Bigger Than Baseball: Santa Barbara Foresters Help Kids In Their Fight Against Cancer Through Hugs for Cubs Program

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Updated: January 15, 2021

January 15, 2021

By Hannah Yoshinaga, CCL Reporter

While the Santa Barbara Foresters’ roster lists pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders just like any other baseball team, their lineup also includes another key team member — the Hugs for Cubs child celebrated by the team during that season.

The Foresters’ Hugs for Cubs program honors at least one recipient every summer, offering a child battling cancer or another illness the chance to become a special member of the Foresters team. Recipients have their initials featured on players’ hats all season long, attend Hugs for Cubs events around Southern California and even get their own Hugs for Cubs Day at Pershing Park.   

“We add some joy and some happiness to some kids that are going through one of the toughest trials and tribulations of their life in battling cancer, and in some other cases, other childhood diseases,” said Foresters Head Coach Bill Pintard. “And by having our players participate in these things, it makes the players realize how fortunate and lucky they are, and at a young age, they can get the message about how rewarding giving back is.” 

Pintard and his son Eric created the Hugs for Cubs program in 1995. After pitching for the Foresters in the 1993 summer baseball season, Eric was diagnosed with ependymoma, a rare form of cancer that affects the brain and spinal cord. Eric was subsequently sidelined, undergoing chemotherapy and other forms of treatment. 

Although he was unable to take the mound the following season, the baseball community’s support for Eric was overwhelming — every Foresters player wore Eric’s number, 19, on their hats, and the National Baseball Congress named him the Most Inspirational Player of the Year. NBC eventually renamed the award after Eric in 2012. 

As Eric continued to receive treatment and regain strength, he brainstormed ways the Foresters organization could assist other young people battling serious illnesses. 

Pintard still recalls the first conversation he had with Eric about Hugs for Cubs. When he suggested that Foresters players would again wear 19 on their hats for the 1995 season, Eric said, “I’m kicking ass. We don’t need to put my initials on this, we need to put the initials of some other kid that’s fighting cancer, we need to put his initials… We need to do more.” 

The two worked together to organize group activities for children diagnosed with cancer, including bowling nights, fishing trips and surfing days led by Eric, an avid surfer. Pintard named the program “Hugs for Cubs,” and Eric designed the iconic bear logo still used today.

The Hugs for Cubs logo created by Eric Pintard. COURTESY OF HUGS FOR CUBS

While the Hugs for Cubs program and its impact grew, Eric kept recovering and working toward better health, allowing him to become more involved with the development of Hugs for Cubs and return to the Foresters as a pitcher at the start of the 1998 season. 

Eric also participated in Hugs for Cubs visits to local hospitals, cheering up sick children confined to infirmary wards and delivering presents to them for the holidays. 

Although he remained involved with the program and its expansion, Eric’s own health took an unfortunate turn when his tumors began growing again. Eric tragically passed away in 2004.

However, his impact within the Foresters organization, Santa Barbara community and baseball world has not been forgotten. 

“He did make a great impact, he made me a much better man,” Pintard said. “I love him dearly, you know, part of my heart was gone. But his memory and the legacy and how he enriches other guys and other players and kids that had cancer [impacts] us, so he made a footprint in the sand.”

 

Eric’s legacy lives on in the hearts of people across the world, whether it be the Pintard family, the Foresters organization or people who never had the opportunity to meet him, but were inspired by his story of hope, tenacity and giving back to others.

Eric’s vision for Hugs for Cubs also lives on, and the program is now managed by Foresters Board of Directors President Christina Songer. 

“It’s not only a program of giving back,” Songer said. “It is ingrained in all of the Foresters.” 

Hugs for Cubs kids now attend Angels and Dodgers games every season and get the opportunity to meet players like Kole Calhoun, Songer said. Additionally, participants can take part in youth baseball camps, which was one of the original goals Eric outlined for the program. 

Throughout the summer and offseason, Foresters players and other members of the organization visit children in hospitals and deliver gifts. The team puts on events aimed at raising funds for the program, such as a golf tournament and banquet.

Not to be forgotten is one of the most essential aspects of Hugs for Cubs — the Foresters’ inclusion of recipients’ initials on their game-day hats, where Eric’s hand-drawn logo and initials are also embroidered. 

“We’ve had other kids that had been diagnosed as terminal and didn’t have very good outlook, they get the initials on the back of the hat and bam, they’re rocking and rolling,” Pintard said. “There’s something about that hat.” 

Although coronavirus-related restrictions meant that Pershing Park remained mostly empty for the 2020 season, the Foresters still worked to make a positive impact by honoring a Hugs for Cubs kid.

2020 recipient Henry Miller got the opportunity to visit the park for his own Hugs for Cubs Day, throwing out the first pitch and going for a car ride in the outfield in front of friends and family.

Despite the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, donations didn’t stop coming in for Hugs for Cubs either, and all contributions either matched or exceeded those given in previous years, Songer said. 

During the 2020 Christmas season, the Foresters continued to run their annual holiday program, bringing Christmas trees, lights, gingerbread houses and presents to families in need across Santa Barbara County. Pintard and Songer personally delivered trees to families this year, taking extra precautions due to health and safety measures enacted across the state.

While members of the Foresters organization were unable to make their typical in-person hospital visits to deliver gifts, children staying in the hospital for the holiday season still received gifts donated by Hugs for Cubs.

Samuel Helfand, the 2013 Hugs for Cubs recipient, was a bat boy for the team. COURTESY OF HEIDI HELFAND

For 2013 recipient Samuel Helfand, taking part in Hugs for Cubs events was a way to “fight cancer with fun,” said Samuel’s mother Heidi Helfand.

Earlier in the year, Samuel was diagnosed with ependymoma, the same rare illness Eric suffered from. A hospital worker connected Samuel and his family with Bill Pintard, and they bonded over their shared experiences with the disease.

Pintard and the family developed a close relationship, and Samuel was chosen to be the Foresters’ 2013 Hugs for Cubs honoree. As part of the program, Samuel attended both Foresters and major league games, as well as other events planned for recipients.

Hugs for Cubs combined the idea of using fun to battle cancer with Samuel’s love of baseball from years of playing Little League in the Santa Barbara area.

“Kids want to be kids, so they want to play, they want to play baseball, they want to be around baseball,” Helfand said. “So having opportunities like Hugs for Cubs is really, it’s a gift. It was a total gift.”

During his time with Hugs for Cubs, Samuel was also one of the team’s bat boys. As a member of the bat boy team, Samuel got to connect with players and play an essential role in the Foresters’ home games. Samuel was mentored by fellow recipient and bat boy Wyatt Taylor, with whom he became friends and spent time at games.

“Wyatt told him what to do, he kind of took him under his wing, and it was super cool because Wyatt had been through cancer too, and it’s kind of hard being a kid with cancer because other kids don’t understand what it is,” Helfand said. 

Four years earlier, Wyatt was named the Foresters’ 2009 recipient just months after he was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. One of Wyatt’s Little League coaches connected the Taylor family with Pintard, and Wyatt joined Hugs for Cubs shortly thereafter.

“I thought it was a great way to just keep Wyatt kind of having some fun and motivated, not just laying in a hospital bed,” said Michael Taylor, Wyatt’s father.

Wyatt Taylor was one of the Foresters’ bat boys while he was part of the Hugs for Cubs program.  COURTESY OF MICHAEL TAYLOR

Similar to Samuel, Wyatt’s participation in Hugs for Cubs served as a distraction from the extensive chemotherapy and treatment he underwent for several months.

“We kind of joked that Wyatt was sort of a rock star when he went to the games,” Taylor said. “All the players went and greeted him; he was kind of like the focus of attention so he really loved it… He thrived on it a little bit, so it was a great, great distraction from what was going on.”

Being able to attend games as a family was a source of relief for the Helfand and Taylor families, who welcomed the opportunity to spend time together as a family outside of the house and away from medical facilities.

“They have different family activities they do at the game, so we would go to the games and it was a good chance to just sit and decompress and see Wyatt running around out there happy and give our other son something to do,” Taylor said. “It really was as much of a distraction for Wyatt as it was for us. It kind of gave us something to look forward to.”

More than 11 years after Wyatt was the Hugs for Cubs recipient and over seven years since Samuel’s initials were featured on the Foresters’ hats, both are now in remission. Wyatt later returned to the Foresters as an intern and Samuel helped out with one of the team’s Hall of Fame dinners. Both served as ambassadors of the Hugs for Cubs program.

 

The impact of the program on Hugs for Cubs recipients and their families has been immeasurable, but the effect on Foresters players is significant as well.

The influence is clear to anyone who watches the Foresters play — “We have pretty good chemistry and we get it really quick. You know where it comes from? Going to hospitals, doing stuff for other kids,” Pintard said.

Several Foresters alumni who have made it to the pros still contribute to the Hugs for Cubs — for example, San Francisco Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie sent autographed Giants memorabilia to a program participant who was a fan of the team, according to Songer.  

Many former players also honor Eric and Hugs for Cubs by wearing the number 19 on their jerseys. Aaron Bates, a Foresters alum who played in the majors and now serves as assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, honored him by writing “EP19” on his sign for a Stand Up To Cancer tribute during the 2020 World Series.

Taking part in Hugs for Cubs and visiting children in the hospital can teach just about any player the “power of love,” Pintard said.  

“I think this helps players build empathy for other people,” Helfand said. “I think the [players] would probably feel really good to brighten the day of kids going through such challenges… it’s about being human, and about baseball.”

While the Foresters are one of the most storied teams in college summer baseball, their legacy is defined by Hugs for Cubs just as much as their play on the field.

Even though it isn’t easy to run a program like Hugs for Cubs while managing a full-fledged baseball club at the same time, the Foresters continue to do so, honoring Eric’s legacy and making a difference in the lives of children and families going through challenging times. 

“You know, we’ve lost kids,” Pintard said. “We put their initials on the back of the hats, and we’ve lost. And it’s devastating. It hurts, but with the good, it comes with the territory. If we can’t handle it, then we shouldn’t do it. But we’re not going to have that deter us.”

 

To learn more about Hugs for Cubs and find out how you can contribute to the program, please visit http://www.sbforesters.org/Hugs%20For%20Cubs.html

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