baseball Edit

Success through struggle makes 'proud mama moments' for Cindy Caracci

OXFORD | Cindy Caracci sat in a breezeway on the Oxford Square Thursday and fought back tears and emotions thinking of a song and a connected significant moment.

Back on February 18, her son, Parker Caracci, made his Ole Miss debut with a a clean inning during an 8-1 blowout of Winthrop. After two years in the program but not on the active roster, Caracci was the one through the bullpen door, as “May We All,” blared through the speakers at Oxford-University Stadium.

All but a few of the announced 7,385 in attendance just heard a nondescript country song, but Cindy, sitting next to Lauren McGraw, had a plethora of thoughts flood her mind during her son’s warmup tosses. McGraw’s son, Rivers, was Parker’s best friend since eighth grade and took his own life in November 2016.

“May We All,” was played at McGraw’s funeral.

“When they start playing his walk-out song it still gets to me,” Cindy Caracci said. “That first game Rivers’ mom was sitting beside me. It takes me back every time. He stops before he leaves the bullpen and says a prayer. It’s an honor for him and he takes it very seriously.”

Caracci's No. 65 jersey is a tribute to Walker Wilbanks, a high school friend and teammate at Jackson Prep, who passed away from Hyponatremia after suffering symptoms during a high school football game against Oxford.

Losing a high school friend is severe enough, but McGraw’s death had a reaching impact on Caracci’s athletic career, as well. After a redshirt his first season in Oxford, the right-hander went to Elmira, New York, for summer ball and seemed to turn a corner. He fall ball 2016 with a roster spot likely, but after the second tragedy to hit him, Caracci lost form and was again relegated to the non-active part of the program.

“Losing Rivers rocked our world,” Cindy said. “He spent the night at our house I can’t tell you how many nights. The week before Parker went to Elmira Rivers spent the night every night for 10 days. It just rocked everybody’s world.”

In college athletics these multi-year struggles on the field all too often end with transfers and lower-level stories that aren’t told. Dreams unfilled and questions of what-ifs. But Caracci stayed the course despite no guarantees as year three approached in Oxford. He focused on baseball, went to work and found a significant role in a crowded bullpen.

Caracci has picked up three saves against top-15 teams in the past week, and a motivational moment between Cindy and Parker has become fact.

“He was either going to play for Ole Miss and be an Ole Miss Rebel or not play at all,” Cindy said. “Coach (Mike) Bianco is such a great coach and makes them such great men. Parker wanted to be a part of that program.

“God has a plan, is what I told him. There’s a reason why you haven’t been cut from the team. There’s a difference. It’s one of those things mamas say but I meant it and he took it to heart. Through the adversity it’s made him a much better player in a sense. He appreciates it. It’s grounded him. He has an appreciation for the game that he may not have had if he played that first year.”

Cindy Caracci credits the Ole Miss coaches and players for overwhelming support throughout her son’s difficulties. She said players sent texts and called daily for weeks following McGraw’s death, and assistant coach Carl Lafferty talked to her on the phone through her sobs as she drove from Jackson to Oxford.

Caracci was named the Ripken League most outstanding pitcher last summer, and after having to perform for so long with loss on his mind he went into the fall and then this current semester hopeful for a major increase in his role with the Rebels.

However, tragedy to those around him had another chapter. Caracci met Chandler Pipkin while in Starkville visiting friends one weekend his freshman year. The two reconnected, Cindy said, in December and were close friends who had been seeing each other often since then. The day after Caracci’s first pitching appearance, Pipkin, a student at Delta State, died unexpectedly.

Parker called his mother to relay the news, and the nurturing instincts to go to her son kicked in. However, he refused and handled the mourning without Cindy present.

“I told him I’d be there in two hours,” Cindy Caracci said. “He told me not to, and I listened and stayed in Jackson. Even at 10 p.m. that night I asked him if he was sure.

“He has lost more people in three years than I have in 57. That’s very sad and I have a friend who sat with us at Chandler’s funeral, and she said ‘I’m so sorry you’re having to do this again.’ He looked at her and said, ‘I am, too, but I’m getting used to it.’ That’s the hardest statement a 21-year-old can make.”

Baseball has been what’s kept Caracci moving forward, and he’s in the middle of a special season for himself and his team. After his first game, Cindy walked to the field and told her son she was proud of him. She acknowledges he’s grown and matured out of necessity and circumstance. He’s leaned on baseball and the opportunity to compete.

Cindy sits in the stands at Swayze Field with a notebook and charts what her son does on the field each time. It started so she could relay the stats accurately to her father, but now it’s a calming influence. Each of her son’s outings bring about a plethora of emotions and memories. They also exhibit a success story that featured many chapters no one asked for or wanted.

However, that doesn’t take away the pride she feels for how he’s pushed through it.

“Baseball has been the center of his life and kept him from going down some roads he didn’t need to go down,” she said. “That and his faith in God. He’s a competitor and he keeps getting up. He makes my heart smile. There are so many proud mama moments.”