Bonded by baseball: 3 young Brewers fan battling illnesses forge friendship on spring training trip

The Milwaukee Brewers host Aurora Health Care’s MVPs Brandon Krueger, Malakai Kaesermann and Evan Rennicke at spring training. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Health Care)

PHOENIX – “Your team is your family” is a popular saying in sports and a culture teams strive to create. The connections can form from common interests, mutual friends or just being around each other.

In baseball it’s no different, with kids and pros alike often playing with the same teammates for years.

But for three boys and their families from Wisconsin, they didn’t meet on a field or at a team dinner. They met and have bonded through a similar struggle: trying to defeat their deadly illnesses with the eventual goal of getting back on the field to play the game they love.

Brandon Krueger, Malakai Kaesermann and Evan Rennicke have all endured life-threatening diseases during their young lives.

Brandon, 15, was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when he was 12 after barely growing the previous two years. The second baseman had to shift to a liquid diet to ensure he received the nutrients he needed to grow and continues to receive biologic infusions.

Molly and Matt Krueger of De Pere, Wisconsin, said their son was “in his element” at spring training Sunday after falling in love with baseball when he was little. They noted how natural and comfortable he was with all of the players, including Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Joey Wiemer, who gave Brandon a game-used bat and went out to dinner with the whole family.

Malakai, 13, has undergone several long and complex congenital heart surgeries since he was young, with his last surgery occurring when he was 3 years old. He continues to take care of his heart through regular echocardiograms and by taking aspirin every day to prevent blood clots.

He may undergo more surgeries in the future, but his parents Amber and Mike Kaesermann know that Malakai’s experience in Phoenix can bring a lasting impact of joy during the dark days back home in Oconomowoc.

“It’s memories he’ll take with him the rest of his life and he can think back on these positive memories, even when things aren’t so good,” Amber said.

Evan, 11, is the youngest of the three boys. He recently fought off cancer for 15 months when he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma (a cancerous brain tumor) in 2022. He underwent aggressive chemotherapy treatment and recently was cleared of all cancer in his brain.

Chelsie and Andy Rennicke enjoyed seeing their son enjoy himself without having to worry about his treatment. Evan also found his love of baseball at a young age, even picking up a stick and a rock in Rennicke’s backyard to hit it around like it was a baseball. The Ixonia natives could tell from early in the trip that the week would be one to remember for the entire family.

“(Just) knowing that he got to be on the field with the players and getting to get tips from all of the baseball players that he looks up to was amazing,” Chelsie said.

“We’ll never get to experience something like this again,” Andy said. “It’s just been tremendous.”

The three were selected from a pool of Aurora Health Care patients, all nominated by their respective pediatricians, to be their representatives after treatment. Aurora Health Care is an official sponsor of the Brewers, with this being the second consecutive year and third overall of the program. Brandon, Malakai and Evan were selected to be the Aurora Health Care MVPs on Feb. 14 at American Family Field.

Brandon Krueger, Evan Rennicke and Malakai Kaesermann learned about their trip to Milwaukee Brewers spring training on Feb. 14. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Health Care) (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

Brandon Krueger, Evan Rennicke and Malakai Kaesermann learned about their trip to Milwaukee Brewers spring training on Feb. 14. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Health Care)

The boys and their families thought they were on a tour of the stadium, but quickly found out from Brewers star and former MVP Christian Yelich that they would be flying to Phoenix for spring training.

They all traveled with their families and spent four days in the Valley, culminating in throwing out the first pitch at Sunday’s Brewers-Rockies spring training game.

The boys were stunned when they heard the news, with Malakai and Evan initially not realizing what was happening.

“I was speechless,” Malakai said. “When they (Yelich) said in the video, ‘Can’t wait to see you down,’ I thought they meant some day. I didn’t know I was actually coming down to Phoenix.”

“I did not understand it,” Evan said. “And then when he passed it over to his teammate, I looked over at Malakai and I started smiling like, ‘Is this actually happening or is this a dream?’”

Dr. Donald Beno, Aurora Children’s Health Care pediatrician, was Brandon’s caretaker and nominated Brandon. Beno made the trip to the Valley as one of the representatives from Aurora Health Care to watch the three boys go through the experience that “gives them the chance to be a kid again.”

“The children and their families have all been through major struggles, and this is a great way to help in their healing process and give them a chance to get away from the offices and treatments and just have some fun,” Beno said.

The families flew from Milwaukee to the Valley on Feb. 22 to begin their all-expenses paid trip. Aurora Health Care and the Brewers organized a full itinerary for each day with the families being driven around, so they didn’t have to worry about any of the normal stressors during a vacation.

“They have taken all the planning and all the worry away,” Molly said. “We are just really watching this through our eyes, and that also is a gift because we’re just in awe.”

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Blake Perkins, left, shares advice with Brandon Krueger, Malakai Kaesermann and Evan Rennicke before Sunday's first pitch. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Blake Perkins, left, shares advice with Brandon Krueger, Malakai Kaesermann and Evan Rennicke before Sunday’s first pitch. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

Throughout the week, the boys participated in team warmups, toured the clubhouse and met members of the team. Before the three threw out Sunday’s first pitch, they received advice from Milwaukee outfielder Blake Perkins, and later did the honors as junior announcers for the bottom of the fourth inning.

Perkins went to social media after Sunday’s 10-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies, posting that meeting the boys “made my week.”

Malakai was particularly excited about the opportunity to join the booth, as he was able to announce his idol, shortstop Willy Adames, in the profession he dreams of joining later in life.

For Evan, he took full advantage of getting to meet Perkins, who gave him catching advice leading up to the first pitch. Evan will return to playing baseball this year as a catcher after not being able to play last year due to his treatment.

During their visit to the Brewers practice Friday, he also warmed up and played catch with Yelich, even creating a handshake with pitcher Hoby Milner.

The favorite moment of the weekend for Brandon was going out to dinner with his idol, Wiemer, calling the whole experience “breathtaking.”

The entire experience for Brandon, Evan and Malakai was not only a reason to celebrate their shared fandom, but it also served as an escape from the reality of their appointment and treatment-filled lives.

“I didn’t have a single day off in February,” said Malakai, appreciating the opportunity to forget about the appointments, even for just a weekend.

In the past, the Rennicke family has written all plans in their calendars in pencil, due to their constantly shifting schedules with Evan’s checkups and chemotherapy sessions. This time, they didn’t have to worry about anything changing, with Evan saying, “It’s just amazing that we had it on the calendar and we didn’t have to take it off.”

The change of scenery for Brandon has made a massive difference as he thought about the impact of their visit this week.

“You just gotta stop and look around and enjoy the moment. I mean, this doesn’t happen to everybody, so I’m glad we were chosen,” Brandon said.

The effect of this trip can snowball into something more than a positive childhood memory. It can grow into an experience that gives a boost in the recovery process for all of them.

“Medicine isn’t just what you take, it’s kind of just getting those memories back and enjoying what you did,” Brandon said.

Throughout the entire experience, Malakai, Evan and Brandon and their families have bonded over their shared traumas, with the hope that the week’s events will be the start of each of them having their lives go back to normal.

Brandon Krueger, left to right, Malakai Kaesermann and Evan Rennicke stand for the national anthem after throwing out the first pitch at American Family Fields of Phoenix. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

Brandon Krueger, left to right, Evan Rennicke and Malakai Kaesermann stand for the national anthem after throwing out the first pitch at American Family Fields of Phoenix. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

The Kaesermann, Krueger and Rennicke families have bonded through their shared love of baseball and experiences in and out of appointments and offices. Even though they have only been together for two weeks, they’ve created a unique connection for life.

“The families really have bonded over the last three days and the commonality (is) baseball. They’ve been through their different struggles, but baseball can bring these boys together. It’s been just outstanding getting to meet the other boys as well,” Andy said.

“We’ve made friends for life. Baseball brought us together,” Molly said. “Our different illnesses and medical situations brought us together, which is unfortunate and probably (a) lifelong situation, but we’ve made lifelong friends through them.”

A tender moment from their trip occurred at their hotel one morning, after the families visited the Brewers at practice. While at practice, Brandon and Malakai received signed Brewers trading cards, including one from Yelich. That next morning at breakfast, Brandon realized that Evan did not receive a card the previous day, and gave Evan a Yelich signed card to make sure he walked away with one as well.

Chelsie witnessed the exchange and was taken aback by how close the boys had become in such a short time.

“It just melted my heart to see these boys who just met and doing this amazing,” Chelsie said. “They’re still paying it forward to each other.”

In just two weeks, the boys became great friends and started to realize their time together on this incredible journey was ending.

Evan mentioned to his parents Sunday that the reality was starting to hit him, telling his parents, “I’m kind of sad. I’m meeting some friends that I’m never gonna get to see again.”

That conversation represented the entire mission of the Aurora Health Care MVPs and the trip, bringing together kids and their families to enjoy what they love and catching up on lost memories together.

“The instant bond over baseball and the trials that they’ve gone through has been awesome,” Chelsie said.

It was revealed to Evan, Brandon and Malakai that this will not be the last time they’ll be together, as they all will attend a Brewers game in July at American Family Field.

Even though the boys’ trip with their idols and newfound family was coming to a close, the memories and connections they made through baseball will last a lifetime.

“All three boys have very different reasons why they’re here this week, and just to see that they’re just boys,” Chelsie said. “They’re just boys who are out enjoying the game of baseball.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.