Lee Melymick has thrown many pitches but never one this inspiring.
Little more than a year since sustaining a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Melymick was back at Talbot Park, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of a Greater Toronto-Leaside Junior League baseball game between his Leaside Leafs and the Oshawa Legionaires.
“It was pretty special,” the 21-year-old said after capping the pre-game ceremony by steering his wheelchair to the mound and firing a strike on the outside corner to cheers from dozens of fans.
“It meant a lot that my team cared so much to do this.”
Lee Melymick Night at Leaside Baseball was just the latest example of the team – and community – supporting their teammate. A group of friends had the military expression “Leave No Man Behind” emblazoned on t-shirts. There were also scores of cards and letters sent to Lee to offer encouragement and inspiration.
At the start of this baseball season, the players had “LM” stitched onto the arms of their jerseys in tribute to Lee. Then came the idea of having him come and throw out a ceremonial first pitch before one of their games, which grew into an evening complete with special gifts to Lee, speeches, a raffle and a donation from the Leaside Baseball Camp to the “Stand By Lee” fund to help pay for ongoing expenses, such as a specialized vehicle, possible out-of-country stem cell surgery, and research.
While working a summer job cleaning windows and eaves to help pay for engineering studies at Ryerson University, Melymick fell more than 20 feet and severed his spinal cord on June 23, 2015. He endured three surgeries, suffered infections and other complications, and lost more than 70 pounds from his 6-foot-4, 210 lb. frame.
“What Lee has gone through and what the family has gone through, I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” his older brother, Luke Melymick, 24, told the crowd at Talbot Park. “But what the Leaside organization has done for Lee…has helped him through the whole process.
“And, I would like to thank every single person here today for showing love and support.”
Leafs Assistant Coach Howard Binstock isn’t surprised by the response Melymick has received.
“This is not just a team, but a family,” Binstock said. “This has been a total life lesson for these young men with their future ahead of them, understanding that in a moment their whole life can change.”
Nigel Eyton, 20, a teammate of Melymick’s for two seasons, said the accident “came as a huge shock out of nowhere.” But to see him back at the ballpark, smiling and joking with the guys was “thrilling.”
“It’s great to see him on the up,” Eyton said. “It takes a tremendous amount of willpower and strength to do what he’s done to get to the stage he’s at now. It’s heart-warming.”
A former high school baseball, basketball and football player, Melymick, who has completed two years in chemical engineering at Ryerson, has used sports as a key part of his rehabilitation. He’s on the Ontario junior men’s wheelchair basketball team and recently tried out for Team Canada.
“The reconnection with sports has been very important to me,” Melymick said. “It’s opened doors and given me a team atmosphere, which is great for my mental and physical well-being.”
And, he said, that’s what was so special about returning to the ballpark with the Leaside Leafs.
“It’s about being part of a team, belonging to something, not just playing the game but being part of the community. And, even though I’m not playing anymore, it reinforces my love of the game.”
Donations can be made at: www.gofundme.com/standbylee