The Johnny Bench Tournament is one of the many baseball tournaments taking place around the state this summer.
But it’s not like any other.
Not because of its namesake. Not because of its history. No, the three-day tournament that starts Monday is special because of a relationship forged between a pro ball player and a kid with brain cancer, a friendship that defied age and sickness and even death.
It started back in September 2008.
Reggie Willits was an outfielder with the Angels, a Fort Cobb product living his baseball dream but staying rooted in Caddo County. His family and his wife’s family were there. His offseason home was there. So when he heard about a boy from nearby Hinton doing a Make-A-Wish trip to the Angels-Rangers game, Willits wanted to meet him.
Caleb Spady seemed a bit shy as Willits took him around the clubhouse that day, but Willits really liked the 10-year-old.
“I honestly thought that was probably the end of it,” Willits said.
A few weeks later, Willits was talking to his mom. A story she’d seen about Caleb explained that he had diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, meaning the cancer was sprinkled throughout his brain. Surgery wasn’t an option, and radiation treatments left him with blisters, some the size of oranges.
Still, Caleb kept trying to play ball.
As soon as Willits’ season was over, he called Caleb’s family — would they come for dinner and maybe some fun in his indoor batting cage?
Soon, the two families were gathered around Willits’ table. That night, Caleb explained how he endured the pain and the fear.
“I feel like God is in control,” he said. “He has a plan for my life.”
In that moment, Willits realized that while he thought he’d been helping Caleb, it was actually the other way around.
“He made a bigger impact in my life than I could’ve ever made in his,” Willits said. “He just showed me how to really live that Christian life, to really show that love of Christ and that peace and joy that can only come from that relationship.
“From then on out ... I considered him a good friend.”
The next spring as Caleb took a turn for the worse, Willits wrote his friend’s name on his hat before a nationally televised game. Angels manager Mike Scioscia warned Willits that he’d probably be fined — and he was — but when Willits explained, Scioscia paid the fine.
Caleb died a few days later.
In the years that have followed, the two families have stayed close. When Willits left pro ball, took the head coaching job at Binger-Oney High School and vowed to revive the storied program, the Spadys pulled for him as if he were coaching their boys in Hinton.
During the spring of 2013, Willits called. He was restarting the Johnny Bench Tournament, which had been a summer mainstay for all ages in that area until the high school program took a tumble, but he wanted to play it in Caleb’s memory.
The Spadys were thrilled; the last time Caleb had really played was in the Johnny Bench Tournament. His dad, Ken, had coached the team, and Caleb and the boys had won the tournament.
“We believe this is even better than just having a tournament named after Caleb,” his mother, Kim, said. “To have this tournament that is so special to our family and such an important piece of baseball history in our area played in his memory is an amazing gift and honor.”
Money will be raised for DIPG research — Caleb asked that the cancer in his brain be donated even as he fought to beat it — and every team that plays in the tournament receives gold ribbons, a symbol of DIPG awareness. They are also told about Caleb.
Willits makes sure of that.
“I’m wanting to get the great teams in here. I’m wanting people to see great baseball,” he said. “But the biggest part of this tournament is … going to be that story of Caleb and how he lived his life.
“Caleb made a huge impact in my life. I’m not just going to let that go away.”