an award,” said Alex, a mechanic who is trying to catch on in auto racing. “I’m glad to see she got recognized for it.”

Perrigan said she’ll keep the Little League award in the office at the baseball complex, another reminder of her son in a place full of them. Gerald’s body is buried at Memorial Gardens in Chester, but his passion and energy can be felt around the base-paths at the complex. It’s why she came back.

It was an unseasonably cool July evening as an interview concluded. Toni looked out over Field Three before heading back down the hill to the tournament at the lower fields. She glanced at Gerald’s memorial.

“I was more honored with that than the award,” she said.