Young Red Sox fan swings for fences

BOSTON -- The Nashua (N.H.) North Angels went 13-2 in the Cal Ripken League this spring, and with the playoffs coming up, Sam Maden, their all-star shortstop and pitcher, was looking to get the attention of the Red Sox.

"Sweet Sammy" is what his mom, Tara, likes to shout out to him for encouragement when he is on the field, a great baseball nickname but one that tends to embarrass her 12-year-old son. You know, moms and all that.

Sam, as you might imagine, is a big Sox fan. He went to Fenway to see a game for the first time three years ago, when he was 9, and as luck would have it, he was randomly chosen to be the kid to go down onto the field before the game and yell, "Play ball.'' The Sox came up big for him that day in the game. "J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell both hit grand slams,'' he said.

Now, Sam was hoping the Sox would come through for him again, but this time, he was shooting for something more than memories. He wanted the team to take a stand, just like the one he took, against bullying, especially against members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Maybe if you'd known Sam's uncle, Chris Nutile, you'd understand why. Nutile, Tara's brother, cared deeply about such things and shared that attitude with his nephew, who always looked forward to visits from his uncle, who split his time between New York and Miami but usually made it back to Nashua for the holidays.

Nutile was gay, and one of the causes he was most passionate about was the Trevor Project, a crisis and suicide prevention counseling service for youth, especially members of the LGBT community. At Pennichuck Middle School, where Sam is a seventh grader, time is set aside for the kids to do something to make a difference. Sam and a couple of his buddies organized a bike-a-thon for the Trevor Project, and raised $800.

Nutile would have been proud, of course, had he lived. But he was in Brazil this past winter during the devastating mudslides that struck that country, and in January the family was notified by the U.S. consulate that he had been killed, although the circumstances of his death, Tara said, have never been fully explained. Nutile was 43.

It was Chris Nutile's memory that Sam Maden was looking to honor with his pledge to the Trevor Project. But then it turned into something bigger. One of Sam's teachers told him about a Giants baseball fan in San Francisco, a 35-year-old accountant named Sean Chapin, who had launched an online petition urging the Giants to make a video in support of "It Gets Better," a national movement started in response to the wave of suicides among bullied teens, especially those with an LGBT orientation.

Sam decided to do the same, targeting the Red Sox. Barry, Sam's dad, signed off on the project, and Sam posted his petition at a website called Change.org. Tara posted a link on her Facebook page.

"Greetings, Boston Red Sox,'' it began. "Every day, gay and lesbian teens in middle school and high school are made fun of and bullied. It's sad that some of them are bullied so badly, they commit suicide. There are videos on YouTube called 'It Gets Better' that tell young people it is OK to be who they are.

"My name is Sam, I am 12 years old and my two friends and I really like the Boston Red Sox. We have looked up ways to change our community, and our country. On YouTube and Facebook you can see examples of 'It Gets Better' videos. There are hundreds. So please, can you make a video to help young gay and lesbian teens? You can help us save lives one teen at a time.''

Brian Purchia is the communications director for Change.org. He happens to be from Winchester, Mass., and is a Sox fan. His reaction when he discovered that a 12-year-old was behind the "It Gets Better" petition to the Sox?

"Just shocked, honestly,'' he said. "It's a very brave act by a middle school kid, in the face of the kind of pressure that can come from society and in school when you do something like this.''

Sam's petition was featured on the Change.org site, and within a couple of weeks, it had received 9,240 signatures. "We never saw this coming,'' Tara said. "It's been incredible.''

On Thursday, Purchia said, he reached out to Susan Goodenow, the Red Sox senior vice president of public affairs and marketing. A day later, the Sox had pledged to make a public service announcement for "It Gets Better.''

"The Red Sox organization takes the issue of bullying seriously," the team said in a statement. "It is something that has touched many of us and those we love, and it is a growing problem in our community. We are proud of dedicated Red Sox fans like 12-year-old Sam Maden who have taken the courageous step of publicly standing up against bullying of LGBT youth."

The Sox became the third team to pledge to make an "It Gets Better" video. The Giants already posted theirs, with several players participating, and the Cubs have committed to making one. Purchia said there are now similar petitions directed to at least 20 other big league teams.

And who does Sam hope will be involved in the Sox "It Gets Better" video?

"I would like to see Dustin Pedroia in it because he is my favorite player and Jason Varitek because he is the captain of the team and seen as the leader of the Red Sox,'' he said.

And what would Uncle Chris have made of all of this?

"We are quite sure he is dancing and celebrating somewhere,'' Tara said. "He would have been shouting this from the rooftops.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.