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Youth baseball: Bigger than baseball

Local travel team rallies around player’s father and his life-altering disease

Posted: July 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Joey Iannolo, top, and his father Joe, bottom, have bonded through baseball. This weekend, Joey's team, the Santa Clarita Chill, played in a charity tournament in honor of Joe, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Joe Iannolo can’t play baseball with his son anymore.

He’s lost the ability to perform seemingly simple tasks with his hands, and his speech is heavily hindered.
But his spirit is and conviction are still completely intact.

On Jan. 12, Iannolo was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

It’s more commonly known by its nickname, “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

This past weekend, a local travel baseball team called the Santa Clarita Chill participated in the Strike Out Lou Gehrig’s Disease Tournament at California Lutheran University.

The team entered the tournament in honor of Iannolo and his son Joey, who plays on the team of 13-year-olds.

“I can’t throw a baseball anymore, but I can watch my son throw a baseball,” Joe Iannolo says. “It’s the world to me.”

At the tournament, a donation was made for every strikeout pitched and every home run hit toward a fund aiming to treat ALS victims and assist their families.

It was only a few months ago that Joey first earned a spot on the Chill.

That made for a perfect opportunity when head coach Bill Holstein learned of Joe’s disease.

“(Joe’s) always wanted to be on this team, and everything kind of came together at the right time,” Holstein says. “As much as I teach his son, (Joe) teaches me more about life every day.”

As he’s always done with his kids, 54-year-old Joe goes to nearly every practice and every game.

Since little is known about the cause of ALS and there remains no cure, the symptoms are also somewhat unpredictable from person to person, according to the ALS Association.

In Joe’s case, his hands and arms have taken the hardest hit.

He can’t lift heavy objects, and he can’t complete more delicate tasks like unscrewing the gas cap in his car.

Joe also struggles to speak and enunciate words.

He’s maintained full strength in his legs though, which give him the ability to drive to his son’s games and practices.

There’s no telling how his condition will progress, but Joe is determined to fight it.

“Everything you read about this disease is a death sentence,” Joe says. “Well for me, it was a life sentence because it got be back on track of where I should be.”

Since his diagnosis, Joe said he’s lost 50 pounds as he’s begun regularly exercising and has he and his family on a more healthy diet.

Joe sees a doctor four times a week and has to take all kinds of medication.

Every day presents various challenges for him and his family, but each one is met with unyielding optimism.

“It’s been harder because I have to help him around a little bit, but that’s about it,” Joey says. “That’s all that’s changed.”

Whether at home or at work, Joe gets all the help he needs from his friends and family.

With all the time he’s spent around his son’s baseball team, the coaches, players and parents have become like a second family.

“You find out how much people care about you,” Joe says.

For the 11 members of the Chill team, that’s the whole idea.

“It was something bigger than baseball,” Holstein says of playing in the Lou Gehrig tournament. “This guy is struggling every day for his life and I wanted the boys to show how much they cared by raising money for such an amazing cause.”

The Chill have been together for three years, and Holstein said he originally formed the team with the intention to get young, aspiring baseball players ready for high school.

Through the years, the Chill have won tournaments played all around Southern California and have traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament.

It’s been a successful run for the team so far, but now they have a chance to play for something other than a trophy.

And Joe Iannolo is at the center of it all.

“There’s this saying in the ALS community and it’s, ‘death by psychosis,’” he says. “When they tell you you’re going to die, people believe it and then die. To me, I have too much to live for.”



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