07/24/09 3:48 AM EST
Yanks bring HOPE to Camp Sundown
Sun-sensitive kids play on Stadium field until wee hours
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Under the protective cover of a midnight sky, the Yankees welcomed the XP Society in Craryville, N.Y., offering their Major League lawn as a host to Wiffle Ball games, whizzing Frisbees, clowns, magicians and incredibly special memories.
"I think we can sum up what this means for these children in one word -- acceptance," said Dan Mahar, who founded Camp Sundown 14 years ago. "They spend most of their life having to explain to people what it is that they have.
"The New York Yankees said, 'We want you to play on our lawn.' The message that is being driven home to each of these children is that they are being accepted and they are important."
Camp Sundown is a special retreat for those with Xeroderma Pigmentosum, or XP, a rare genetic disorder (affecting approximately 250 in the U.S. and 3,000 worldwide) that causes the body to be unable to repair cells damaged by UV light.
DNA damage to those with XP is cumulative and irreversible, leading to a 2,000-fold increased risk of skin cancer, precancerous tumors, eye tumors and mouth tumors. The majority of those with XP do not live past the age of 20.
Mahar and his wife, Caren, started Camp Sundown shortly after their daughter, Katie, was diagnosed with XP in 1996. The year-round night camp offered sun-sensitive children and their families a way to socialize in a physically safe environment.
Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo first heard of XP 14 years ago while interning for the club, seeing a documentary special on television. The images stuck with him, and with the creation of HOPE Week this year, there was finally an opportunity to make wonderful things happen.
During Thursday's festivities, Zillo presented the Mahars with a check for $10,000 on behalf of the organization. It was a scene that has played out numerous times this week, as the Yankees continue to reach out to individuals, families and organizations worthy of recognition and support.
"I hope this continues. I think every team should get involved with different organizations and help out," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "This is a special week. Imagine growing up not being able to play under the sun for a little bit.
"We're baseball players; that's all we do for our lives. I couldn't imagine not being able to do that. What we're doing here, even at 2 o'clock in the morning, the kids are smiling and having fun at Yankee Stadium -- it's great to see."
Just the invitation to actually come to Yankee Stadium stunned Mahar. The Yankees wanted the XP children and their families to make the two-hour trip from Camp Sundown, arriving after sunset to watch the game from a party suite.
"We were in total disbelief and total shock," Mahar said. "That just kept on mounting and mounting until we actually pulled in and saw that beautiful Yankees sign. Still, it really didn't sink in until we got into the suite."
Protected from exposure indoors, the children had a first-class experience for their first Major League game. With numerous players and members of the front office walking down to the diamond after the Yankees' 6-3 victory and donning HOPE Week gear, the home team played gracious hosts.
Zillo had no shortage of players volunteering to take part in Thursday's event, even after a rain delay of more than two hours delayed the start of the game.
"I have two kids, and it's kind of unfathomable to imagine what's going on with these kids," A.J. Burnett said. "I'd never heard of this disease before this week, and as soon as I heard about it, I signed up for it. They're going to take this one memory and I want to be a part of it. That's kind of flattering."
With upbeat pop music filling the air, the scoreboard was transformed into the world's biggest video-game screen as campers took turns playing "MLB '09 The Show" from the visitors' dugout. An inflatable bounce tent popped up in left-center field, and hot dogs were being cooked on the warning track by the visitors' bullpen.
Magicians wandered the outfield showing off card tricks, and several of the pitchers tossed Wiffle Balls to the campers, truly giving them the opportunity to hit off a Yankee. Alfredo Aceves even provided some of the entertainment, strumming an acoustic guitar in center field and singing from the John Mayer catalog.
"I still haven't been able to comprehend what is actually happening here," Mahar said. "These men worked tonight. They put on a show. They put in their time, they've got families and they want to go home. But they're hanging out and showing these kids that they are as good as we are. We're all the same."
Burnett said that, to benefit Camp Sundown and XP research, he planned to put the Yankees' WWE belt -- distributed to the team-selected player of each game -- up for auction later this season.
"We're going to see what we can do for that and have all of the guys sign it," Burnett said. "I think it's perfect. They're champions."
The carnival went strong into the early morning, finally wrapping up at approximately 4 a.m. ET, when the XP families had to reboard their buses in order to make it back to Camp Sundown before daybreak.
Mahar hopes Thursday presented his campers with an experience that will be there for them when they need it most.
"What these children take with them will probably come out years from now, hopefully," Mahar said. "That's when they hit their darkest hours. That's when the melanomas do take over. When everyone else is at the prom and they're not. They'll look back and remember what it felt like -- at least for one night -- to be loved and accepted by the whole world."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.