MESA, Ariz. -- Kyle Hendricks wanted to make sure Special Olympics athlete Ella Stoklosa had a great time at a Spring Training game last weekend, even if it meant that he wasn't her favorite Cubs player for the entire time.Hendricks, who is a special ambassador to Special Olympics Illinois, and
MESA, Ariz. -- Kyle Hendricks wanted to make sure Special Olympics athlete Ella Stoklosa had a great time at a Spring Training game last weekend, even if it meant that he wasn't her favorite Cubs player for the entire time.
Hendricks, who is a special ambassador to Special Olympics Illinois, and believed to be the first Major League Baseball player in that role, hosted Stoklosa, 27, of Wheeling, Ill., on March 3. She has Down syndrome, but that doesn't stop her. Stoklosa competes in nine sports and showed up at the Cubs' complex wearing a Hendricks' jersey.
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"She warned me," Hendricks said. "[She said] 'I'm going to wear your jersey -- but can I see [Kristopher Bryant]? I have his jersey, too.' I said, 'I can get anything you need.'
"As soon as [Bryant] walks around the corner, she's got my jersey off and his is on," Hendricks said, laughing. "I didn't even see her change -- it took her two seconds. It was so funny."
Hendricks has taken on the Special Olympics as his cause, and has done so quietly, as is his style.
"For some reason, there's never been a spokesperson for Special Olympics from Major League Baseball," said Hendricks, who tuned up for the season with four-plus innings Saturday against the White Sox, striking out seven.
His yoga instructor, Christine Schwan, introduced him to some people in Special Olympics Illinois, and they did a yoga session with some of the athletes.
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"Once I did that, it was over," Hendricks said of the commitment to the organization. "You have so much fun with these athletes and they bring us so much joy. Plus, there's the ability for my wife, Emma, to be involved in it -- it kind of just fell into our laps. We're always looking to give back and do something. We have some things in our family, [people with] different diseases, but we were open to anything and it didn't have to be something that affected our family."
Both Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and pitcher Jonathan Lester are cancer survivors, and have dedicated their foundations to help battle that disease. Hendricks was able to connect with the Special Olympic athletes.
"It's amazing -- they're always so happy and so positive, it blows us away every time we go and spend time with them," Hendricks said. "It got to the point where, how could we not do this? We have so much fun. We love going to hang out with them. They get the joy of hanging out with us, but we're just having fun hanging out with them."
In July, Special Olympics Illinois will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The first Special Olympic Games were held in July 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago, thanks to the efforts of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Hendricks wasn't sure the Cubs' schedule -- and his pitching timetable -- would allow him to attend but he was going to try.
For his part, Hendricks said he just wants to have fun with the athletes whenever they're together. His involvement is low key, which is natural.
"That's me," Hendricks said. "That's probably why I gravitated toward it. ... It's a perfect situation and it fell into our lap."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.