Ventura, baseball provide hope for Rivard
White Sox organization befriends young leukemia patient
CHICAGO -- There is a junior at Western Michigan University named Billy Rivard who pretty much lives just like any other third-year student at this academic institution in Kalamazoo, Mich.
He plays club volleyball, practicing two days per week, and takes part on two other intramural volleyball teams. He enjoys fishing and hanging out with his friends. Turning 21 in the first week of December, Rivard begins to think about his life after college and is supported by good grades in a quest to become a high school teacher.
In order for this native of south suburban Orland Park, Ill., to have this normal collegiate existence, though, he actually gives thanks to the White Sox for their personal contributions. And right at the center of that immeasurable kindness stands Robin Ventura, a classy, understated staple of the organization beginning as a player in 1989, who enters his first year as the team's manager in 2012.
It's not about tuition paid or extra tutoring provided to Rivard as examples of the White Sox difference-making. This is a story concerning an altruistic All-Star and a baseball club committed to giving back to the community, taking that goal a few steps further for a boy and a family dealing with a leukemia battle since he was 5 years old.
To start this uplifting tale with a direct but somewhat startling premise, Billy Rivard might not be alive today if not for Ventura and the White Sox.
"I can look back on each individual aspect either with the White Sox or with Robin, with my mom, with my dad, with my brother and sister and with my grandparents," said Rivard, during a recent phone interview, "and relate that to why I'm here now, with the important role they played."
"When we were going through the bone marrow transplant in Milwaukee, we were told at one point that he's not going to make it," Linda Rivard, Billy's mother, said. "His doctors say to this day it's [because of] baseball and it's [because of] Robin."
The original diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia hit the Rivard family in 1996. After a period of remission, the cancer returned in 1999 and Billy underwent a bone marrow transplant in August of the same year.
Through the Make a Wish Foundation and with help from White Sox senior director of community relations Christine O'Reilly and Chicago White Sox Charities, Billy was introduced to Ventura at SoxFest as a 7-year-old just two years following the leukemia diagnosis. He comes from a family of White Sox fans and remembers going to one particular game with his grandfather and watching Ventura hit one of his 18 career grand slams.
From that point on, Rivard was a staunch Ventura supporter. Rivard identified with Ventura's Gold Glove, hard-nosed defense as much as his clutch slugging. He carries himself with the same low-key dignity.
"When I played sports, other kids were trying to hit home runs and I was trying to make a diving catch or take a charge in basketball or make a steal instead of scoring 20 points," said Rivard. "So, we had that connection too."
As part of that SoxFest visit, the young Rivard and his family got to spend some time each day with Ventura. Rivard asked Ventura your basic kid questions, such as his favorite television show or favorite color. There wasn't much deep baseball discussion or focus on Rivard's condition. And Ventura introduced him around, making Billy feel like a part of the organization.
Rivard and his family had no idea at the time that they were attached to a prominent baseball friend for more than just one weekend. They were guests of Ventura and the White Sox at the ensuing Spring Training, where Billy got the full big league experience in Tucson, Ariz.
Billy stood with his favorite player when he signed autographs on the field and played catch with him. He remembers being introduced to Bo Jackson and meeting the Cubs' Mark Grace when he joined Ventura for warm-ups before the Cactus League game against the Cubs. There also was a full No. 23 White Sox uniform to wear, with Rivard's name across the back.
Rivard's spirits were buoyed by Ventura as the cancer struggles once again grew life-threatening. Ventura drew inspiration from how the young Rivard handled this tough situation.
"You could sit there and talk with him and play catch, and you could never really tell what was going on with him, especially with as dire as the circumstance was," said Ventura. "He was pretty quiet, not an overly talkative kid. But he had the strength of someone 20 years old. Just an extremely tough kid.
"To see [Billy], what he was at seven, and now see him in college, what he fought to be able to experience and live, when you are dealing with this kind of stuff, as hard as baseball is, you realize it's just baseball. There are a lot of things that happened in the course of my career, I think going through that with him, stuff like that is not a big deal.
"Don't get me wrong: I care about baseball," Ventura said. "When it really boils down to it, he was battling for his life and that's where it's at. There are a lot of things as far as getting stressed out with different stuff, you scratch your head later and realize it didn't matter. People do that all the time."
A 1999 move to the Mets didn't prevent Ventura from staying in contact as Billy's tough recovery progressed after the bone marrow transplant. There would be phone calls to see how he was doing, even if Billy was too sick to talk, or quick words of encouragement from the third baseman if Billy had encountered a tough time or an especially trying procedure.
When the Mets visited Wrigley Field, Ventura invited Billy and his family to the game. There even was a moment when Ventura was on his way to a National League Championship Series contest against the Braves and he checked in during the trip to the ballpark.
"Each thing became a little milestone, that's the way we looked at it," Ventura said. "It always seemed to get to that point where there was something else you can throw at him to get him excited and something he wanted to do as a goal.
"We weren't faking it with the milestones. It was just perfect timing. If there was something up he wanted to do, it was like, 'All right, we'll do this.' But remember, he did all the fighting."
Those milestones made a world of difference to Rivard, who also received videotaped White Sox games from O'Reilly while he was being treated in Milwaukee.
"Just to have something that keeps your mind off of what's going on," Rivard said. "Just a little break in the day. It helps you remember there is a world outside of the hospital room."
Ventura and his wife, Stephanie, have four children: Rachel, Madison, Grace and Jack. But upon his arrival in Chicago, before he had the full-time responsibilities of a devoted father, Ventura became a regular visitor at Children's Memorial Hospital.
His brother-in-law had a college roommate who was a doctor there, so in typical Ventura fashion, he was able to go in without television's bright lights trailing behind. To this day, there are some patients who Ventura regularly visited that he still keeps in contact with through cards to see how they have progressed into young adulthood.
Lending support to these children seemingly took on the same importance for Ventura as fielding grounders at third or driving in key runs. Being a parent, a parent whose second daughter had a brief but falsely diagnosed leukemia scare when the Venturas were expecting their third, makes it easy for him to relate to what a little support can mean in a scary, crazy time.
"Any time you go through that as a parent and you see parents actually going through it, the compassion I have for those parents and kids, you do what you can," Ventura said. "[Billy's] parents were amazing through this whole thing. His brother and sister would show up. Just the way the family did things, it was always positive. You get strength through that."
"That relationship says so much about the person Robin is," O'Reilly said.
Although Rivard is more than 10 years in remission, he still has a kidney transplant facing him in the near future. Rivard's nephrologists kidded with him that after what he dealt with in the cancer treatment, the transplant should be no problem.
SoxFest '07 was the last time Ventura and the Rivards met face to face. Those meetings figure to become more frequent with Ventura running the show on the South Side.
Before Ventura was named as manager, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told O'Reilly that if they got the man they wanted, she would be beside herself with happiness. The Rivards couldn't agree more, with the first e-mails received by O'Reilly after the hire coming from Billy and his father, Ken.
If not for Ventura's friendship and support for approximately the past 15 years, Billy might not be around to share in the surprise and excitement of his inaugural managerial gig.
"Really, it's an intangible ... . I tell Christine that I don't think they comprehend how important it was," Linda said. "After everything Billy has gone through, he doesn't talk about it. He goes with the flow and takes it with such grace. He just talks about how awesome Robin and the White Sox have been."