Evan Chambers, a beloved and respected member of the Pirates organization who lost his life far too early last year at the age of 24, will be with the Curve in spirit this season thanks to a good friend.
Keon Broxton went to high school with Chambers in Lakeland, Fla., and the two baseball teammates also were great friends. The news of Evan's passing on Dec. 1 hit Keon hard.
"I was just in complete shock," said Broxton, the Curve's left fielder. "I wasn't expecting that to ever happen. I still battle with it every once in a while thinking about it."
Chambers died in his sleep of unknown causes at his apartment in Tampa, stunning everyone who had grown to know and care about him within the Pirates organization.
He played 31 games for the Curve in 2012 and would have been back in Altoona last year, but he suffered a broken foot and missed most of the season. A third-round draft pick in 2009, Chambers rehabbed his injury and likely would have started this season with the Curve.
As fate would have it, his high school teammate, who also was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Diamondbacks, now finds himself getting ready to play in the same outfield where Chambers played.
Thursday night: Rained out
Tonight: Erie at Altoona, 6:30 p.m.
Pitchers: Curve RHP Nick Kingham (3-3, 2.70 for Altoona in 2013) vs. SeaWolves RHP Warwick Saupold (7-6, 3.28 for Erie)
Covering the bases: Page C4
Broxton was traded from the Diamond-backs to the Pirates just last week and assigned to the Curve.
To honor his fallen friend, Broxton is wearing No. 53, Chambers' number for most of his pro career. (He wore 39 with the Curve in 2012.)
"We were really close," Broxton said. "He was one of my best friends. I'm just going to play for him now.
"I'm wearing his number this year just so he's out there with me."
That means a great deal to Chambers' mother, Denise.
"A number is a special thing, it's a sacred thing," she said Thursday night from her home in Florida.
She spoke with Broxton by phone this week, and he asked her if she would be OK with him wearing Evan's number in tribute.
"It was a beautiful conversation, and we cried together," Denise Chambers said. "They had a bet together, the two of them, of who was going to make it to the majors first. He told me, and then we both started crying on the phone.
"I told him that I know he's going to make it and that Evan will be there with him. It really got to him when I said that. I told him we loved him and that we would be there to support him and we thought it was wonderful for him to honor his friend in this way."
Broxton was playing winter ball in Australia and could not attend Evan's funeral, but getting to talk with her son's friend this week meant a great deal to Denise Chambers.
"He said he's not good with words, so he didn't know what to say," she said. "So I told him in a situation like this, nobody knows what to say. So just to say hello means a lot. He promised he would stay in touch, and I told him that we support him and encourage him.
"My daughter, Monica, talked to Keon, as well, and told him that he has a heck of a responsibility to continue Evan's legacy because of the respect he had from his teammates. And Keon agreed, and he promised Monica that he would do him proud."
Evan's mother is so grateful her son is remembered with such affection by so many people, and knowing he's still an inspiration to Broxton and others makes her very proud.
Evan's birthday was March 24, near the end of spring training. The day before that, when their exhibition game had been rained out, more than a dozen Pirates minor leaguers took a bus to visit Tampa for a get-together arranged by Evan's mother at his apartment complex in Tampa.
"It was just great to see the guys," Denise Chambers said. "We were thrilled."
The Chambers family also expressed tremendous gratitude for the Pirates and the way the organization has been so considerate since Evan's passing.
"The Pirates organization is second to none," Chambers' father, also named Evan, said. "They are absolutely phenomenal. We are just blown away by the love and the feeling of family. They invited me to go down there and speak to the minor league players, and when we got down there, they handed us a $5,000 check to support the foundation [for disabled kids] that Evan really liked and participated in."
The Pirates plan to hold "Evan Chambers day" in Bradenton for the Marauders' home game July 10.
"His time with the Pirates was the most nurturing coaching and mentoring in baseball that he ever experienced," his mother said. "He loved it there."
Broxton now has a chance to continue his career with the Pirates, and he will be the Curve's starting left fielder. When you see him take the field wearing No. 53, pause for a moment and think of Evan.
As his mother said, a number is a special thing. So is a good friend.
Follow Giger's Curve and Pirates updates and analysis on Twitter @CoryGiger.