by ADAM GRUENEWALD
The memory and spirit of Andy Hendel was alive and well in the minds of young ballplayers playing at the Highway 10 Baseball Classic.
In the same way community has supported the family of “Andyman,” who committed suicide on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, they did so again at the Highway 10 Baseball Classic in Perham held June 26 to 28.
This time it was youth and friends of Hendel though who remembered him as they celebrated his spirit by taking part in the three-day tournament in Perham, which is part of the Christopher Benz Foundation, in honor of a 17-year-old who took his own life on Jan. 11, 2007. The foundation sponsors the tournament to heighten awareness of how to eliminate suicide in youth.
When soon-to-be Central senior Alex Eichner, 16, heard about the tournament from Julie Kuenzel at NYA Community Education, he jumped at the opportunity, gathering support of the community and the Hendel family – parents John and Ann, twin brother Josh and sister Olivia.
“We talked with the community and we went from there,” he said. “The Hendel family was very excited to be a part of it… We just thought it was a good idea.”
Soon Eichner and Josh, 17, and also about to enter his senior year, recruited friends and former youth baseball teammates for the tournament for kids ages 16 to 17.
“I couldn’t just recruit the varsity baseball team,“ said Eichner. “I started with kids in my grade and younger.”
Josh soon volunteered to be one of the team’s coaches, eager for the opportunity.
“As soon as I heard about it I was more than glad to jump in and help with what I could,” said Josh. “There were plenty of friends willing to join this. It was a great cause, even a fun thing to do, and a great way to do something for what happened last year.”
Once in Perham, Team Andy or Team Andyman, won three-of-four games to win the silver medal championship in a 9-5 victory over the Perham Stingers, losing only to gold medal runners-up Albany.
Entirely ran by youth, the 25-member team showed their collective spirit as kids took part in any way they could by being pinch and courtesy runners, managers, stat keepers, bat girls and bat boys as they enjoyed the time in the dugout.
“It didn’t matter if you played or not,” said Josh. “It just mattered that you were there and having fun… It was really great from everyone and I really thank them and they were really glad to be there. The more people the better it was.”
Beyond the kids taking part, there were plenty of supporters watching from the stands who had made the drive to support Andy and his family.
“I thought it was cool that everyone came together for it,“ said Olivia, 14, who was a bat girl. “It was really nice to have everyone there.”
The team made their presence known too, as they sported yellow jerseys with smiley faces on them, from family friends Kelly and Jay Milbrett, and wore shoelaces stating “Today we play for Andy.”
“We didn’t know about that,” said Ann of the jerseys. “They did that all very secretively so when we showed up at the hotel that night they brought up our shirts.”
Another surprise for the team occurred during lineup announcements before their game against the Perham Stingers for the silver medal championship, when the players were handed baseballs by their opponents when their names were being announced.
Although the team was initially confused, Josh said they later found out they had won the team sportsmanship award.
“We were competitive, but at the same time we knew we were there to have fun, and we were there for a great cause,” he said, adding that they had a no-parent involvement rule. “It was a great testament as to why we were there, who we are and what we stood for.”
They were there in true Andyman fashion, since he loved the sport of baseball and played catcher and was known for always having a smile on his face and for bringing people together.
For the Hendel family, the event was a reminder of how supportive the community has been and how they want to keep the spirit of Andy alive and also encourage suicide prevention.
“It’s been amazing,” said Ann, adding a majority of kids brought their parents with them to the tournament. “It was overwhelming… I think for John and I, and Olivia and Josh it was heartwarming to see that. People are very busy. They have very busy lives and for people to take a weekend to come and play baseball for suicide prevention and to honor Andy was good for our hearts.”
Six out of 100 kids will attempt suicide, and it is the second–leading cause of death in teenagers in Minnesota.
“I think our community is realizing we need to do some things that get the word out,” said Ann, “get the message out that suicide is prevalent in our communities in Minnesota, and we have to prevent it from happening.”
Grants are awarded through proceeds from the baseball tournament, so Ann said they hope to continue to support local suicide prevention efforts, such as the Mental Heath Day break held in May at Central High School.
Andy remains on the minds of the Hendel family constantly and they say they are surviving one minute at a time.
“We have two wonderful kids that we have to get through life and we have to keep them going,” said John. “So our hearts are focused on them, but our hearts are also focused on Andy.”
Ann, who teaches kindergarten at Central, and John, the Cologne city administrator, added that the community has helped them a lot as well.
“We have been truly blessed by the people in this community that will bring us a meal even a year and a half later,” said Ann. “They keep us moving. They keep us busy. Staying busy is the key.”
Another big help for the family has been their faith.
“We just know that Andy is with God and he is an angel now,” said Ann. “He has done some angel like things, so we just know he walks with God every day, and even though he might miss us, he is finally happy and at peace.”
The first such occasion occurred the night of Andy’s wake on Benton Lake, where the community had lit luminaries to form a heart.
“That lake, the night of Andy’s wake an eagle landed in the middle of it,” said Ann. “That was our first sign that Andy was OK.”
This past January for the one–year anniversary of his death, about 150 people gathered with the Hendel family and lit up the lake with a smiley face.
Already, there are plans to return to the Highway 10 Baseball Classic in Perham next year, although they would need to play in another age bracket.
If not, there are some early discussions of hosting a tournament in Cologne, where the Hendel family lives.
“We’re definitely thinking about having a tournament here,” said Ann.
Realizing it would take a lot of people, Ann said most of the people she talked with said they would be on board to raise money and organize it just as they were supportive about attending the Perham tournament.
“I think it was a really good thing to be a part of,” said Eichner. “It was kind of an emotional day. It really turned out great and we overpowered the tournament… I’m glad to support them and help them.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at [email protected]