[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Headshot.png” caption=”SEAN PATRICK BOWLEY” align=”right” force_circle=”on”]
A year ago, Giacamo Brancato lay in a hospital bed, gaunt and weak. Chemicals coursed through his veins. He couldn’t eat because of the sores that had developed in his mouth. He could barely lift a toothpick, never mind a baseball bat.
A year later, almost to the day, Warde’s baseball team was trailing by three and was four outs away from going down quietly in the Class LL Championship game at Palmer Field.
And here came Brancato in the bottom of the sixth. He stepped to the plate against Amity ace Eli Oliphant, settled in and did what heroes do best: He faced a challenge and belted it.
High and far.
Deep to left field.
Over the wall.
For the fans at Palmer Field or watching on TV who knew Brancato’s story — how he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, in late 2014, how he had to quit basketball and baseball, how he had to put his entire life on hold and begin sickening rounds of chemotherapy and grueling physical rehabilitation — a chill must have rippled down their spines.
With a mighty blast of Brancato’s bat, Warde had just rallied from the abyss against Amity, one of the most prolific high school baseball teams of our era.
It was a heroic moment. One for the state history books. But, alas for Brancato and Warde, the inspiring, Hollywood ending never materialized. Amity closed the book on an unprecedented fourth-straight state title in, perhaps, the most uninspiring way possible: with a walk-off walk in a 4-3 victory.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) June 11, 2016
“That’s baseball,” Warde first-year coach Brett Conner said, shrugging. “What can you do?”
Too bad, too. As incredible as Amity’s accomplishment is — and it’s insane to think about anybody winning 20-consecutive, single-elimination playoff baseball games — anyone who loves a good sports story had to have been rooting hard for Warde once Brancato’s three-run home run cleared the fence.
The night before, we saw Wolcott’s Ray Bartoli win a state baseball championship with a two-run, walk-off homer.
How can you top that?
How about watching a kid, who’d been through hell and lived to take postgame questions, help his team knock off the best baseball team in the land with a dramatic, game-tying 3-run home run in the sixth inning?
It almost happened. Almost.
Brancato hit the dinger, but Warde lost the game.
“Definitely, when I hit that I thought we’d come up with the win,” Brancato said. “Unfortunately we didn’t. I wish we would have won. Everybody wishes we would have won. It’s just unfortunate. Sometimes it goes their way, sometimes it goes our way.”
Too often we get wrapped up in the roses of the winner’s circle. We forget to remember that for most teams, it’s not the destination, it’s the ride.
Despite the crushing end, Warde’s baseball players merely needed to look across the bus aisle on the ride home to know this was not the end of civilization as they knew it. Brancato was living, breathing, fighting proof.
Brancato’s cancer diagnosis came in December of 2014, right before basketball season. The Fairfield community immediately rallied around Brancato and his family. Jennifer Parsons, a family friend whose son played basketball with Brancato, started a campaign to defray medical costs. She dubbed him, “Undefeatable,” and a rallying cry was born.
He went through six chemotherapy treatments in 2015 and eventually had to leave the basketball team later that season. He missed the entire baseball season. But he never stopped fighting, he never stopped working to keep his body in the best shape possible even as the chemo stripped away nearly 30 pounds.
“It’s not fun going through that,” Brancato said. “But my family was just so supportive and as well as my teammates and everyone else. [Playing sports again] was definitely on my mind. I love basketball and baseball. I just wanted to get healthy.”
Last June, right around state baseball championship time, Brancato was back in the hospital with sores in his mouth, unable to eat, sipping protein drinks through a straw. It was just about as low as a kid could get.
“It was hard to see honestly, really hard to see,” Warde pitcher and friend Reese Maniscalco said. “But I’ve been playing with him since we were 10-years old. I knew he’d fight back.”
By late June 2015, Brancato’s mother, Mirella, announced that his cancer was in remission. Soon after, doctors told him he could start easing back into athletics. Around the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis, he was ready to roll.
He was a first-team All-FCIAC basketball player last winter. But Brancato says it took almost the entire spring season to get back to 100 percent as a baseball player. “He was a little rusty,” Conner said. “But you stick with the process and he’s the kind of guy where, if we end practice at 5 he’s there ’til 6 getting extra batting practice in. He’s always working. He’s a tough kid who loves the game.”
If there’s anything that could remotely compare to Brancato’s year-long rally against cancer, his home run to tie Amity in the top of the sixth inning in the Class LL state championship game was about as close as you can get.
There really is no comparison. For him, this was a cinch.
“Everything that he’s been through has made him the strongest individual in this ballpark,” Conner said. “A moment like that’s not too big for him. So, I’m not surprised he capitalized and made a moment like that happen.”
And what a moment it was.
He turned on a 3-1 pitch and drove the ball about 360 feet over the fence. The Fairfield side of Palmer Field erupted. His teammates mobbed him and he roared as he crossed home plate.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Brancato, adding that he remains cancer free. “I look back and, to think at this point last year I was in the hospital and I couldn’t really eat or anything…”
Warde, like Brancato against cancer, had come back from the brink. Life had imitated life.
“He’s inspirational, for sure,” Maniscalco said. “For him to come back, after all the terrible, terrible things he had to go through for a year, for him to be here as strong as anyone else, is just incredible.
“If there’s anyone who was going to hit the game-tying home run in the state championship, it was Giacamo. It was a great moment.”
Brancato didn’t win Warde the Class LL championship. But he was, and remains, a champion.