Before every baseball game, Cumberland County College catcher Mitchell Walker’s mother, Laura, always had the same advice for him.
“She’d always tell me, ‘You are good enough,’” Mitchell said.
He still hears her voice, if only in his mind.
Mitchell’s mother, Cape May native Laura (Riggitano) Walker, died at age 53 on Jan. 19, one month before the Dukes opened this season.
Baseball has served as Mitchell’s therapy. Playing for the Dukes has given the power-hitting catcher the chance to get away from the grief and sadness, if only for a few hours each day.
“Baseball is my escape,” the 20-year-old sophomore said. “It’s an outlet for me. Playing and practicing gives me the opportunity to focus on something else.”
Laura was her son’s biggest fan, never missing a game.
Most of the time, Laura sat with her father and Mitchell’s grandfather, Ralph Riggitano.
Ralph, 78, a former baseball coach in the Cape May/Lower Township area, enjoyed watching Mitchell’s games at Pennsville High School and at Cumberland.
“Losing a child is something I hope no one ever has to go through,” said Ralph, who also has a daughter (Amy) and son (Frank). Frank is the principal and head football coach at Middle Township High School. “It’s heart-breaking.”
Especially since he did not have the opportunity to say goodbye.
Earlier in January, Laura and Ralph both got sick. Laura, who had been battling cancer, was admitted to University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with a virus. Ralph developed pneumonia and went to Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.
“She developed a virus her immune system could not fight,” Ralph said. “When she died, the family was with her except for me. I was not allowed to leave the hospital. That’s the worst part for me. Not being there for her at the end is something I will never get over.”
The heartache never totally goes away — Ralph lives with Mitchell, Mitchell’s father Robert and younger brother Spencer — but baseball also helps him cope with the grief.
He still attends almost every game. He even made a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, earlier this month to watch the Dukes.
“Baseball definitely helps,” said Ralph, who coached the sport in the 1970s and 1980s. “It’s been a part of my life for a long time.”
The team is in the midst of a fantastic season. The Dukes are currently 22-3 and are considered among the top two-year programs on the East Coast.
Mitchell has played a big role in the success. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder is batting close to .500 and has excelled behind the plate. He will continue his career next fall at North Carolina Central University, an NCAA Division I program in Durham, North Carolina.
His defensive prowess is impressive, considering that before joining the Dukes he hadn’t strapped on a pair of shin guards since he was 8 years old.
“I was a pitcher in high school but hurt my shoulder,” Mitchell said. “The coaches suggested I give catching a try, and it’s worked out pretty well. My shoulder is healed, but I have no desire to pitch again. I like hitting too much.”
His biggest hit came on opening day this season, Feb. 19.
Mitchell smacked his first home run of the season against Mercer County College. After he crossed the plate, he took off his helmet and pointed to the sky while his teammates cheered.
Over in the stands, Ralph Riggitano shed a tear.
It was Laura’s birthday.
“The whole family was there, 15 or 20 people,” Ralph said. “We all broke down and cried. That was a good day.”
Mitchell and the Dukes — the entire team attended Laura’s memorial service — have dedicated the season to her.
They all wear green — her favorite color — rubber wristbands that contain a tribute.
“Rest in peace, Laura Walker. ... You are good enough.”
(David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.)