Yesterday, I learned about Bailey O'Neill, or at least what I could. I live in the middle of Pennsylvania, so I did not get inundated with the media accounts of his beating by classmates during recess at Darby Township Elementary. With this clean slate, I had a chance to talk briefly with his father, Rob O'Neill, about Bailey and his petition at Change.org to have the Phillies dedicate a home game in his memory. Since that conversation, the Phillies announced that they would honor Bailey on May 29th by taking a stand against bullying. I'm all for it. Hell, if it only helps this family heal, I'd be for it.
Media coverage of events like this often is shallow and quote-heavy. "We're investigating" is the response from law enforcement. "We're really sorry, please don't sue" is the lawyer-filtered response from the school district that was able to videotape the attack on Bailey, but not to stop it. People stop talking like regular folks when there are asses to cover.
When additional information isn't forthcoming, the media then generally runs to "experts" or at least media-savvy people and organizations who try to bootstrap their own causes using the dead body of a child that they didn't know nor will long remember. Their primary goal during interviews is likely to make sure that they get the child victim's name right when making the sound bite that pushes their own agenda. Then they helicopter off to leech publicity from the next devastated family.
When I talked to Mr. O'Neill, I wanted to find out about Bailey. I wanted to ask about whether this incident was something that was ongoing, or was rooted in some primary source of "otherness" that causes so many children to be victimized -- things like mental illness, human variability, or sexuality. My son is the same age, and he has Aspergers. He was taunted at lunch recently by a kid asking him, "when are you going to tell your parents you are gay?" We pulled him off the bus years ago because the district couldn't stop the teasing, taunting and bullying. This was a personal issue to me. It was my agenda.
I wanted to talk about these sorts of issues with Rob. That was a mistake on my part, and a pretty bad one. I forgot that I was talking to a man whose son just died. A man who, along with Jina Risoldi (Bailey's mother), had to decide at the side of a bed at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to withdraw life support knowing that their son would die. Think about having to do that with your own child.
Rob O'Neill, as near as I can tell, is a regular guy from the area. He's a working man who drives a truck and delivers produce. He is not Superman. He never asked to become an advocate or have his son turned into a cause. He obviously loved his son, and it was clearly painful for him to try to explain over the phone to me, a total stranger, what made his son such a special kid. I was a spectacular asshole for trying to ask him about it. He did a great job, though, and better than I could have done under the same circumstances.
Bailey is free now. He's done being victimized. The love his family has for him will remain forever in the hearts of his dad, his kid brother, his mom, his family and friends. His death cannot extinguish that. The strength each of them finds each day to live comes from their love for him.
If something good can come from this, it must start with knowing who Bailey was. I promised Rob that I would try to help explain what I could about Bailey so people might care enough to want to make things change. I hope I can do justice to the promise I made.
Bailey O'Neill was in sixth grade. He loved math, science, and history, and he was a student who had earned distinguished honors. He clearly made his father proud, no moreso than when he excelled at math, doing better than his dad ever did.
Bailey was not isolated at school. He had friends, a "Goof Troop" that he would hang out with. He loved riding his bike, skateboarding, and being a good big brother. He would walk his younger brother to school each day to make sure he made it there safely.
Bailey loved baseball. He played it, he watched it, he talked about it with his dad, and he'd go to games with his family, whether it was mom, dad, or his grandfather. Wearing a RyHo hoodie, he'd sit in the stands, mesmerized by the crowd, the noise, and the excitement.
When he wasn't going to games, he'd watch at home. When he was supposed to visit with his dad, they'd talk during the days leading up to the weekend about the games coming up and what junk food they would eat on the sofa while watching together.
We entrust our children to schools in the morning, and hope they come home safely. But he didn't, and there's not one damned reason why he shouldn't have. This was a life taken too soon. This was a senseless, horrific tragedy.
This is a family not unlike the ones all of us have. This was a child blossoming into a young man - taking care of his kid brother, making friends, and succeeding in school. Bailey could be the son of any of us. This was a kid. A good one.
This is a son, a father, and a family that deserved more time together. More years sharing the rituals of baseball, family, and life. A chance to tell Pops that he met a girl. That he is going to have a family, and that Pops is going to be a grandpap who will take a new kid, a good one, to the ballpark.
What does his death mean? What should the legacy of Bailey O'Neill be? I don't know. I will not presume to speak for his father and his mother. This is a child that I did not bury, and I have no business staking a claim on his grave.
Did the Phillies decide to do the right thing by trying to honor his memory by dedicating a home game on his behalf? Yes. This should never happen again to anyone. Maybe this will help out one kid, one family, somewhere.
On those hot summer nights this year when Ryan Howard launches a ball into the outfield bleachers, I am going to think of Bailey. Those balls won't land in Ashburn Alley -- Bailey is going to catch them, save them, and give them to his father, someday, when they meet again.