Each fall, we say goodbye, at Diamond Nation, to our senior class of ball players who move on to their last season of high school baseball in the spring and then college. Some have played here for a few years, others as many as seven or eight.
Jimmy Mulvaney reminds me he first took swings as a five year old in the Patriot League back in 2010.
Indeed, all make an impact in their own right. None, though, match the impact made by a young man named Austin Nace. Austin came to Diamond Nation as an 11 year old, invited by his friend Mulvaney. They had met in Mrs. Buelow’s second grade class at Three Bridges Elementary School.
“I could see Austin was different that first day of school,” remembers Mulvaney, a righty side-armer at St. Joseph in Metuchen and committed to Fairfield University. “I tried to help. I was making jokes, getting him to laugh.” That initial innocent friendliness by a seven year-old would blossom into a deep kinship that would, in turn, have a profound effect on so many others.
Nace has battled since birth a genetic disease called Mucopolysaccharidosis, or MPS. In Austin’s case it is MPS Type 1-Hurler’s Syndrome, the most aggressive form of the disease.
Austin has undergone an assortment of surgeries, had 485 intravenous infusions by the time he was 10, goes to physical therapy three times a week and speech and occupational therapy twice a week. A senior now at Hunterdon Central, Nace is confined to a wheelchair to get around and has obvious difficulties with speech and comprehension. But, somehow, he defies all odds. The average life expectancy for an MPS patient is 10 years. Nace is 17. His challenges include dwarfism, heart damage, progressive brain damage, among other afflictions that cause daily discomforts.
Yet, Austin continues to shine light on those around him.
Early in the spring season in 2016, Mulvaney approached his coach, Mike Buckelew, now Diamond Nation’s Director of Baseball Programs, to see if he could have Austin join his Super 11U team.
“It’s amazing,” Jimmy’s dad, Brian Mulvaney said back then. “When we brought Austin’s story to ‘Buck’ he just brought it to another level we never expected. It’s been unbelievable.” Buckelew, by the way, also teaches fourth grade in New Brunswick.
Nace quickly became an integral part of the Super 11U team and a familiar smiling face around the Flemington facility.
Jen Nace, Austin’s mom, spoke during a moving tribute Wednesday night prior to a game pitting the Diamond Jacks Super 18U and Gold 18U teams in the fall Scout League. Austin’s No. 61 jersey was retired during a pre-game ceremony. He received that jersey back in 2016 when Buckelew made him an official member of the Super 11U team.
“Austin is the first Diamond Jack to have his number retired,” said Buckelew. “Not even Jack, Kevin or Mike Cust has had his numbers retired here.”
Jen Nace addressed Mulvaney directly in her words. “When this started, Austin could stand in the dugout with you and walk onto the field for team photos. He even tossed a few balls to you in the bullpen. That has all changed, and there is much he can no longer do. But, to this day, he gets excited when we pull out the jersey and tell him, it’s baseball time.”
Along the way, Austin cheered, rooted and laughed along with his teammates, enjoying the game, the natural friendships that occur organically among teammates and, by the way, earned a record-setting number of Most Valuable Player trophies for the inspiration he provided his teammates.
“I think I have four or five MVP trophies in my office and there must be eight or nine laying around the house,” said Ryan Nace, Austin’s dad.
Each player on the two 18U Diamond Jacks teams wore a Diamond Jack tee-shirt with Nace’s name and the number 61 on the back and the MPS Society logo on their sleeves. The Gold 18U team won, 8-0, as a glowing Austin watched his teammates take some of their final swings.
“Anytime Austin shows up you can see everyone’s energy rise,” said Noah Baird, a Diamond Jack since he was 10 and a teammate of Nace’s since that Super 11U squad. “Austin makes you love what you’re doing. You want to make him smile.”
As the Super 11U team grew in age and talent, and new players joined the program, Nace remained the focal point, the energizer bunny, the impetus. More telling, he was a vital part of a baseball family.
“These guys,” Mulvaney said as he pointed into the Super 18U dugout, “are my brothers. We build family here, especially with our coaches. Austin has helped bring us all together. He’ll have a long day of school and we know he struggles with things. Then he comes in here smiling. We all admire him. He lightens the mood and inspires us.”
In a sense, Mulvaney was calling Austin the glue to the team.
The “Austin impact” is seen everywhere and in the faces of his current and former teammates. Ryan Jaros, an All-State third baseman at Cranford, and Griffin Mills, an outstanding shortstop at Delbarton, left the Diamond Jacks program but returned to honor their former teammate on his big night.
“Austin has meant so much to me, and it’s a fact that he’s impacted my life,” said Jaros, committed to Georgia Tech. “I’m looking forward to our annual Halloween party with Austin in a couple weeks.”
Mills, bound for Northwestern, says, “It’s more than just baseball. It’s about the joy Austin spreads and his friendship. It reinforces for us not to take anything for granted. It is the little things in life that are most important.”
Walt Cleary coached this same group of players, with Austin as their inspirational leader, at the 12U and 14U levels. “Austin arrives and immediately changes everyone’s day,” says Cleary. “He’s part of our culture and means the world to us. I had a great two years with him. And the Nace family is phenomenal.”
Jen Nace touched the many hearts in the crowd deeply, many of which have become her, Ryan’s and Austin’s closest friends, when she said, “People stare. Everywhere we go, people stare. And, really, here was no different. However, here when they stared they saw the jersey. The hat. They saw Austin was a DJack. Elite. Insider. Accepted. And they were kinder. Young ball players nodded. Parents smiled instead of looking away. Siblings weren’t scared.
“You gave Austin something we never could have. You gave him his safe place, where he could come to seek joy, because joy matters. There was nothing in it for you, just your kindness and support. And we are so grateful.”
Mulvaney calls Jen and Ryan Nace, “Two of the most positive people I know. It’s hard to put into words.”
Ryan Nace calls these final days of the Diamond Jacks experience for Austin and his teammates, “bittersweet.” But it is also a natural progression in friendships between teammates, classmates. We move on. We go our separate ways, but we are always friends, forever.
“The Diamond Jacks have enabled Austin to be part of a world he would have never been a part of,” said Ryan. “All of a sudden you are adopted as normal. You feel loved. I remember rolling up to a 14U Perfect Game tournament in Vineland and all his teammates starting yelling to him.
“We are coming up on our last weekend with the Diamond Jacks. That rhythm that has been there for seven years will be no longer.”
Mulvaney feels the tug of college and the pending loss, a bit too.
“We’ve been talking about college,” he said. “When I switched schools – from Hunterdon Central to St. Joes – a couple years ago that was tough. And this is going to be sad. We won’t see each other much but we’ll catch up and see each other when we can.” Because that’s what friends do.
Meanwhile, Nace’s framed uniform shirt will hang in Diamond Nation’s baseball office, forever a part of the Diamond Jacks family, just like Austin.
Through this amazing seven-year journey with the Diamond Jacks, Jimmy Mulvaney truly is the unique and giving person who made this all happen. It was Jimmy who held the door open for Austin.
As Jen Nace tells it, “I have heard that a kid like Austin makes people better, but I don’t buy that. There is something remarkable already in you, Jimmy. The day you decided to look out for Austin all those years ago in elementary school, it was there. When you decided to stay connected, even when it was hard, it was there.
“Your connection to Austin gave you a unique opportunity to use what was already there. And you chose to. You risked it. And that made all the difference. It’s why we are all here (tonight). And it’s why you will always, no matter what or where, be with us in our hearts.”