Mo Gaba passed away July 28, 2020 at the age of 14. “I lost my best friend today,” his mother Sonsy Gaba posted on Facebook. “[Your] legacy will live on love bug.”
PressBox honored Mo Gaba as our 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. Here is that story, as originally published Dec. 16, 2019:
The first few months of the 2018 season were a trial for Orioles star Trey Mancini. By the MLB All-Star break, he was hitting .216 with a slugging percentage to match at .363.
His sister, Katie Mancini Pettinari, suggested he get away from baseball — that “whatever it was he did, it should be something fun.”
Mancini told his sister he had plans.
“Trey said he wanted to stay [in Baltimore] and hang out with Mo and his mom,” she said. “He didn’t want any cameras there. He just wanted to take them out for the day and have time with them with no interruptions.”
Mo is Mo Gaba.
For Baltimore sports fans who tune in to sports talk radio, Mo’s cheerful, sunny voice and infectious laugh have become as familiar and welcomed as, say, Hall of Fame announcer Chuck Thompson’s vibrantly descriptive play-by-play was to older generations.
Certainly, the high-pitched timbre is far different from the late, great Thompson, but 13-year-old Mo, a four-year veteran of Baltimore’s sports airwaves who lives in Linthicum Heights in Anne Arundel County, has, quite unintentionally, developed his own admiring following.
So in July 2018, Mancini was already a fan of the youngster who has battled four occurrences of cancer since he was nine months old. The first, when he was a baby, left him blind. Still another has impaired Mo’s ability to walk.
However, during that All-Star break in 2018, it was Mo who was encouraging to the strapping 6-foot-4 Mancini.
“I hung out with him and his mom all day and it was just one of the best days I’ve ever had honestly,” Mancini said in an interview with MLB Network. “It put some things in perspective. If somebody can stay that positive, then you know your problems in life aren’t too tough. So he’s the man and I’m excited to see him.”
PressBox agrees and is recognizing Mo Gaba as Sportsperson of the Year for 2019 along with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as Athlete of the Year.
“The second you talk to Mo, you can tell he’s such a cheerful kid. He looks at life in the best way possible and shows how we all should aspire to be,” Mancini said. “He certainly has had reasons to be down but he never shows that. And anyone who has met him would agree with me that any of us would love to have lived their life the way Mo has lived his.”
As it turned out, that All-Star break time spent with Mo may have had an impact on Mancini’s career. After that day, the outfielder-first baseman raised his batting average 30 points to .246 with 24 home runs by the end of 2018. The success continued in 2019 with a .291 average, 35 homers and 97 RBIs.
As those who have heard Mo on the radio know, his trademark is his unbridled optimism (before the 2019 season, Mo was certain the Orioles would make it to the World Series), and he explains his upbeat outlook this way:
“Every morning when I wake up, I think I’m going to do something great,” he said. “And there’s actually more to it — I actually pray that nothing bad is going to happen, and then when nothing bad happens, I’m OK.”
“I Saw The Magic Of Mo”
Mo’s prominence began four years ago with calls to the Scott Garceau Show with Jeremy Conn, the afternoon drive-time sports talk show on 105.7 FM. Mo wrote a letter to the radio personalities inviting them to appear at his elementary school. The two accepted the invitation, but it wasn’t until a bit later that they learned of his health issues. They also learned that little Mo has a very big personality.
“We handed him the microphone and we didn’t get the darn thing back,” Conn said, laughing at the memory. “You would have thought he was the main performer at a rock concert — he gets the mic and just goes. He did the Ray Lewis, ‘Are there any dogs in the house?’ cheer verbatim. He’d get people to cheer and say, ‘I can’t hear you!’ and then, ‘One more time!'”
Conn said other sports fans are moved, even occasionally overwhelmed, by Mo’s innocently powerful persona.
“Some people will be on hold and they’ll come on after Mo, and they’ll say, ‘How am I supposed to follow that?'” Conn said. “And the thing I get asked about the most on social media or when I’m doing events is Mo. People genuinely care about this kid. I go back to his laugh because whenever he laughs, it puts a smile on your face and a tear in your eye. It just lights up a room. It’s my favorite thing to hear. … Of all the things I’ve done in sports and radio, I get asked about Mo more than anything else.”
Mo’s celebrity went national in April 2019 when the Ravens asked him to announce their fourth-round draft pick. The card Mo read the pick from was written in Braille. The event was history making in that it was the first time an NFL draft pick was announced using Braille.
Mo — wearing a Ravens jersey and speaking to the thousands gathered at the Ravens’ Draft Fest held at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — declared in a strong, clear voice, “With the 123rd pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens select Ben Powers, Oklahoma, guard!”
The crowd let out a full-throated cheer.
Simultaneously, Mo’s announcement was being viewed in the Ravens’ draft room where Eric DeCosta, in his first draft as the team’s general manager, was watching along with head coach John Harbaugh and other Ravens staff. There, Mo’s reading of the selection was greeted with emotional applause.
“When Mo made that pick and they showed the community rallying around him and we could see his joy, it was the most powerful moment of the draft for us,” DeCosta said.
“It was at that time I saw the magic of Mo and the ability he has to galvanize a community,” he added. “To see someone who has so much love for something that you do daily, for someone to have so much love and support and praise and enthusiasm for this team, he feels like family.”
“Something I’ll Never Forget”
That was just the beginning of DeCosta’s appreciation for Mo. Until then, DeCosta may have been one of the few folks associated with Baltimore sports who wasn’t very familiar with the youthful radio call-in contributor.
“Because of my job, I don’t listen to much talk radio … so I didn’t know Mo, although I had heard of him,” DeCosta said.
What DeCosta knew were the basics — “he was a young boy who had some serious health issues but was an avid sports fan who called in to the radio.”
Then DeCosta discovered what Mancini and others have learned. Meeting Mo is, indeed, a game-changer for how one looks at life.
After the draft, Mo visited a Ravens practice and DeCosta approached him.
“I reached down and I introduced myself to Mo. The first thing he did was say, ‘Oh, hi Mr. DeCosta.’ And then he grabbed my hands with his hands, which is a very powerful thing,” DeCosta said. “I can’t explain it, but there was a bond, I could feel the energy. I’m not the most spiritual person, but this was a very dynamic and powerful moment where I could feel a bond with Mo. And I just couldn’t fathom the poise he shows. His personality, his enthusiasm given all of his health issues and all he’s been through was astounding.”
DeCosta has been with the Ravens in various capacities since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996. His desk could be crowded with photos showing him with any of the many players who have worn Ravens purple. However, prominent on his desk, along with photos of his family, is one of DeCosta with Mo, both beaming.
“I look at it every day and you can see the joy we’re both sharing,” DeCosta said.
The player who Mo announced to Baltimore sports fans, offensive lineman Ben Powers, has been touched by their chance intersection as well.
“The first time I met him in person, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, Mo …’ and before I could even say, ‘It’s Ben,’ he said, ‘Ben, Ben,’ and he was so happy to see me. That’s something I’ll never forget,” Powers said.
“He has that energy and whoever he talks to, he’s going to share that energy,” he added. “A simple interaction with Mo is going to change your life. You’re going to have a different outlook on how you’re going to approach things.”
A Local Celebrity
In large part because of his radio celebrity and media attention, Mo, an eighth-grader at Lindale Middle School, has gotten to do some neat stuff. He’s thrown out the first pitch at an Orioles game, and he was an honorary captain at the Ravens’ home game against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this season as part of the NFL’s Crucial Catch initiative encouraging early detection of cancer.
“That was Mo’s first football game. He was feeding off the noise of the crowd, hearing people getting excited and cheering,” said Heather Darney, the Ravens’ senior director of community relations who has helped coordinate Mo’s interaction with the team.
Darney said she and Mo’s mother tried to keep him apprised of the game action, which wasn’t easy.
“There were all these people coming up to him — ‘Hey Mo, I hear you all the time on the radio’ — so it was tough keeping him engaged in the game because he’s really a little celebrity moving around the stadium,” Darney said.
Mo’s mother, Sonsy Gaba, first discovered her son’s health issues in a baby photo when she noticed that instead of the normal red-eye that’s produced in photographs, her son’s eyes were white. And so it began.
The cancer that began affecting Mo’s eyes occurred elsewhere — sinuses, a femur, most recently, a lung. There have been operations and radiation and chemotherapy. Lately, oral chemo seems to be shrinking the tumors in his lung, Sonsy Gaba said, and the side effects aren’t as bad.
For Sonsy and Mo, it’s a good sign that instead of spending half their time in the hospital, it’s down to 20, 25 percent.
“The most defeating thing in the world for a parent is to not be able to take care of your child [because] something is out of your hands,” said Conn, who takes part in fundraising to fight childhood illnesses, including for Mo. “I tip my hat to Sonsy for how she has plugged along and making Mo have as rich a life as possible even though they were dealt what I consider an unfair hand.”
While Mo has been something of a public person for four years, Sonsy Gaba is still amazed by it all. When Mo went on the field at M&T Bank Stadium at the Bengals-Ravens game, the crowd was cheering his name.
“After the game, it took a good 30 minutes to leave because people wanted to take pictures and high-five with Mo,” Sonsy said.
“At the hospital, people will stop and ask — ‘Is that Mo? Is that the Mo?’ So now, he’s known as the Mo.”
Mo himself is a little bewildered by all the fuss.
For instance, regarding the M&T Stadium crowd calling his name at the Ravens game, he said, “I didn’t even know how people could recognize me.”
Teeming With Positivity
Mo has used his celebrity to promote fundraising and awareness-raising efforts aimed at treating childhood cancers. He’s even made some road trips to advance the cause.
But he’s also a kid who wants to do kid things.
He goes to school as much as possible. His favorite subject is math.
His favorite food is pizza with pepperoni and pineapple. “Some people don’t like it. I can’t understand why,” he said.
Mo has a best friend he’s known since kindergarten whom he likes to spend time with and is easy to talk to, he said.
He enjoys wearing clothing that shouts Orioles or Ravens or Batman.
And he enjoys playing video games. His favorite is Mortal Kombat, where he gets to guide different characters through a shot-up landscape by reacting to sound effects and the vibration of the controller.
Asked if he’s aware of the inspiration he provides to others, he responds simply, “Yeah.”
And asked whether it can be hard being Mo some of the time, he says softly, “It is pretty hard, yeah.”
And finally, when asked what the good things are about being Mo, his answer is typically upbeat and confident: “I’m not upset over anything and nothing — nothing — can stop me from being myself.”
It is exactly that outlook that has captured the hearts of those in the Baltimore region and beyond.
And while Mo may be Baltimore’s sports superfan, it is the athletes who have been left with profoundly lasting impressions after knowing Mo. That bond doesn’t end when a player leaves Baltimore, such as former Orioles pitcher Zack Britton, who was traded to the New York Yankees in 2018.
“Mo was at one of our games against the Yankees and Zack Britton went over to talk to him, and other guys who have played here will all look for Mo and come away with a big smile on their face,” said Mancini, who wears an orange “Mo Strong” wristband. “That says a lot. Even when players leave Baltimore or are traded, they remember Mo and want to see him when they come back.”
Mancini’s sister, Meredith Mancini, sees the impact Mo has had on her brother.
“Mo really inspires Trey, so Trey really looks up to him. Mo puts a lot of things in perspective for Trey,” she said.
Mo’s uplifting attitude transcends sports.
“He’s a uniter, that’s what he is,” DeCosta said. “It’s easy to feel bad for yourself. And Coach [John] Harbaugh has a gift that when people are feeling badly about themselves, he can pull them up. And Mo does the same thing, he really does. In his own way, Mo is a coach. He’s coaching all of us to be the best we can be in the moment and that’s what makes him special.”
Such praise surprises Mo. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just a kid who likes to talk about sports.
In Mo’s mind, his optimism and positive outlook don’t make him special. They’re simply a matter of common sense.
“If you’re not positive,” Mo said, “nothing good will happen.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens
Listen to the story here:
Originally published Dec. 16, 2019. Updated July 28, 2020