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Eddie Caufield is a big hit in tight-knit Henderson community

zcaufieldslideEditor’s note: Part one of two-part series

By ANDY EDWARDS @CHCAndyEdwards

WEST CHESTER – During her commencement address back in June, West Chester Henderson 2015 valedictorian Courtney Deacon spoke about ‘Ubuntu’ – the creed that resonates through the school community.

At its core, Ubuntu is a philosophy of life that defines personhood based on one’s relationship with others. Originating among the Bantu dialects of Southern Africa, it stipulates that through interactions with our fellow human beings, we nurture and affirm our own humanity. To the great South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu is “the essence of being human.

“It speaks of the fact that my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm, and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing they belong in a greater whole.

“I am who I am because of who we all are.”

Thousands of miles from its figurative birthplace, Ed Caufield and his wife, Megan, see the many faces of Ubuntu everywhere they look, as members of a special community that has helped them nurture their one-of-a-kind son.

He is thoroughly unique, as distinctive as the pattern of a snowflake. But his story, his identity, and his very life have everything to do with the kindness of others, a gift he repays in full. He is, in short, the quintessence of Ubuntu.

His name is Eddie.

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The Caufield family at the recent Henderson graduation include, from left, Ed, Casey, Eddie, Megan and Thomas.

The first time Megan Caufield outwardly experienced the kindness of others – the type of goodness that forces one to stop and appreciate it – was 14 years ago. Eddie had just turned four. He was a gentle, energetic child, but something seemed amiss. Tests revealed that Eddie fell within the spectrum of autism – albeit at the high-functioning end. A first-time parent with little but intuition to guide her, Megan figured a wide range of activities would help Eddie build relationships with other children.

“My goal when he was younger was to get him into anything I could – get him to socialize, get him around kids, get him exposed,” she said. “Music, museums, sports…I tried everything. He was drawn to music and sports – museums, not so much. But he just loved baseball.”

Anyone who knows Eddie Caufield knows his life is centered around America’s pastime. As the old cliché goes, he eats, sleeps, and breathes it, so much so that one might say he is baseball – one hardly seems to exist without the other. The fact that his athletic career began on a soccer field, then, qualifies as something of a shock. But with West Chester’s West Side Little League’s minimum age requirement of five, Eddie had to start elsewhere. So, the Caufields enrolled him in the soccer program at their local YMCA, headed by Carl Zandi, the first in a long line of benefactors.

“I talked a little bit about Eddie, told him about his challenges, and he just stepped in and was amazing,” Megan said of Zandi. “Eddie wouldn’t really get into the mix of things, so at one point Carl picked him up and ran around with him on his shoulders, just so he would be involved. I think that was the first time that someone really stepped it up. Eddie was four, and people have been doing it ever since.

“That’s when I first realized how great people were. I knew they were before, but I didn’t think about it. They just kick in that goodness.”

Baseball … at last

After what must have felt, even to his preschool self, like an interminable year, Eddie played organized baseball for the first time – tee-ball to be exact. From his first swing at the West Side Little League, he was hooked.

Though they didn’t know it at the time, his parents were too. While Eddie gained new sets of teammates on the field each year, the Caufields accrued them off it, joining a tight-knit community of coaches and parents that have become lifelong friends and staunch supporters of Eddie.

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“Eddie was our first, so we didn’t know how it worked,” Megan said. “We didn’t realize we were going to be spending the next 13 years with these people. They kicked in that kindness right away, even before knowing Eddie. I would always meet with everyone to say, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but we’re going to try.’ Maybe that resonates with people, I don’t know. But everyone was on top of it. And Eddie was very easy to want to help.”

Megan Caufield says she could name “coach after coach” who went out of their way to support her oldest son as his fledgling baseball life took root. There were Dave Harvey, Jim McDermott and Nick Sattenstein, who coached Eddie in the WSLL from age 10 to 12. Sattenstein has since passed away, but not before leaving a legacy of altruism and generosity that the Caufields will never forget.

“I used to call him Saint Nick, because he did so much to help Eddie,” Megan said. “He would always say, ‘I’d be the first Jewish saint!’”

Part of what made Eddie so easy to help was his infectious enthusiasm. Part of it, almost certainly, was the desire to aid someone in overcoming a great challenge. But most of what made Eddie a constant recipient of good will was his trademark smile. To those who know him well, it’s the stuff of legend, an entity all its own. And when Eddie’s on a baseball field, or anywhere near one, it never leaves his face.

“You know that smile in Cool Hand Luke? That Cool Hand Luke Smile?” says Luke McNichol, who would coach Eddie for four years at West Chester Henderson. “When I think of Eddie, I think of that Eddie Caufield smile.” 

Family affair

To the Caufields, baseball is truly a family affair. Ed, whose brother, Jay, won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, played on the varsity diamond at West Chester University before a long career in the West Chester Adult Baseball League, where Eddie and younger brothers Thomas (now 15) and Casey (12) were frequently in the stands. Ed and Megan have spent many summer nights in South Philadelphia over the years, taking their three boys to Phillies games before some of them were out of diapers. The family even took in the final night game at Veterans Stadium, battling traffic to arrive in the eighth inning and take in an impressive fireworks show, and still holds a 17-game season ticket package.

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“Ed played up until Casey was two or three years old, so we’ve been around baseball forever,” Megan said. “They grew up going to Ed’s games. Casey’s first Phillies game, he was in a carrier – he was about six months old. I’d pack a cooler and bags and I’d bring their pajamas. We’d stay the whole game, and afterwards we’d go out to the parking lot and I’d put their pajamas on while everyone else left.

“It was just a natural transition from loving the Phillies – they loved the game right away, and as soon as we could put them into baseball, we did.”

Like Eddie, Thomas and Casey Caufield had to wait out those five long years until they became eligible to join West Side Little League. But between their father’s and older brother’s games, they were always around baseball.

“Thomas came out throwing the ball,” Megan says with a laugh. “Whenever Eddie was going to a tee-ball game, we got Thomas a t-shirt and dressed him the same. He went to all the games. Everywhere I took Eddie, I had Thomas and Casey in tow.”

Soon enough, Thomas was a rising star in the league, even spending a few of his early years as Eddie’s teammate before the two branched off.

Once sixth grade came around, Eddie was off to E.N. Peirce Middle School. Baseball wasn’t available to sixth-graders, but he was asked to manage the seventh-grade squad before trying out himself the following two years. He wasn’t able to make the team as a player, but Eddie was such a devoted, detail-oriented manager that the coaches were thrilled to have him continue that role with the eighth-grade group.

After that, it was on to Henderson, where four life-changing years – and baseball seasons – awaited.

Earning a spot in lineup

McNichol has known the Caufields for decades. He and Ed coached together at Henderson in the 90s and have remained close ever since. So when Eddie enrolled as a freshman in 2011, McNichol knew he had his manager.

“We figured wherever he wanted to be, we’d take care of him,” McNichol said.

McNichol told Eddie he could work with whichever team he wanted. Not surprisingly, Eddie chose the varsity team. The Warriors were fresh off their first-ever PIAA championship, and Eddie wanted to be a part of the biggest stage the school had to offer.

“No hesitation,” Ed Caufield laughed.

Over the next four years, Eddie became synonymous with Henderson baseball. He was given a jersey with the number 24 – the same number his father wore during his playing days – and put in charge of the scoreboard (and sometimes the book) at home games, a task he fulfilled with remarkable diligence.

zcaufieldthrows“Eddie would have the call of the pitch up before the umpire even knew what it was,” said Vince Feola, a fellow member of the baseball Class of 2015. “If something was wrong with the count, you knew it was the umpire’s fault.”

Before long, he became the go-to guy for schedule changes and other such team information, seemingly acquiring it by osmosis.

“He was always on top of what was going on with practice, scheduling and all of that,” said Cole Bement, another classmate. “It seemed like he got it out to us before the coaches did. That was something that really stuck out to me.”

To ensure that Eddie felt comfortable with his new teammates, McNichol asked one of his older players, Mike Nugent, to serve as a mentor of sorts and to take Eddie under his wing. Every day during baseball season, Nugent would pick up Eddie from his last class of the day – often in the middle of it – and drive him over to the field for practice and games. For away contests, they sat together on the bus.

“We had that connection there,” said Nugent, who just completed his sophomore year at Virginia Tech. “He always had a smile on his face. Whenever I had a bad outing or something, you’d come in the dugout and yell, but he was always there with a smile. He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve gotten to know.

“He loves everything about the game. All he wants to do is be around it. He will talk your ear off for hours.”

After Nugent graduated, Ryan Hooven took over his ‘guardian’ role before going on to play club baseball at Penn State University. By that time, Eddie had already made a long-lasting impact on his teammates, inspiring them with his pure, almost childlike passion for baseball.

“He has a love for the game that I don’t think anyone else does,” said Bement, who came up through the West Side Little League ranks with Eddie, though never on the same team. “He always is talking about baseball and he’s always in tune with the game, probably more than 95 percent of the team. He wants to be part of the team any way he can. He just loves it so much and it’s really great to see.

“It was really awesome when you come in to the dugout and see him prepping the scoreboard and getting everything ready, he just loves being there and we appreciate that so much. We have someone in there who really wants us to play well and we want to play well because he deserves it. He deserves the best experience possible.”

Whether he needed it or not, Eddie has always received the full backing and protection of his teammates. At the team’s banquet two years ago, McNichol asked the team to recognize Eddie for his efforts as the team’s manager. Scott Cullinan, a senior captain at the time, took the microphone to say that Eddie was more than a manager to them – he was a full-fledged teammate.

“For Scott to get up and say that, totally unsolicited, was something really special,” Ed said. “I will always remember that.”

The Phillies connection

Like most kids in the area, Eddie grew up idolizing the Phillies. Even now, despite the franchise’s recent downturn, he treats a trip to Citizens Bank Park like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Truth be told, that’s what baseball has given Eddie: a lifetime of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But Eddie has had a few interactions with his Phillies heroes that could accurately fall into that category.

Shortly after Philadelphia defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games to claim the 2008 World Series title, Cole Hamels’ foundation hosted a pitching clinic. Eddie desperately wanted to participate, but exceeded the camp’s age limit. But Ed Caufield had an in – a mutual friend to Hamels that put the family in touch with Hamels’ wife, Heidi.

“I called and after talking with Heidi for several minutes, she said, ‘no problem,’” Megan recalled. “They don’t allow parents to be there, but she told us we could stay. She was just great.” 

At one point during the clinic, Megan lost sight of Eddie. It turns out she had nothing to fear – the World Series MVP himself had everything under control.

“I panicked a little bit because I didn’t know where he was,” Megan said. “I look up and there’s Cole Hamels helping him down the stairs. That’s just another example of people stepping it up.”

Stairs, coincidentally, are one of the challenges autism has placed in Eddie’s path. He’s leery of them, and prefers to avoid them if at all possible. A few years back, Eddie’s occupational therapist suggested that Megan try behavior modification to overcome this fear – for example, reward Eddie with some of his favorite candy, M&M’s.

“I told her it wasn’t going to work,” Megan said. “Unless you can produce Chase Utley at the top of the stairs, he’s not going up them.”

Utley is Eddie’s favorite Phillie of all time, something of an idol. But his closest encounters with his favorite team have been with Hamels. Several years ago, Eddie was going to have breakfast at Penn’s Table, the Caufields’ favorite local eatery, with one of his classes at Henderson. The ‘Strategies’ course is designed to help Eddie and kids with similar challenges to gain real-world skills and advocate for themselves. So in walks Eddie with the rest of his class, and guess who was already there?

“I walked into Penn’s Table and Cole was sitting at the counter,” Eddie said. “He looked up and was like, ‘Hey, Eddie.’ My teacher asked me who it was, and I said, ‘That’s Cole Hamels.’

“He was even pitching that night.”

To his father, it was just one more example of a life Eddie has touched in his own special way. 

“The fact that Cole would remember Eddie was really telling to me,” Ed said. “That’s the kind of impact he makes – people don’t forget him.”

In August of 2013, the Caufields were taking in another Phillies game. Eddie, Thomas, and Casey took part in their customary pregame ritual, bringing their gloves to shag balls during batting practice. Noticing Eddie, Hamels walked over to say hello to the Caufield boys, who had no idea they were about to spend 7 hours in the ballpark as the Phillies and Diamondbacks went back and forth in an 18-inning marathon.

“Cole was so kind to come over and do that,” Ed said of Hamels, recently traded to the Texas Rangers. “Wherever he goes, we’ll always be a fan.”

Coming tomorrow, Part 2: Henderson initiates a special award for its outgoing senior and inspirational leader

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