Patrick Ochs

Fate, baseball, bit of magic brings Katie Russell back to help Pass Christian

COURTESY MICHELE BELL 
 Katie Russell concluded her tour of all 30 Major League Baseball ballparks by throwing out the first pitch at the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field.
COURTESY MICHELE BELL Katie Russell concluded her tour of all 30 Major League Baseball ballparks by throwing out the first pitch at the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field.

It's funny where life can lead you sometimes. And in this instance, where baseball can lead you.

When Katie Russell, 38, set out this summer to honor her mother who died of colon cancer in 2009, she didn't know she would end up helping perfect strangers in Pass Christian, where she spent much of her childhood.

In April, Russell embarked on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums to pay tribute to her mother, Anne, a woman who always rooted for the underdog, like her beloved Chicago Cubs.

The seven-month journey culminated Sept. 22 when Russell threw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Milwaukee Brewers game at Wrigley Field.

"There was more than one thumbprint on that baseball when I threw it out," Russell told People Magazine. "My mom was there on the mound with me; we threw the ball together. I felt so at ease with her there, because I'd finished our dream of getting to every stadium."

Once she returned home and had a few days to reflect, Russell's mind transitioned to what's next. How could she pay her journey forward?

Her mind drifted -- or was led -- back to Pass Christian, where she spent 28 summers and many holidays. She grew up in New Orleans, where she still has family, and now lives in Texas,

"Pass Christian is such a magical place," Russell told the Sun Herald. "Everyone was at their best I feel like in the Pass. It was just a great spirit there, so relaxing and stunning along the Coast. Lots of games and softball tournaments and fun. ... She loved it over there."

Anne Russell's ashes were spread in the Gulf, across from where their family home was pre-Hurricane Katrina.

So Russell sat down at her computer and Googled, "Pass Christian, baseball."

"It came up that the Pass Christian Pirates, who I hadn't known about prior to Googling, was having their annual fundraiser the following weekend," Russell said. "I thought, hmm, I think this is a sign.'"

On a whim, Russell bought a plane ticket and flew into town for the cornhole tournament and cow drop fundraiser on Oct. 3 to raise money for a new wooden outfield fence, part of a larger beautification project.

Even as she was returning to the Coast, Russell said she was unsure exactly how she wanted to help.

"That's where I met Coach (Marcus) Whitfield," she said. "They just seemed like really great people and baseball had given me so much so I really wanted to give something back to baseball."

The conversation, albeit brief, resonated with Whitfield.

"For a stranger, she just gives you faith there's still good people in the world who want to help others out and give a helping hand," he said. "I lost my mom to cancer about nine years ago. To lose your mom, I understand the connection she had, what she's searching for. I know why she did (the tour). I can understand her wanting to help other people out."

1021_bisp_Katie Russell 1.jpg
COURTESY CHARLOTTE BRADFORD Katie Russell competes during the Pass Christian baseball team's cornhole tournament.

After the brief afternoon in the Pass, Russell returned home and shortly after opened a GoFundMe account to aid the Pirates in their pursuit of a new outfield fence with a goal of $10,000.

Whitfield said he was truly moved by her generosity.

"Her story is a good story and a touching story," he said. "It just goes to show the type of person she is and who her mom was. It meant a lot, especially to help strangers."

Russell, who in 2012 was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and melanoma and a year later went into remission, said she hopes her major league journey and fundraiser leave a lasting mark on the city her mother loved so much.

"I think if we take the time to ask and really listen to people's stories, we're all connected," she said. "I think that's the message I received. I hope it communicates hope to people that no matter where you are in life -- whether you lost a parent or have a medical diagnosis or whatever it is -- you don't give up hope.

"Dreams don't cease to exist just because you're struggling. It may take a while to get there, but dreams do come true.

Click HERE to donate to Russell's GoFundMe account.

To visit Russell's blog where she chronicled her journey, click HERE.

Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at pochs@sunherald.com or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.

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