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Monday, December 30, 2013

Tragedy visits a young ballplayer

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – No one anticipates tragedy, especially when it is so completely heinous and random. No one contemplates how they will deal with it. No one expects it anymore than anyone willingly accepts it.

 In the world as we know it, tragedy often happens with unmerciful suddenness and those most directly affected by it simply try to carry on the best they can.

The methods used to come to grips with tragedy are as varied as the tragedies themselves. Some families grow closer after a life-changing, tragic event, others grow more distant. Solace can often be found at a church, at support groups or within a strong, caring community. And for some, it can be found at a ballpark, the cathedral of baseball.

It is on the ball fields of South Florida that young right-handed pitcher Scott Simpson has found his refuge. Known to most of his family and friends as Scotty, and to many of his teammates on the TigerTown Tigers as Beamer – a nickname acquired from the old Star Trek television series when the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty” became part of the popular lexicon – he decided to bury his grief in the green grass of a baseball field.

“Baseball was the one thing that got my mind off of everything from the very beginning,” 16-year-old Scott Simpson from Vero Beach, Fla., told Perfect Game last weekend while attending the PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event.

“It was like such a very big shock but I didn’t want to start thinking about it,” he continued. “The very first week I just decided I needed to be involved in baseball … and baseball really helped keep my mind off of everything.”

Everything, in then-14-year-old Scotty Simpson’s world in November, 2011, was about as overwhelming as it possibly could have been.

ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 17, 2011, TRAGEDY STRUCK THE SIMPSON FAMILY of Vero Beach, Fla. Husband and father Brian Simpson was at home alone while Scott attended a Little League all-star game at a field a few blocks away, and wife and mother Kristen was at daughter Samantha’s school choral concert several miles away.

Back at home, Brian confronted a pair of burglars, one of which was armed with a handgun. The assailant fired shots at Brian Simpson, leaving him dead on a bedroom floor. A neighbor called 911 after hearing those shots and soon emergency vehicles were on the scene while a police helicopter hovered overhead.

Scott Simpson, who had been trying to reach his father to get a ride home from the ball field, saw the helicopter over his neighborhood and rushed home. Kristen and Samantha arrived soon after. The grief the family felt upon hearing the devastating news was both immediate and numbing, and now more than two years after that tragic night, they continue to try to find a sense of understanding.

Two suspects were arrested five days after the deadly incident and charged with burglary and first-degree murder. They are jailed but still awaiting trial.

SCOTT SIMPSON IS A 6-FOOT, 190-POUND RIGHT-HANDER AND CATCHER and a sophomore at St. Edwards School in Vero Beach. Perfect Game lists him as a prospect worth following in the class of 2016, and this past weekend’s PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event is the third PG event he’s attended. He previously played in the 2012 14u PG BCS Finals with World of Baseball and got his first taste of showcase action at the PG Sunshine East Showcase right here in Fort Myers last June.

“This is his number-one Christmas present,” Scott’s mom, Kristen, told PG Saturday afternoon. “On Christmas Eve I wanted to go buy him something to wrap up, but this is all he wanted. This is what he wants; this is what he lives for.”

Garrick Case, the head coach for the Lakeland, Fla.-based TigerTown Tigers for whom Scotty plays, backed up Kristen’s words.

“His mom just told me that she wants this to be the best day of his life,” Case told PG. “He’s been so looking forward to this, and I tear-up just thinking about it. If that was my son, I would want somebody looking out for him.”

The PG scouting report from the Sunshine East noted that Simpson “has good upside” and is a “young player that flashes tools” and a “good student.” Scotty said that experience in June helped him as he entered this weekend.

 “I come in with some confidence,” he said. “Last (June) I pitched pretty well and I’ve never really had that kind of nervousness. My dad always told me to have some kind of confidence going in there, and you shouldn’t go in there thinking that you’re going to be bad. And (Saturday) I came in more confident with my hitting, even though I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hit or not. But I came in and I was ready to hit.”

Scott Simpson got hooked up with the TigerTown Tigers after Case and others within the organization learned of the tragedy surrounding the Simpson family and decided they might be able to offer Scott an even larger, extended family.

“When we heard about it, we reached out (to Kristen) and asked, ‘Would he be happy and would he like to come to TigerTown?’ and she said, ‘Ah, he would love it,’” Case said. “So that’s how it started, and it’s been two years and it’s like a family. His mom said it’s been the greatest thing for him because after what he went through, it’s a family. We don’t have tryouts. We only have good kids and good parents.”

It’s been an excellent fit.

“The guys on this team make me better; it’s like a family that drives you,” Scott said. “I first played against the Tigers two or three years ago with another travel team … and I thought maybe I was somewhat good in baseball. Then I came here and all these kids were way better, but they gave me a chance to come to practice with them and within a month or two I was already at their level. This has opened up some doors and opportunities for me, like colleges being in the picture for baseball.”

EVER SINCE THAT TRAGIC NIGHT IN NOVEMBER, 2011, THE COMMUNITY of Vero Beach has rallied behind Kristen, Samantha and Scott Simpson, offering support that really started in January, 2012, with what has become known as “The Never Ending Game”.

According to a Jan. 15, 2012, published report on, friends and strangers alike helped organize a baseball game where young players ages 13 through 17 donated $15 apiece and were allowed to play for three innings. The game began at 10 a.m. that Sunday and concluded at 5:15 p.m. after 15 fun-filled innings.

Former major league pitcher Ron Perranoski, who lives in Vero Beach, was there from the outset to sign autographs in exchange for donations. He was later joined by Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb (both Perfect Game alumni).

“Once they told me about this event, I made it a priority to come by and help,” Cobb told

Cobb, the Rays excellent right-hander and a graduate of Vero Beach High School, gave Scotty the game ball and his game jersey from his first win in the major leagues, and has continued to stay in touch with the youngster.

Beyond the “Never Ending Game,” small, often anonymous groups and individuals within the community held separate fund-raisers to benefit the family. Food appeared on the family’s front porch – the Simpsons began calling it the “magic cooler” – donated by townspeople looking to lend a helping hand.

“It’s like I have just one giant family; it’s insane,” Scott Simpson said. “Some lady even wrote a check for 10 dollars because that was all she had, but she wanted to help out. There’s always something there that amazes me.”

The Simpsons were not yet out of the woods, however. Word got out through the local media that Kristen Simpson, a physical education teacher at Treasure Coast Elementary School, was in danger of losing the family’s home because she was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments. She had already held an estate sale in anticipation of a pending move.

But the community again rallied behind the family. Friends and strangers alike went on a fund-raising binge and produced nearly $220,000 to help Kristen pay off the debt so the family could keep the house.

“You hear all these bad stories and we need to hear good stories that make people want to do good things. Everybody’s been helping out (and) it makes me want to move to Vero Beach,” TigerTown’s Case said.

 “When it really happened it was such a big thing,” Kristen told PG. “Just the hope of it was just amazing and uplifting to me, but it was like winning the lottery in some ways. You take the best in the world and the reasons why (it happened) are the worst, it’s just not normal.

“… My son and my daughter are rocks. They’re just big rocks,” she said. “It’s that piece in your heart. If your kids are OK, then everybody’s OK.”

SCOTTY SIMPSON – “BEAMER” TO HIS TEAMMATES – CONTINUES TO STAY CONNECTED to his dad through baseball. His mother tells how he writes words like “Brian Simpson, always remembered and always in our hearts” on his batting helmet. She says Scotty often stashes Brian’s drivers’ license in his sock in an effort to keep his dad’s presence with him at all times.

There will always be baseball between father and son.

 “(Scott) wrote a paper his freshman year about how (baseball) kept him alive,” Kristen said. “It was where he put his head and he just wanted to go play baseball. … This has been his savior and it keeps him going. Everything he writes about, everything he lives for, he just wants to play baseball. It’s his little piece of heaven.”

With three more years of high school baseball and two more summers and falls of PG ball ahead of him, Scotty Simpson has a lot to look forward to. If he continues to work and improve, baseball at some rung on the “next level” will also become a very real possibility.

But coming of age without your father and your best friend by your side can make it difficult for a young man to look into the future, and who is to say there should any big rush to do so in the first place.

“I really hope to look forward but I still have those memories to look back on,” Scott Simpson said with a pensive look crossing his face. “I always think about what would be different, but I just don’t know. There are a lot of things going through the head.”

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