By helping kids, Durfee helped himself

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Nicholas Baragan was six years old when he went to Angel Stadium back in 2000. It would be his one and only trip.

Unfortunately, Nicholas never made it to his seventh birthday. Cancer saw to that as the neuroblastoma he had contracted cut short his young life.

Greg Durfee was on that trip. And Nicholas’ death changed his own life, first for the worst, then, ultimately, for the better.

Durfee is the founder of the Youth Cancer Baseball Tour, an organization that arranges for pediatric cancer patients and their families to attend major league and minor league baseball games all-expenses paid. In the 10 years the program has been operating, more than 2,250 kids and their families have been able to put their cancer battles on hold for a few hours and enjoy a fun day at the ballpark.

“It’s so rewarding, to be able to help these kids and their families, to put a smile on their face and let them experience all the fun that baseball provides,’” Durfee said.

This past season, more than 500 kids went to 19 games in 15 different cities. The Major League Baseball teams donate the tickets from as few as eight to as many as 30. The organization arranges transportation, lodging and pays for food and souvenirs.

“We’ve been able to establish relationships with most of the MLB teams,” Durfee said. “Everyone is very receptive to our cause.”

The YCBT’s annual budget is around $25,000 and relies strictly on the generosity of others. There’s a GoFundMe page to help with the financial side of things and perhaps when baseball folks visit the organization’s booth beginning Sunday at the MLB winter meetings at Mandalay Bay, maybe they’ll whip out their credit card or write a check.

Durfee’s story is almost as compelling as those of the kids he helps. He was working at a mall in Southern California and the pastor of his church had a nephew who was battling cancer.

Nicholas was that nephew.

So Durfee thought taking the kid to a ballgame might lift his spirits. And it did. However, after Nicholas died, it triggered a bout of depression within Durfee.

He left his job. He lost his home. He found himself on the street on Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row. His life was so upside down, he contemplated ending it.

Then he came across the Union Rescue Mission, a faith-based organization that helps the homeless, and he had an epiphany.

“I found my calling,” Durfee, 55, said. “I wanted to help kids.”

He met Doug DeLuca, who was the executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live. The show had aligned itself with a non-profit charity, the Uncle Frank Helping Hand Foundation. Durfee asked for some guidance in setting up his baseball charity and the Uncle Frank Foundation took Durfee’s organization under its wing.

In 2008, one family attended ballgames in all five California MLB cities (Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco).

Steven Mondragon and his family were the selected family. His father Ben will never forget how much it meant to his son, who had also battled neuroblastoma as a baby and went through years of operations and treatment.

“It gave us some relief and it helped us feel like a normal family,” Ben Mondragon said. “It also reinforced Steven’s love of baseball. It influenced him to pursue playing.”

Today, Steven’s cancer is in remission and the junior plays second base for the Los Altos High School baseball team in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

“At first, I was a little skeptical of Greg,” Ben Mondragon said. “But he’s a good person and he has a big heart. He’s helped a lot of kids since Steven went on that first tour.”

The goal for the 2019 season is to get to all 30 MLB parks. Obviously, any major leaguer could subsidize the venture with a single check. For big leaguers, $25K is mere per diem over the course of a season.

But Durfee knows the likelihood of Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant writing that check is doubtful. So he relies on the generosity of regular folks who pay triple figures for a box seat, pay $40 to $50 to park, spend $16 on a beer and $8 on a hot dog to help the kids.

Funny, but isn’t that the way it usually works? Those who can least afford to help provide the most assistance?

As for Durfee, he doesn’t profit from this venture. He lives in Las Vegas, his “home” a long-stay budget motel a couple of miles from the Las Vegas Strip. His family and friends have helped him get by and this is his job. And he’s OK with that.

“I really believe this is what God’s plan for me was,” he said. “My grandmother told me that it’s all about the kids. And she’s right.”

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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