The baseball field is not the story. Trust me on this.
But the field is pretty cool. The base paths have three bags lashed to the well-tended dirt, and home plate is embedded between two batters’ boxes. Each foul pole is yellow and soaring above the 5-foot outfield fence. This field, carved into his parents’ backyard by a college kid and his buddies, has a warning track. And a backstop. And bleachers.
The Indy Southside Wiffle Ball league has eight teams, plays a schedule, crowns a champion. It has a website and statistics and an All-Star break and …
Well, the field is not the story.
The story is the two little boys. They’re 9 and 7, too young for this league — players come from local high schools and colleges — but they’re here at the field tonight, the last night of the season. They’re giggling and cheering, teasing the players and being teased in return.
They’re happy, these two little boys. That’s the story.
They’re happy because a baseball player at UIndy has loved them — loved them like he loved this field. The baseball player is Brendan Dudas. That’s his parents’ house off in the distance.
Here on the Southside, Brendan Dudas has turned the unkempt, the neglected, into something beautiful. And I’m not talking about the baseball field. The field is not the story. But I told you that.
* * *
One boy’s language was foul and his teeth were rotting. The other boy wouldn’t look at you, wouldn’t even talk. They were 5 and 3, and they had seen so much. This was four years ago, and their mom — Brendan Dudas’ sister — was in and out of jail. Brendan’s parents took in the boys.
It started small. Brendan and his girlfriend, fellow Perry Meridian 2013 graduate Madison Harris, hung out with Kevin and Tristan. Made them meals, helped them read, coaxed them from their self-protective shells.
Brendan and Maddie were kids themselves, seniors in high school, but gradually they took on more. They instituted a behavior chart — points added for positives like saying “please” and “thank you,” points deducted for misbehavior — and rewarded Kevin and Tristan with a trip to the zoo, the movies, the pizza place.
“Maddie and I started from there,” Brendan Dudas says, “trying to rebuild these broken little kids.”
Brendan went on to UIndy and Maddie to IUPUI, and both came back every day to see Brendan’s nephews. Brendan was a college sophomore when a niece in St. Louis, a 12-year-old named Whitley Hedger, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. The condition is called DIPG, and is diagnosed in about 300 U.S. children annually. Before Whitley died in March 2015, Brendan’s mom was always in St. Louis.
Brendan and Maddie took on more.
And Kevin and Tristan, they were changing. Kevin became a star student who played Scrabble at home and held doors for strangers. Tristan is a little love who breaks open his piggy bank for Maddie’s birthday and reaches for his Ninja Turtles wallet to buy tacos at Taco Bell.
There were still problems.
“One was sleeping on the floor, and one on a mattress with me or someone else,” Brendan says. “They’re embarrassed to tell people what’s going on, won’t have friends over. Maddie and I decided to make this thing work.”
Says Maddie: “I was living one place and Brendan and the boys were living with his mom. We wanted to give the boys more than that — permanence, safety and security. We wanted to be a united family. We moved into an apartment in November.”
Maddie found a $10 couch at auction, bought clothes at Goodwill, decorated the boys’ rooms with posters of dinosaurs and “The Lego Movie,” clipped coupons, signed up for food stamps. Brendan was leaving for UIndy at 5:30 a.m. to lift weights and go to early class, then coming back to the apartment by 8:30 to put his nephews on the school bus. Back to UIndy he’d go for more classes and baseball practice, so Maddie came home to get the boys off the bus at 3:30 p.m. Then back to IUPUI.
At night Brendan and Maddie cook dinner, do homework with Kevin and Tristan, get them bathed and to bed. Then they do their own homework.
Brendan and Maddie are 21.
This is not the life of a college kid. Why, I ask Maddie, are you living it?
“Love,” she say. “There’s no way to say no to something like this.”
* * *
Brendan and Maddie want to make this clear: They are not doing this alone.
Brendan’s parents raised the boys for two years. Maddie’s parents help with rent, baby-sitting, rides. Maddie’s brother is the cool uncle, taking Kevin and Tristan for ice cream and video games.
There are still needs, of course. Kevin and Tristan’s mom granted custody rights to Brendan, her half-brother, but the legal work is confusing and Brendan and Maddie have inquired about a pro-bono attorney. Help has come in other forms. Camp Invention in Perry Township gave the boys a full scholarship this summer. The apartment Brendan and Maddie moved into with the boys is just outside the Perry Township school district, but Abraham Lincoln Elementary Principal Whitney Wilkowski rerouted a school bus to get them.
Teachers at UIndy, where Brendan is majoring in supply chain management, and at IUPUI — Maddie is pre-med with a double-major (biology and neuroscience) and three minors (medical sociology, French and health psychology) — understand when one of them is late to class.
Brendan’s baseball coach at UIndy, he wasn’t so forgiving. This past season Brendan left practice early, just hustled away without telling anybody, and UIndy coach Gary Vaught told assistant Al Ready to figure out why. Brendan was a valuable reserve, an All-Marion County star at Perry Meridian who has played every position but second and shortstop at UIndy. He’s also a winner off the field, going to Riley Hospital for Children with the rest of the UIndy team and lighting up each kid’s room.
But Vaught was not pleased. Leaving practice early? Vaught wanted Brendan to know: If you don’t want to be here, don’t bother coming back.
Vaught didn’t know about Kevin and Tristan, the school bus, the home
“There are no words to describe how proud I was when I found out,” says Vaught, who has won 917 games in 29 seasons at UIndy, Kansas State and Oral Roberts. “Anything in my career, none of it comes close to what he’s doing. And I told Brendan that: Son, what you’re doing is more important than any championship.”
Vaught asks me a question.
“Did Brendan tell you about his Wiffle ball league?”
Yes he did, I say.
“Did Brendan tell you about his niece, Whitley?”
“Did Brendan tell you his league has an annual fundraiser, and he donates every penny to a fund in Whitley’s name?”
He did not.
* * *
The field took shape eight years ago.
Brendan Dudas was 13, playing Wiffle ball in the yard with friends. Over time they tilled the dirt into base paths. Put in a fence, a mound, a backstop. Found an old piece of steel mesh to drag the infield.
The league started in 2014 with four teams, grew to six in 2015 and now has eight. The winning team gets its name on a recycled auto racing trophy. Two GoPro cameras are mounted on the fence, recording every pitch. Brendan puts the best clips on the league’s website.
Now Brendan is gesturing toward the league’s reigning Cy Young, rising Ball State freshman Brian Schaler. He’s telling me that Schaler struck out 100 this season — “That’s a record,” he says — when it dawns on me …
Your league has a Cy Young?
“Dude, we do it all,” Brendan says. “MVP, rookie of the year. If baseball has it, we have it.”
The word “playoffs” is spray-painted into the grass near third base. Three flags fly beyond center field: the American flag, the Indiana flag, and the Perry Meridian battle flag (“Don’t give up the ship,” it says).
Tonight about 30 young men are playing Wiffle ball in a yard near Epler Avenue and Ind. 135, and they all know Kevin and Tristan. College students from UIndy and Purdue and Ball State are doting on a fourth-grader and a second-grader, the boys are soaking it up, and Maddie’s mom is smiling.
“They have 30 uncles out here,” Jenn Harris says. “When (Kevin and Tristan) go back-to-school shopping, you should see how many of them come along.”
I look back on the field. Kevin is behind the plate, calling balls and strikes. Tristan is telling a player, Josh Hart of Purdue, about a play he made the other night in Little League. Caught a line drive near second base, tagged the runner coming from first. Double play. Hart shows him a fist. Tristan pounds it and smiles.
Now Kevin is walking away from the plate and sitting down in a huff. Play continues without an umpire. This one got ejected, apparently, for mouthing off to Brendan Dudas.
Kevin sits near a tangle of overgrown brush, a spot Brendan must have missed while mowing the grass earlier. There are still rough spots out here, but not as many. The work, a labor of love, will continue.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter: @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.
Want to help?
This story idea didn’t come from Brendan Dudas. He didn’t tell his UIndy coach; he was never telling me. Nor is he asking for help. But he and Madison Harris have needs as new guardians to two children, including legal guidance for this complicated issue. Anyone wanting to help can check out this link or contact UIndy baseball: 1400 East Hanna Ave; Indianapolis, IN, 46227. — Gregg Doyel