by Patrick Ferlise, Winston-Salem Journal - Swinging a glimmering green bat in the lobby, Austin Beck had a wide smile across his face as camera shutters clicked.
It was a North Carolina homecoming the Oakland Athletics’ prospect would likely never forget, as he met cancer patients Wednesday at Brenner Children’s Hospital to trade baseball stories and sign autographs.
But for Beck, this trip wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment venture. It all dates back to his career at North Davidson, where the outfielder forged a special bond three years ago with Gavin Hill, who is now 14 years old.
A fifth-grader at the time and an avid fan of Black Knights baseball, Hill was diagnosed with cancer and immediately asked to meet his favorite player — a standout centerfielder for the team he watched from the stands. The pair clicked instantly, and Beck made it a priority to make a positive impact on kids facing a similar fate to his friend. After a successful first season in the Oakland Athletics minor league system in Arizona, he finally felt he found the means and influence to give back.
“It’s always been a dream,” said Beck, now spending his rookie offseason back home in Lexington. “It’s kind of always something I’ve wanted to do when I found out (Hill) had cancer and was coming up here... When I made it, I knew this was going to be the first thing I would do.”
From the start, the pair spent at least three days per week together — having dinners at each other’s houses, sharing friendships and talking about the sport that brought them close. Years later, Hill’s most prized possession is a signed baseball from Beck’s time at North Davidson.
“I like to call it the first signed Austin Beck ball, and I have it sitting in my room right now,” said Hill, who was diagnosed in 2014 with neuroblastoma — a rare cancer for children his age — that developed in his stomach. “When I first started to really watch him play, I realized he’s going to be special.”
And Hill’s assessment was right. Since Beck was selected sixth overall in the 2017 MLB Draft, he’s scored 23 runs and had 32 hits with two home runs. His stepfather, Woody Wimmer, and mother, Diane, witnessed Beck sending a ball over the fence at Fitch Park in Phoenix.
While he’s making big swings, Beck isn’t using a Louisville Slugger as his weapon of choice. He’s partnered with family-owned Anchor Bat Co. — a father-and-son team based in Greenville, S.C., that broke into the baseball industry in 2012.
Since finding success in the rookie Arizona League, it’s given Beck a platform to raise funds for philanthropy recipients like Brenner Children’s Hospital. In early December, he debuted a limited-edition bat he designed with Anchor that will be sold for retail. Half of the proceeds generated will go to benefit cancer research.
And he brought the metallic green bat with him to Brenner Children’s Hospital, where patients held it and practiced swinging in the lobby. Wake Forest Medical Center has also partnered with Beck to auction the limited-edition piece to help kids like his “brother,” Hill, in fighting cancer at a young age.
“I kind of know what it’s like to feel down and to need somebody to be there for me,” said Beck, as he tried to relate to patients by describing an ACL tear in 2016. “It’s the littlest things like saying ‘hey’ to them, taking pictures, signing autographs that’ll make their day or it’ll make their life.”
And Hill knows all too well about the power of a support system. Now a year into full remission and coming up on his freshman year at North Davidson, he views Beck as the ultimate role model after his long battle with cancer.
“I always knew that I had him by my side and that everything was going to be all right,” said Hill, as he donned a small gold chain and long hair — a style similar to Beck’s. “There’s nothing cooler than being like my big brother.”
With Hill now playing travel ball as a catcher and outfielder, he and Beck can share stories of games with a bond brought together by a sport they both love.