UT alumna’s journey to all 30 MLB parks ends with opening pitch at Cubs game

Elizabeth Hlavinka

When UT alumna Katie Russell took the mound at Wrigley Field in Chicago last week, she looked up to find herself surrounded by 41,160 fans. With the release of her single pitch, she started the nine-inning game and concluded a five-month journey.
This summer, Katie attended a game in each of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums, pursuing a dream she and her mother shared before her mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. Sparked by their passion for baseball, the duo began their journey together. Over time, Katie said, they traveled to 10 stadiums before her mom passed away in 2009.
A few years later, doctors diagnosed Katie with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and melanoma and she began her own battle with cancer. This fall, as she approached her second year in remission and completed her Ph.D. in education at UT, Katie decided to pursue their goal this season in honor of her mom, ending her journey last week at Wrigley Field.
“I thought, ‘just because she’s not here doesn’t mean I can’t go finish it’,” Russell said. “I wanted to complete the thing she had always wanted to do, but never in my wildest dreams when I started the journey did I think it would’ve ended this way.”
Katie said she and her mother have always loved baseball, and she grew up watching the Cubs in lieu of a hometown team in New Orleans. Katie said she began her journey with the opening game in Philadelphia, on what would’ve been her mother’s 74th birthday. She said the spontaneity of the trip embodies her mom’s social and extroverted spirit — a stark contrast to her more reserved, type-A personality.
“Being able to live out this dream for her has really helped me to be more adventurous, spontaneous and outgoing. It’s one of the gifts she’s given me,” Katie said. “You spend your lifetime trying to find your own identity, and, in the end,  I think we all take the best pieces [from our parents] in order to form our own lives.”
Katie said the journey has helped her learn to live in the moment, particularly as she stood on the mound at Wrigley Field. She said she tried her best not to let her anxiety get in the way of enjoying the emotional release she felt.
“It was a conscious effort for me to have to let go of wanting to make it perfect,” Katie said. “I was really trying to be present, look around and be mindful and take it all in. You don’t ever get that chance again; it’s once in a lifetime.”

UT baseball operations manager Drew Bishop, along with the rest of the UT baseball team, opened the gates to Russell and let her practice a few pitches in UT’s comparably sized stadium. Katie said this helped to ease her nerves.
“For her to live out her mom’s dream and get to do all that — not just go to the parks but throw out that first pitch — has to be incredibly fulfilling and emotional for her,” Bishop said.
Through her blog and interviews with ESPN, The Huffington Post and The Austin American-Statesman, Katie’s story has reached out to thousands of people and brought them together. Katie said this unifying quality is something she found in each baseball park and is something she hopes to share with others.
“If my story could bring hope to people, that would mean a lot to me,” Russell said. “I think that’s what I’m realizing; the idea that something you do can inspire people is a ‘home run’ in baseball terms.”
Younger sister Rachel Russell said Katie has always given this kind of hope to people throughout her life — as a teacher, a sister and a friend. She said her outstanding courage has inspired thousands and is glad the magnitude of this moment was large enough for Katie to finally see that.
“She has been faced with a lot of challenges and she chose to embrace the weakness, be courageous and turn it in to something really powerful that she shared with others,” Russell said. “I’m incredibly proud of her for that.”