CLEVELAND: Dillon Howard’s mother had a question for her 19-year-old son soon after he signed a contract with the Indians that included a $1.85 million bonus: What did he plan to do with his windfall?
Fancy cars, flashy jewelry, expensive designer clothes, a cache of the latest electronic technology?
Howard’s mother, Angie Moffitt, had something more meaningful in mind.
“My mom sat me down and said, ‘Dillon, you’ve come into something good, and I want you to think about giving back’. My mom’s always done that for me — she’s the one who keeps me grounded,” he said
Being grounded is how Moffitt has managed to raise three kids as a single parent — Dillon, Emma, 16, and Ben, 14, who is autistic. Because he was diagnosed as a young child and Moffitt took such a proactive approach to educating herself and those around her about the disorder, Ben is now entering his freshman year of high school.
With that in mind, Howard and Moffitt logged onto their home computer in the small town of Searcy, Ark., and began searching for a charitable organization to donate a portion of the signing bonus Howard received as the Indians’ second-round pick (67th overall) in the June draft.
They weren’t looking for just any charity. They were searching for a Cleveland-based organization that supports the education of autism-spectrum disorders like Ben suffers from.
“Ben’s had a big impact on my life and taught me a lot of lessons,” Howard said Tuesday while sitting in the Indians dugout. “He’s humbled me at times and made me realize that everyone has things to be grateful for. Many of us take those simple things for granted every day.”
Soon, Howard and Moffitt settled on the Milestones Autism Organization. It is a non-profit located in Beachwood that was founded in 2003 by Cleveland parents to promote lifelong strategies of success for individuals with autism, from childhood through adulthood.
“The journey that Dillon and his family took is one which mirrors the journey of Milestones,” said Ilana Hoffer Skoff, the executive director and mother of an autistic child herself. “And that’s one with the focus on education and a focus on behavioral intervention.”
In addition to Milestones, Howard is also donating some of his signing bonus to a place in Searcy called the Sunshine School, which benefits disabled children.
“That’s just who we are,” Moffitt said of her son’s undisclosed monetary generosity. “I told Dillon, ‘Nothing is just given to you. You’re going to continue to be blessed if you give things back.’ ”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as one out of every 100 children might fall within the autistic spectrum of autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Development Disorder. Wherever a child is on the spectrum, research shows that the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the long-term prognosis.
“The thing that Ben has brought to us is perspective,” Moffitt said. “Dillon’s gifts are obviously great in the athletic and baseball world. But we recognize all the gifts that people have. Just because Dillon’s [gift] is under these lights, it doesn’t make his brother’s gifts or his sister’s gifts any less special.”
Howard conceded that it took patience, and then some, while interacting with Ben as the boys grew up together.
“I’ve learned that people process information differently,” said Howard, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-handed pitcher who was ranked as the 31st-best prospect entering the draft by Baseball America. “When Ben was young, he’d throw temper tantrums just for small things. It was tough, but it taught me patience — big time.”
When Howard wasn’t home with his family, they were often “home” with him — on a baseball field.
“We’ve lived baseball for a long time already, traveling around everywhere to play ball,” Moffitt said.
As a high school senior, Howard went 9-1 with a 0.31 ERA in 12 starts for Searcy High. In 58 innings, he limited opponents to just two earned runs and struck out 115 batters en route to being named the high school player of the year in Arkansas by both Gatorade and MaxPreps.
“He’s an advanced feel-to-pitch high school pitcher,” said Brad Grant, the Indians’ director of amateur scouting. “He has a 90-94 mph fastball with late sinking action to it that produces a lot of groundball outs, but he also has a lot of swing-and-miss to his fastball at the same time.
“The thing that separates him is his ability to pitch with his fastball. He locates it to both sides, he can move it in and out and up and down.”
Taking such a big leap from high school to the pros by skipping college was something Howard took time to ponder.
“I had to step back and do a serious self-evaluation,” he said. “Was I mature enough to seriously pursue being a professional baseball player as a job? But at the end of the day, I thought I was ready and old enough to handle it … Being a professional baseball player has been my dream since I was old enough to have dreams.”
So what does Ben think of his brother’s new job?
“He’s pretty excited,” Howard said with a grin. “Nothing like this has ever happened in our family. So, it’s a pretty big deal for all of us, including Ben.”
Still, Ben might not fully comprehend why signing to play professional baseball is such a big deal.
“The belief and trust that an autistic child has is incredible,” Moffitt said. “Ben’s kind of like, ‘Of course Dillon is [going to pitch professionally]. After working at [baseball] all these years, what do you expect?’ It just teaches us a lot about faith and believing in your dreams.”