By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Question: how many 7-year-olds get to throw out the first pitch at a hometown high school baseball game, then field questions from local media members in the dugout? Answer: well, at least one in South Jersey.
Frankie LaSasso has become a bit of a star in recent months — albeit for a reason he and his family wish never happened. The athletic second-grader who is constantly sporting either an Ocean City or Hammonton ball cap is an easy kid to love and root for — and maybe that’s why these two communities, and many others across the region, have gone “all-in” when it comes to helping the LaSasso family.
Frankie’s dad, Frank LaSasso IV, is a Hammonton High graduate who is now a teacher and assistant football and baseball coach in the Ocean City district. Last fall, young Frankie was suffering from a persistent cough during his season with the Hammonton Hawks youth football team and so Frank and his wife, Tiffany — a radiology supervisor at AtlantiCare — decided to take their son to the emergency room. He was then transported to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Frank and Tiffany got the news every parent dreads. Their son had leukemia.
He was officially diagnosed in December with T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia and has been on chemotherapy treatments since then, and will be for at least the next two years.
“He had a lingering cough for a little while in October and November. We noticed he was lethargic, had a lack of appetite, and then we noticed some lymph nodes and bruising on his arms — and he couldn’t explain how he got those bruises. So we got a script for blood work and we got multiple Covid tests. We were thinking maybe it was mononucleosis or anemia, but then he ran a fever a couple days after we got the blood work. We took him over to AtlantiCare Urgent Care, he was negative for Covid and negative for strep throat, so they sent us to Virtua in Voorhees, where they have a little CHOP ER in there. Within minutes of being there, and drawing blood, they knew it was some form of leukemia,” Frank said. “They did a chest x-ray then immediately transported us to CHOP. We got there and it was just overwhelming. They got him into a room and then it was a flood of doctors and nurses.
“The first 24 hours were the hardest because we knew he had leukemia but we didn’t know what type, what strand. You can’t help but get on your phone and go to Google — which is the worst thing you can do,” he added. “Within 24 hours they had his diagnosis, they had a roadmap for what his treatment plan was going to look like, and they gave us some reassurance that what he has is not the most uncommon type of leukemia. That was comforting to see how confident they were in the plan they had in place for him.”
“The chemo takes a toll,” Tiffany said. “There are days when he gets three different kinds of chemo, some days he has two hours worth of chemo. It’s a lot on him. Sometimes he has to do at-home injections, pills.”
Yet through it all, Frankie has been the same rambunctious kid he’s always been, wrestling around with his 6-year-old brother, Gio, and playing any and all sports such as football, basketball and baseball. Although football and basketball are on the shelf right now as far as full-on competition, but he can still play baseball. Frank said his son has to avoid any kind of contact sport for the time being, so baseball will be the focus for the next year or so.
To that end, the little lefty’s throwing arm is in good shape. He threw a strike when throwing out the first pitch of the inaugural “Fight Like Frankie Showcase” event at Hammonton Lake Park in late May. It was simultaneous baseball and softball games featuring Hammonton vs. Ocean City. The Ocean City softball team scored a victory, while Hammonton’s baseball team got a win over a Red Raiders squad that went on to win a state championship. The idea is to keep this showcase going every year to not only raise money to help the LaSasso family, but other families dealing with childhood cancer.
“He’s very active to begin with. He plays football for the Hammonton Hawks, basketball for the Hammonton Bulldogs, he plays baseball for Hammonton Little League. He’s an active kid at heart and he’s remained pretty active. A couple days after he got home from the hospital he was dribbling a basketball, doing body squats, kicking the kickboxing bag we have at home,” Frank said. “We’re just all trying to be as normal as we can be. The first couple of days I went back to work (in March) I was wondering what was going on. You’re home every day for four months then flip a switch and you’re gone for eight hours at a time — it was stressful. But he called a lot (while I was at work) and my wife would send pictures to assure me that everything was fine.”
Coach LaSasso said he and his family have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from both communities. Both towns and school communities have been trying to find ways to raise money, including from the sale of apparel with #fightlikefrankie screen printed on.
“The game was put together by both athletic directors before I even knew about it. Marni Parks, the athletic director at Hammonton, was my gym teacher when I was in high school, and she’s one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. She’s sent jerseys, gifts, games to the house ever since he got diagnosed. Both communities, really, have been wonderful,” he said. “My wife and I both graduated from Hammonton High School and when I got a job in Ocean City, I had no real connection to that community. But I got that job right out of college. People wondered how long it would be until I came back to teach or coach in Hammonton, but we’ve had a ton of success in baseball since 2010, and with football it has been such a process to build the program to where it is now. It was already a family atmosphere with me and Ocean City — it’s become a second home — and with everything that has happened, the support from Ocean City has been overwhelming. The school district has been understanding with everything I’ve been going through, the families of players I’ve coached in the past have reached out and sent gifts. I’ve had past players bring over PlayStation games for Christmas. And Hammonton is Hammonton — I don’t work or coach here but it still feels like I’m active in the high school. I’m close with Jim Raso, I’m close with Gregg Silvesti, my dad has coached baseball and softball. And just being the tight-knit community it is, the support here has been just as impressive as Ocean City.”
It will be a long road ahead for young Frankie, but his mother said he is very involved in his treatment plan. In fact, he’s his own best consultant when dealing with doctors at CHOP.
“When we go to the doctor they hand him the paperwork right away and he knows what numbers are important, he looks over the sheets and memorizes them. He knows the names of every medication he takes,” Tiffany said. “He’s very involved and always has good questions for the doctors. He asks about every cancer in general. We’ll be at home and he might hear a news story about somebody who has brain cancer and he’ll ask us about that. He’ll ask doctors about that. He wants to know everything. He’s not scared to be involved.”
“I don’t know that he knows the magnitude of what the possibilities could have been had we not caught this as early as we did. But he certainly knows everything that goes on in that doctor’s office,” Frank added. “He knows what it means for his hemoglobin to be low; he knows what it means for his ANC counts — he’s really on top of all his medications. He’s just as good at reminding us when he has to take medicine as we are of reminding him. He’s very responsible, beyond his years, with how he’s handling everything.”
That day throwing out the first pitch was extra special for Frank because the Hammonton Lake Park field is named after his grandfather, Frank LaSasso Jr., who passed away in November, just a few weeks before Frankie was diagnosed. It was a happy moment and a brief respite from the worry and strife that has filled the lives of the LaSasso family since last winter. Frank and Tiffany both said they have a new perspective on what is important in life, and they try to have as many good days as possible, focusing on the here and now.
“The first month we were living, literally, from one hour to the next. Then it was living day to day, now we’re just living a week at a time. We have no idea what next week is going to look like. We can’t plan for anything because everything can change at the drop of a hat,” Frank said. “Our expectation is that he’ll be back in school full time in the fall. There won’t be any football for him and maybe not basketball because he has a port in his chest and he can’t have any kind of contact in the chest area, so it might just be baseball for the next two years.”
“Most of the time, when people look at him, they don’t even know he’s sick. He doesn’t act like he is,” Tiffany said. “He’s active and it’s hard to keep him down, but that’s what keeps us going. When he has good days, that gives us good days. This has changed our whole perspective on life.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Ocean City, Hammonton communities continue to fight for young Frankie LaSasso
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN