By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Amid the smiling fans seen as cardboard cutouts supporting their favorite baseball team during a crowdless season due to the coronavirus pandemic, one stands out.
The face of Joaquin Oliver, a 17-year-old victim of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff members, has been seen in the crowd at 14 different ballparks this season — from Oracle Park in San Francisco to Citi Field in New York.
The cutouts of Joaquin were placed in baseball stadiums by Change the Ref, the nonprofit organization formed by his parents, Manuel and Patricia Oliver, to raise awareness about mass shootings and bring an end to gun violence.
The MLB initiative is called “83 Strikes and No Outs” because, according to Change the Ref, there have been “83 additional school shootings and zero changes to federal gun laws,” since a teen gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, and killed Joaquin and 16 of his fellow students, teachers and coaches.
“It’s very sad, but I guess that’s the point,” Manuel Oliver told ABC News’ Good Morning America of seeing his late son’s image amid cheering fans in baseball stadiums.
“I need to let everybody know that this random tragedy that hit our family, it could hit you tomorrow,” he said. “I need to go beyond sadness and be strong enough, because I have to, and have this story told that explains how this kid isn’t able to be there anymore watching the games that he loved so much unless he’s printed on a cardboard.”
Seeing Joaquin’s face in baseball stadiums across the country is particularly poignant for Oliver, who always supported his son’s passion for baseball despite not playing or following the game himself.
Two years before Joaquin’s death, he and Oliver had started an annual tradition of flying to a city, renting a car and then driving to all the nearby baseball stadiums.
“You have to fall in love, or at least support, the passion of your kids,” said Oliver, an artist who has also painted murals across the country featuring Joaquin. “Imagine if I hadn’t done that [with Joaquin and baseball]. How would I feel today?”
“Every minute that I spent with Joaquin, on the baseball field, in the baseball park, in trainings, it’s one of the most valuable treasures that I hold today,’ he said.
Oliver said he hopes the sight of Joaquin in the crowds inspires people to take action and join the fight against gun violence, whether it’s by voting, educating themselves, joining Change the Ref or even getting to know kids in their community who may be in need of help.
“I didn’t see a message like this one before Feb. 14,” he said. “Maybe if someone had the brave attitude of doing something like this before Parkland, maybe I would have been one of the lucky ones to see that, and maybe I would have done something before Joaquin was murdered. [I would have been] part of the solution.”
More than two dozen school shootings happened in the U.S. in 2019 alone, according to an ABC News analysis of incidents at K-12 schools. And school shootings represent just a tiny fraction of the firearm crimes in the U.S., with more than 185,000 aggravated assaults with a firearm in 2018 alone, according to FBI data.
Oliver said he is hopeful that things will change when it comes to gun violence and gun reform in the U.S., and he is hopeful that Joaquin will continue to lead the way for change.
“My son is not a kid who died and you can visit him every Sunday in the cemetery and that’s it,” said Oliver. “No, my son will be a main element in the change that this nation is screaming for, and that makes me feel a little better than just remembering my son as the kid who went to school and never came back home.”
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