The high school boys touched the blue shirt hanging up nearby before they entered the field. Their jerseys read “Rachel Strong” on the back and their white pants were soon to be covered in the baseball diamond’s clay.
Sunday, Sept. 19, was cloudy, but the sun poked through. The youth baseball organization, Team Watson, played three games that day winning all three and the tournament — all in honor of one baseball mom.
Ocala Elite became Team Watson when coaches David “Davey” Watson, 38, and Richard Benoit, 63, reunited the group of high school boys to play in support of David’s wife and team “mom” Rachel after she was diagnosed with pneumonia brought on by Covid-19.
Rachel Watson, 38, is a service adviser for the RV industry and a dedicated baseball mom in Dunnellon. When she became ill, a little more than two months ago, the baseball team took on a new name and mission.
“The kids kind of just came together when Momma Rachel got sick,” Davey Watson said. “They basically had been going their own way in summer baseball and wanted to come together in the fall.”
Benoit, a self-employed owner-operator truck driver, said he has known the Watsons for seven years and helped organize Team Watson in support of the family. He reunited the Ocala Elite team as Team Watson and organized the tournament dates so that the team could play baseball. The team will play five or six tournaments this fall, Benoit said.
“I called them all up to make sure everybody was in,” Benoit said.
The boys agreed to the reunion in the name of Rachel and got ready to play.
“[Rachel] is an avid baseball mom; that’s just something that she really loved to do,” Watson said. “She loves going to the field and watching her kids play ball. She never met a kid that wasn’t her kid. There would be nights when I’d have 15 to 20 kids at my house.”
Davey Watson says playing baseball and being around teammates has been good for his two sons, Talan, 16, and Rylin, 14, who play on Team Watson to support their mother.
He visits his wife whenever he can at the hospital, where he says she is being kept on life support via Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine. She was not vaccinated against the virus.
“She has come a long way,” Watson said. “We are Day 73 on ECMO.”
According to Mayo Clinic, ECMO machines pump the patient’s blood outside of their body to a machine that removes carbon dioxide and puts oxygenated blood back into the body.
COVID-19 pneumonia tends to affect both lungs and causes air sacs in the lungs to fill with fluid, according to an article for Johns Hopkins Medicine. This limits the lung’s ability to take in oxygen and causes shortness of breath, cough and other symptoms. COVID-19 pneumonia can be severe and cause lung injury that may take months to heal.
According to Watson, his wife has a “trache” or tracheostomy to help treat the pneumonia, so it can be difficult for the Watsons to communicate with each other, but he says he still tries.
“Sometimes I can read what her lips are saying, sometimes not, and that’s frustrating for her, but we’re getting through this,” he said. “We’re glad to be surviving.”
On Tuesday, the North Florida Regional Medical Center changed its visitation policy to allow for more frequent visitation, according to hospital staff. One visitor is allowed per patient and may come Monday through Sunday any time from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. This change allows Watson to visit his wife more often.
Crystal Sarrica, a fellow baseball mom, said Team Watson has been good for the Watson boys and serves as a source of fun in a time that is difficult for those affected by Rachel’s absence.
“Baseball moms are a pretty tight knit group of moms, so [Rachel’s] like a sister to me and to be able to represent her and watch her kids have fun and our kids have fun together, even with everything going on, is pretty fun to watch,” she said.
Landon Hitt, 16, Sarrica’s son who plays on Team Watson, said the team was very close and were all saddened by Rachel’s illness.
Watson said doctors could not confirm if Rachel will survive and heal from the pneumonia, but he said he believed she would “make it out of this.”
Watson continues to update his 1,883 Facebook friends almost daily on his wife’s condition and the team’s progress. His posts tell of how she is doing emotionally and physically each time he visits her. On Wednesday, Watson posted that Rachel had a CT scan that showed improvement from a similar scan done at the beginning of the month.
“Life is short,” Watson said, “Things that you love can be snatched from you in a heartbeat regardless of what it is – regardless of if you’re a baseball player, a football player or a normal human being. Never take life for granted. Never take what you love for granted.”
Although recreational, playing in support of their coach’s wife has given a new meaning to baseball for some of the players.
“It feels more like a brotherhood and not just a game,” Coby Vallee, 15, a teammate on Team Watson, said, “We all do it for her.”