Ligonier Wiffle Ball tourney raises thousands for diabetes research
Joe Ladisic knew he had to be in Ligonier on Saturday to pay tribute to his wife, Rachael, who died in May after a lifetime battle with Type 1 diabetes.
With his wife’s name emblazoned on his chest, Ladisic, 35, of Greensburg threw the first pitch in a fundraising effort started as a lark a dozen years ago among a handful of friends and has grown into a major, daylong event that mixes a Wiffle Ball competition and donations toward finding a cure for the disease.
“It is important to be here to fund that cause,” Ladisic said.
Sixteen teams and about 160 players participated in the 12th annual Wiffle Ball Bonanza, an event that has now raised more than $100,000 for research and to fund a program that ensures adolescents with Type 1 diabetes have proper medical identification.
Ladisic and his family donated $10,000 this year in memory of his wife, who died at 31.
“I just wanted to do something where I could provide something that will keep growing,” Ladisic said.
An Army captain based in Mt. Pleasant, Ladisic returned to the tournament Saturday for the first time since its inaugural event when he was one of 12 friends who gathered to play Wiffle Ball in 2007.
Event organizer Zach Freeman, 28, said more than $33,000 has been raised so far for this year’s tournament.
Four-inning games started shortly after 8 a.m., and a champion was crowned under the lights well into the evening.
Games feature teams of six players and use traditional baseball rules — three outs per side, walks, strikeouts and base runners.
Playoff seedings are based on a home run derby held at the completion of afternoon play. The top playoff seed is not based on on-field results but rather which group raised the most money.
It’s an event created by then 16-year-old Freeman — himself diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes — who at first wanted nothing more than to play Wiffle Ball with his friends.
“I looked out at my neighbor’s yard and realized we could play ball over there. So, I invited my friends over and 11 showed up. Next year we had six teams,” Freeman said. “About four years into it, my parents put out a bucket and raised $700.”
Freeman decided those donations should be earmarked toward finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes and the money raised has increased each year. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh came on as a sponsor in 2015.
“Our goal is that 50% of the money raised goes to finding a cure and for research at Children’s Hospital and 50% goes to support with people with the disease,” Freeman said.
Type 1 diabetes is commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes but affects both children and adults. It is an autoimmune disease that halts a person’s ability to produce insulin. According to the JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, more than 1.25 million Americans are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, including about 200,000 under the age of 20.
Freeman was diagnosed with the disease as a child and continues to deal with its effects every hour of every day.
In addition to organizing the event, Freeman also is a player. His team, Becks Run Rebels, won last year’s championship.
Games are played on two fields, one built as a small-scale replica of Forbes Field, the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, complete with a outfield wall and scoreboard.
Freeman grew up about a block from where the fields are erected for the Wiffle Ball tournament on property owned by neighbors Gary and Beth Stiles. Gary Stiles said he happily donates his yard on Knox Street, which is nestled right in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Ligonier Borough.
“It’s just an empty lot the rest of the year,” Stiles said.
But for one day a year, the lot is ball fields that host Wiffle Ball games, hundreds of spectators, food booths and merchandise sales all to raise money to help find a cure for Type 1 diabetes.
Gary Ingelido traveled from his home in Upper St. Clair to sit with friends and watch the games.
“My buddies come every year,” Ingelido said. “Maybe we’ll play next year and we’ll win it all.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .