At Caravan, Tigers stirred by Agar's determination
Players meet with inspiring super fan with cerebral palsy during Grand Rapids stop
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Johnny Agar became an inspiration for many when he stepped out of his wheelchair, rose to his feet and completed the final mile of a 5K race last summer. Thursday was a chance for the Detroit Tigers to do their small part to return the gesture.
Cerebral palsy limits the 19-year-old's muscles, making every day a fight, race day or no. Inside that body, however, sits a sharp mind and an incredibly strong spirit. As new Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain and others talked baseball with him, both were evident.
Agar would like to cover baseball one day and follow the Tigers. Here, the Tigers were coming to him, talking about their game. As big of a thrill as his race was, this wasn't far down on his list.
"It was remarkable," he said afterward. "You see what these guys do on TV, and you don't see what they're like off the field."
Off to the side, his father, former Tigers Minor League pitcher Jeff Agar, was beaming with pride.
"He just loves the Tigers, knows everything about them," he said. "He has a phenomenal mind. Stats, players, everything -- he knows it all."
While the hallway at DeVos Place buzzed with guests, waiting for the annual West Michigan Whitecaps Winter Banquet, more than a dozen Tigers players were meeting with the Agars in a side room. Some Tigers, such as Don Kelly, had met them when they visited camp last Spring Training. Others, such as Justin Verlander, learned Agar's story from an ESPN feature in the fall on the youngster's quest to complete a race.
It began several years ago as a way for father and son to bond together. Jeff would run distance races, pushing his son in a racing wheelchair in distances ranging from 5K runs to a marathon. It became a summer circuit for them, the two as teammates.
After a while, Johnny wanted to give his father a break, knowing full well the challenge that entailed. It wasn't just about using his muscles, but about building the endurance to do so for a long stretch.
He began pushing himself, training to walk distances. He had his goal clearly in mind, to be able to walk across a finish line. A 5K in their hometown of Rockford last August provided the opportunity. An ESPN camera crew captured the quest.
"He'd been working out," Jeff Agar said. "He'd been practicing and training. He'd done close to a mile previously, but this was a really hot day. It was tough, and with the cameras and everything on him, it was a lot of stress. It was a cool experience.
"He did an amazing job, to be able to walk a mile like that. It would be like you or I running a marathon. It's been amazing."
That moment unintentionally set up this one. Verlander saw the piece and wanted to get involved the next time the Tigers came through Grand Rapids. The Tigers make the trip every year for the caravan, but the schedule made sense.
Verlander couldn't make the Winter Caravan following core muscle surgery earlier this month. He had no shortage of players on the team picking up the effort. Together, they met with the family, took all the photos they wanted and gave Johnny a jersey.
"[Verlander] got the Tigers involved and tried to contact us," Jeff Agar said. "Thanks to him, the Tigers PR people just kind of took over. They did an amazing job. To have all these players and Johnny getting to meet them, and the jersey, it's just unbelievable."
Fellow Tigers starter Drew Smyly tweeted about the meeting.
The Tigers' ties already ran deep in the family before Johnny. Jeff pitched parts of three seasons in Minor League ball, three of them as a reliever in the Tigers' farm system. He made it as high as the Double-A level in 1987.
Those ties carried on to his kids, though it wasn't something he pushed. Johnny wasn't around when Jeff was a pro player, but he was there for Jeff's days playing softball.
Still, it was more than baseball running in the family. The statistics, the strategy caught his interest early, Jeff said. He began watching every game he could.
"He puts the word 'fan' in 'fanatic,'" Jeff Agar said.
When the Agars visited Spring Training last year, Johnny recognized head athletic trainer Kevin Rand by name. He had read and watched enough coverage to know that.
He didn't have a chance to play growing up, but the passion carried over. Now that he has the feeling of crossing a finish line on his own, he's still pushing himself for more.
"He wants to walk half of a 5K," Jeff Agar said, "and his ultimate goal to walk a 5K on his own."
That's for warmer weather. As cold as it was in Grand Rapids Thursday, the look on Johnny's face after the Tigers filed out showed he was warmed by their visit.
"I'm sure they have a lot more things to do," he said. "But for them to take the time out of their schedule to meet me, it's really special."