Tuesday, August 9, 2016

UIndy baseball player invests lovingly
in diamonds to honor, help his family

In the eight years or so since I launched this blog, I've occasionally pursued photo shoots of things that piqued my interest after reading or seeing something in the media. Today's post is one of those instances.

On Aug. 1, Indianapolis Star sports columnist Gregg Doyle wrote about University of Indianapolis baseball player Brendan Dudas who, with his girlfriend, Madison Harris, obtained legal guardianship several years ago of two of Dudas' nephews whose mother was unable to care for the boys, then ages 5 and 3.

In the previous paragraph, I provided the link to Doyle's column, who far better than I can provide the background of this fascinating story. It's a tale that also involves Dudas' 12-old-niece Whitley, who contracted and died from a rare form of brain cancer.

On two occasions recently Dudas, a Perry Meridian High School alumnus who played catcher as a redshirt sophomore for the Greyhounds this past season, and Harris opened their hearts to young relatives. One time it was to help care for the two very young boys, and the other is an ongoing endeavor to raise money to battle Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). This past Sunday, Dudas hosted the annual Wifflin' for Whitley Summer Classic open Wiffle ball tournament at his parents' house in Perry Township on the Southside of Indianapolis.

In addition to being a fundraiser, the tournament is an offshoot of the Indy Southside Wiffle Ball (ISWB) League, which Dudas launched in 2009, the year after he carved and developed a baseball diamond -- complete with dirt infield and warning track -- out of land in his parents' backyard on West Epler Avenue. Why? The answer can be found at Dudas' brief Twitter account bio: "Baseball is my way of life," he says.

Gauging by a welcoming sign hanging from one of the chain-link outfield and foul line fences on the diamond property, Dudas has dubbed his version of Field of Dreams "Baseball Land."

I have vivid memories of Wiffle ball play as a child. Parents of the kids in my neighborhood encouraged us to use plastic Wiffle instead of rubber and traditional hard balls -- primarily to safeguard their properties from damage caused by the more destructive balls. Most of the time we played in our yards, and none of us had the expansive real estate to lay out a decent-sized diamond like there is at the Dudases' home. I also used Wiffle balls for my personal home run derby I played. It was a derby that involved "real" Major League Baseball players -- (OK ... it involved just the real names of baseball players) -- which I played inside my parents' garage. Ah, but I digress ...

When I contacted Dudas by email last week to see if there were any ISWB games left in the season that I could photograph, Dudas told me the regular season and playoffs had ended. But he mentioned there would be a fundraising tournament in Whitley's honor all day on Aug. 7, so I decided to stop by, even though I had family coming to visit from out of town that afternoon. Neither of Brendan's young nephews, Kevin or Tristan, nor his girlfriend Maddie, were at the tournament while I was there. But if you read the Gregg Doyle piece in the Indy Star, you'll learn that players on all eight teams in the ISWB league know Kevin and Tristan and reach out to them in friendship and baseball kinship.

Ideally, I would have preferred to have camped out at the tournament for the daylong duration, but I could stay only two and a half hours before leaving to tend to my own family. Unfortunately, my pictures are not representative of all the teams that participated, but on Monday, Brendan provided me the following information that helped tighten loose ends from the day's competition:

-- Fourteen teams (of three players per team) registered for the double-elimination tournament; each team played at least two games.

-- All of the teams that made the final four had at least two players from the ISWB. The Skeeters won the tourney, and Dudas' team, the Sand Gnats, was runner-up. Also in the final four were ISWB's Seawolves and Naturals.

-- Two of the teams in the tournament consisted of Dudas' connections at UIndy -- one team of coaches, the other of players.

Wifflin' for Whitley 2016 raised $400 on the day of the tournament, bringing the three-year league fundraising total to $2,000. I say "day of the tournament" because anyone can still contribute financially. If you'd be interested in doing so, visit https://www.gofundme.com/wishesforwhitley

Leading off the post is a shot of Brendan belting the first of two home runs he notched in his first two at-bats in the Sand Gnats' first pool game. Just below the lead-off picture is a shot of Dudas watching the homer clear the fence. He told me that there is about 105 feet between home plate and centerfield on the primary diamond, where this homer was hit; the distance is about 85 feet from home to the left and right field foul poles. The plate-to-fence distances on the secondary field are a bit shorter, he said.

While ISWB fosters fun and competition, the league is serious enough about its competition to keep stats and dish out awards. Indeed, ISWB devotes a page of its website to the annual pitching and batting leaders and honors winners. This past season, Dudas led the league in all of the batting categories and has been the league most valuable player the past two seasons.

Photo geek stuff: I shot the tournament with my Canon 6D and Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD lens. Because I knew I'd be moving around a lot, my primary interest about gear Sunday was versatility and mobility. I had two options -- the relatively light, long zoom Tamron on one camera body, or two heavy L quality Canon lenses (24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8) on two bodies, I chose the light and compact route. I used shutter priority mode (1/800) and ISOs ranging from 100 to 320. However, for my non-action landscape shots, I bracketed three exposures (normal and 1 stop over and under normal) for processing in high-dynamic range (HDR) software, using a constant f/stop (f/8) and boosting ISOs a bit to ensure three different exposures. My biggest challenge Sunday was working with significant light contrast on the main diamond. There were huge amounts of large-tree shade swallowing chunks of the diamond alongside bright sunshine everywhere else. HDR helped me close the light disparities with non-action shots, but it was a battle for any of those single-frame action shots where tree shade appeared. Most of my time in post-processing was spent trying to resurrect detail in the heavily shaded areas. In Camera Raw software, I pushed the shadow detail recovery slider to the hilt in images where you see heavy doses of shade -- and in some cases, I boosted it again in Photoshop Elements 13 when converting the images to JPGs.

To view a photo gallery of all my shots from the tournament, visit my site at SmugMug.com.

A grounder skips past a fielder as a baserunner rounds third base to score easily. A photographer's note: I was virtually shooting into the sun here, and luckily, the shadow-detail recovery editing tool on my Camera Raw software provided a welcome assist ... especially bringing out details in the baserunner's face.

Above and below: Freezing a ball in flight coming right at me is a favorite pursuit and challenge when I shoot baseball (or, in this case, Wiffle ball). 

Above and next three below: Brendan plays a mix of contemporary music (well, a lot of '90s stuff) from a boom box during play, and I caught him unable to resist grooving in the outfield while the opponent was at bat. 

Above and next two below: Family, friends and other ballplayers comprise the tournament spectator galleries. 

Above and next three below: The Sand Gnats had this runner on first base caught dead to rights while heading to second after the pitcher (left) snagged a come-backer and turned to throw to Brendan covering second base. But the throw hit the runner, who reached second base safely. These photos are a perfect example of the radical light contrast from shade cast by large shade trees hovering over the main diamond. 

Above: Gary Vaught, head coach of UIndy's baseball team, took a swing in his first visit to the diamonds to see what Brendan had developed.  

Above and next three below: A sort of Keystone Cops performance emerged from this Texas league pop-up on the main diamond. It did not end well for the defense ... well, unless you want to award points for the one-legged ballet dip in the last photo of the series. 

Above and below: This snag of a long fly ball at the fence was among the better defensive plays I saw. 

Above and below: These photos taken behind the netted backstop required strategic cropping and intense touch-up work to minimize distracting streaks caused by foreground net. 

Above and next two below are various perspective shots of the diamond and grounds. The first below was taken on top of an elevated slab of concrete adjacent to a wooded buffer at the end of the property. 

Above and next three below: Another defensive miscue on a grounder that hugged the third-base line. 

These flags (from left), Indiana state, Old Glory and Perry Meridian High School battle cry ("Don't Give Up the Ship") fly in a fenced-off area between the fences separating the two diamonds. 

The tournament bracket (above) early in the morning before any games were completed and (below) at the tournament's conclusion, when the players on the winning Skeeters posed. Photo below provided by Brendan Dudas.

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