The hallway entrance doors opened, providing Jeff LaMonte first glimpse of the gathering ready to embrace him on the field at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
As he was slowly guided in a wheelchair down the dugout ramp, joyful surprise enveloped his face.
Standing near home plate were friends and relatives. Some traveled from far away. Former players from decades ago, now with their own families, had their gloves and bats ready to play ball.
All stood anxious Nov. 28 to greet the beloved youth baseball coach, who impacted so many lives for decades in the Pace Athletic and Recreation Association, commonly known as PARA.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been here,” said LaMonte, who is battling a terminal illness. “I always wanted to come to a game, but just could never get here.”
Now he was here on this day, thanks to Covenant Care in Pensacola.
The organization’s “My Wish” program made it happen. In this case, it was a wish for baseball. For several hours, LaMonte was positioned behind the batting cage, his brother by his side, watching kids, then adults play in sandlot style games.
Each inning, former players he coached would exchange greetings. Among LaMonte’s family and long-time friends, eyes welled. Emotion flowed.
They wore powder blue T-shirts with an inspirational message on the front and #TeamJeff on the back.
“This is amazing, it is magical,” said Christie Parker, Covenant Care senior director of development. “It is our goal for every patient to have a wish like this. Something that is meaningful for them and also their entire family and their friends.
“So, it means the world to us to be able to experience this with them and it’s because of the Blue Wahoos that we were able to bring it all together and make it happen.”
LaMonte’s life is filled with memories of coaching Tee-Ball players who became high school players. Travel Ball players who became college players.
Four of his prodigies are a group including Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson, former Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher P.J. Walters and infielder Drew Cumberland, former first round pick by the San Diego Padres.
They all went from PARA to professional baseball.
“I really want to show my gratitude and say thank you for everything you’ve done, not only for me, but everyone in the community,” said Russell, in a video tribute shown on the stadium video board during the My Wish event.
The poignant experience this day was part of Covenant Care’s fast-expanding My Wish program. It started three years ago with approximately 80. Before this year ends, Parker said there will have been 450 or so My Wish experiences in 12 months.
Each one is different, powerful in its own way. The one with LaMonte was large-scale, open for anyone in the Pace community -- touched in some way by LaMonte -- to come to Blue Wahoos Stadium and show their support.
“This is My Wish in its best form,” said Angela Bottesini, senior director of My Wish and Patient Family Experience for Covenant Care. “This was (LaMonte’s) dream that he knew would never happen. And when we found that out… to be able to bring it to fruition this good is just wonderful.”
Covenant Care is one of the Blue Wahoos’ company partners. Both dugouts at the stadium have Covenant Care sponsorship signs.
When Bottesini contacted Blue Wahoos president Jonathan Griffith about the stadium availability on Nov. 28 and the possibility of using the stadium in this way, he immediately gave approval.
LaMonte grew up in Albany, Ga, before moving to Pace. He got started in PARA when his stepson became old enough to play youth baseball. He continued coaching and mentoring hundreds of kids through the program.
It made a My Wish day at Blue Wahoos Stadium with men he coached as kids even more impactful.
“The program itself was the brainchild, the heart baby of our CEO Jeff Mislevy,” Bottesini said. “He said we need to be part of this community in a way that we have never done before. That’s how this developed.
“In five years, our goal will be to have done 10,000 wishes.”
Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer, who attended the My Wish experience for LaMonte, has been a long-time supporter of Covenant Care’s mission.
In a season without baseball, the Blue Wahoos have been able to connect with the community in hosting a variety of events that would not be possible without the expansive space of the ballpark.
Studer has also donated the Blue Wahoos’ Airbnb clubhouse experience for selected dates for Covenant Care’s Camp Connect program, designed to provide a special moment for children ages 6-17, who lost a loved one.
“We are so fortunate in Northwest Florida to have Covenant Health,” Studer said. “They make wishes come true. “That’s what they did (Nov. 28) for Team Jeff, so ballplayers could come out and thank him for decades of coaching and his impact in the community.
“We are fortunate the Blue Wahoos and Blue Wahoos can be part of making a difference in our community just as Covenant Health does.”
One of those ways the team made a difference occurred on Aug. 23, 2019 when the Blue Wahoos hosted an equally special My Wish moment for 96-year-old Albert Lane, a World War II, U.S. Army fighter pilot.
Mr. Lane flew over the stadium during a Blue Wahoos game with aid of another pilot in a vintage military plane from that era. It was days before Mr. Lane’s next birthday. He passed away months later.
“Before he died he wanted to do a fly over,” Bottesini said. “As he was passing, he held the social worker’s hand and said that was the finest point in his life.
“So that tells you how big of an effect this stadium has made on Covenant Care and the patients we serve.”