Early Wednesday morning, 10-year-old Anna Howe sang the national anthem in an auditorium filled with her schoolmates, teachers, parents, representatives of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the daughter of Jackie Robinson.
Anna hit all the notes: high, low and those in between.
As she sang, I watched Sharon Robinson’s reaction. She raised her eyebrows and subtly looked at Kevin Moss, coordinator for Major League Baseball’s community affairs, as if to say, “Are you listening to this?”
If there is a better moment in baseball, 2017, I want to be there.
Anna Howe and Sharon Robinson have almost nothing in common, yet Wednesday at the Tucson Hebrew Academy they embraced one another and began a journey that will take them to baseball’s All-Star Game three months from now in Miami.
Sharon was born 67 years ago when her father was the reigning MVP of the National League. It was so long ago that Anna’s grandfather, Larry McNabb, then a kid growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., remembers when the hometown minor-league team, the Syracuse Chiefs, tossed a black cat on the field in attempt to intimidate Jackie Robinson, a 27-year-old infielder for the Montreal Royals, the man who famously broke baseball’s color barrier.
Anna was born 10 years ago, with a condition that has no connection to baseball or to any of the game’s long-time acronyms — RBI, ERA, WHIP and OPS.
She has EoE: Eosinophilic Esophagitis. It is a frightening disease for which there is no known cure.
“It is a chronic allergic immune condition where my white blood cells and my esophagus don’t communicate,” she wrote in an extraordinary essay. “I should be eating cupcakes and pizza and having fun with my friends, but I can’t because food hurts my body and ruins my esophagus.”
Anna’s essay attracted Sharon Robinson’s attention.
Twenty years ago, after a career as a nurse and an educator – she taught at Yale, Georgetown and Columbia – Sharon Robinson approached MLB and asked if they’d be interested in a “breaking barriers” program for school-age kids. The commissioner’s office not only liked the idea, they hired Sharon and appointed her to be an educational consultant to MLB.
Her program, which has reached more than 31 million children, is called “Breaking Barriers: In Sports, in Life.” The Breaking Barriers essay contest asks American students in Grades 4 through 9 to submit an essay about obstacles they face, and how they deal with challenges using values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson.
Anna’s tutor, former UA baseball batgirl Niki Tilicki, a fourth-grade teacher at Oro Valley’s Wilson K-8 School, encouraged Anna to write about her struggle.
More than 11,000 students submitted an essay. Two were chosen as winners. Anna is one of those two. On Wednesday, she read the essay to her schoolmates and those gathered at the Tucson Hebrew Academy.
It says, in part:
“I am Anna, and Jackie Robinson is my hero. I wear a hospital gown instead of a baseball uniform. I am determined, courageous, and committed to making the world a better place through teamwork and excellence. I’m a girl who will always fight for my life, a 10-year old who sings to make others happy, a very sick little girl who wants to heal the world one song at a time.”
Anna sings at the VA Hospital and at Salvation Army dinners. In baseball terms, she’s a .400-hitting singer.
Even though she spends at least two weeks a year at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado and at the Ronald McDonald House in Denver, she has joined a nonprofit organization, “Kids Unlimited,” in which she practices citizenship and community outreach.
“On stage,” she wrote, “no one can tell that I am sick. I imagine that this is what it was like on the baseball field for Jackie; he was so good that people saw him for his talent. The stage is like this for me. It feels good to make other people smile. My favorite place to perform is the VA because I know the audience served my country.”
Before Anna spoke to her schoolmates Wednesday, Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz put the day in perspective.
Lewkowicz grew up amid apartheid in South Africa, where black men and women were subjected to discrimination and violence.
“We didn’t play baseball in South Africa, but we knew about Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Here was a man who got through the racial barrier and wrote history. He was an inspiration to all of us, and today, so is Anna.”