Johnny MacDougall, a blond-haired, blue-eyed little leaguer from Weston, loved baseball. He shared that passion with his dad, Dave, who took him to more than 100 Marlins games. After watching one at Camden Yards in Baltimore when Johnny was 5 years old, the pair made a pact to visit every Major League ballpark in America.
That was in 2010. Dave MacDougall figured he had decades to tick off the 30 stadiums with his son. But one night in January 2015, Johnny lost his balance. His parents became concerned and rushed him to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood. The 9-year-old lapsed into a coma and never woke up. It was a brain aneurism, the result of a birth defect, and there was nothing the doctors could have done. He was cremated soon after. Some of his ashes were buried in a biodegradable urn and released at sea. The family kept a small remainder.
The unexpected death of the third grader — who is described as brilliant, compassionate, and wanting to change the world — was devastating to the family. As the All-Star break begins today and fans look back at the season, this is a particularly inspiring story.
When baseball season crept up the spring after Johnny died, Dave MacDougall and his younger son, Tommy, decided to honor Johnny by carrying out the cross-country trip he had wanted to take. Over the past two summers, they have visited 15 stadiums, racking up nearly 10,000 miles and driving through almost 20 states in a 1976 VW campmobile. During the seventh-inning stretch, when the fans sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the pair quietly spreads some of Johnny’s ashes at each stadium.
“When we scatter his ashes, it’s sad,” MacDougall says. “But it also gives us a chance to reflect and remember Johnny on a regular basis.”
Long ago, MacDougall, originally from Boston, cherished each baseball game he went to with his father at Fenway Park. Johnny was 6 months old when MacDougall took him to his first game on opening day in 2006 at Sun Life Stadium (now New Miami Stadium). Johnny cheered through eight more opening days. He collected the ticket stubs of nearly every game he attended. He also played little league and idolized Marlins right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton. MacDougall says Johnny’s favorite memories were the two times he caught baseballs in the stands. Sometimes, Johnny felt so passionately about the game that he cried when the Marlins lost.
“Life is like baseball,” Dave MacDougall says he would tell Johnny. “Sometimes it’s painful and slow, or it’s thrilling and miraculous. But you have to stick around and watch it.”
MacDougall stresses that Johnny lived a full life, excelling in school, helping classmates, and participating in many jam-packed family adventures. Tommy, a magnetic personality who is now 8, is continuing his brother's tradition.
“[The ballpark trip is] one of those things that I wish we had started earlier,” Dave MacDougall says. “It wasn’t the kind of thing we planned to do in one summer. I thought it was something we could do forever, father and son, until we finished.”
Marlins Park was first on MacDougall’s list. He reached out to the Marlins Park administration and asked if he’d be allowed to sprinkle some of Johnny’s ashes on the field before the game. The Marlins agreed. On opening day 2015, a groundskeeper led MacDougall and a few family members to third base to say a prayer and perform their ceremony commemorating Johnny.
“It was surreal and perfect,” MacDougall says. “We weren’t looking to go on the Jumbotron. It was a personal thing.”
MacDougall understands that each stadium cannot accommodate their wish. “I was lucky to get the right guy; the other teams say they would love to accommodate, but it’s a health hazard, and everyone would want to do it.” Instead, MacDougall and Tommy quietly spread “a Tic Tac” amount in the stands.
One of MacDougall’s favorite memories so far occurred at AT&T Park in San Francisco. It was a week after the Orlando shooting. MacDougall says he felt the stadium radiating with love, especially when everyone sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” With Tommy, he scattered Johnny’s ashes near their seats.
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“I basically said ‘Thank you, San Francisco,'” MacDougall says. “To me, it felt like everybody was pulling together as a city. It was amazing.”
At first, Tommy’s favorite part of every game was when his dad treated him to cotton candy. Two summers later, MacDougall jokes that cotton candy is still a big part of Tommy’s game. Like his brother, Tommy has developed a deep appreciation for baseball. Father and son are always the first in the stadium and enjoy watching batting practice and singing the national anthem.
Last summer took MacDougall and Tommy to four stadiums over 21 days. This summer was more ambitious: 12 ballparks through 16 states over five weeks. It’s all documented on their itinerary online. They’re currently in Orlando and will be returning to Fort Lauderdale this week.
MacDougall estimates that it will take two more summers to complete their 30-ballpark goal. It’s perfect, since Tommy has his summers free and MacDougall can work for his Fort Lauderdale-based yachting business remotely. They are currently accepting donations to fund their trip online. So far, they have raised more than $8,500.
“This has been such a fun summer adventure,” MacDougall says, "and it's the best way to remember Johnny."