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Pennsylvania baseball team awards man a free funeral

By Laura Ly, CNN
August 21, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Paul to receive a funeral package valued at nearly $10,000
  • It includes a free casket, body removal and preparation, and use of a local funeral home
  • Paul's heartfelt essay addresses his struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease

(CNN) -- A Pennsylvania baseball team awarded a 64-year-old man free funeral services after he wrote a winning essay as part of a promotion.

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a minor league baseball team from Allentown, promoted the essay contest. It asked fans to describe their perfect funeral in 200 words or less.

After judges from the team's staff and a participating funeral home reviewed the entries, Steve Paul, from Freemansburg, emerged as the winner.

Paul will receive a funeral package valued at nearly $10,000, courtesy of Reichel Funeral Home in Northampton.

It includes a free casket, body removal and preparation, use of the funeral home for any viewings and ceremonies, a vehicle to transfer the remains, as well as the professional services of the funeral director and staff.

It is the most valuable prize ever awarded to a fan in the team's history.

The idea for the promotion was thought up at an annual fall retreat that team general manager Kurt Landes and his staff take every year.

They received about 50 entries, Landes said.

"Some were very jovial and lighthearted, some were very serious, and many were in-between," he said. " A lot of people spoke about their love of baseball."

Among the entries, one man offered to wear an IronPigs T-shirt at his funeral. Another wanted his ashes sprinkled over the field by a hang-glider.

Another essay detailed how he wanted his ashes placed behind home plate so that he could always second-guess the umpire, Landes said.

Though many of the essays were humorous, Paul's heartfelt essay won the judges over. It described his unexpected diagnosis with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Sharing the burden of ALS

"The disease is racing, as my family must watch the strength, energy and life quickly drain from my body," Paul wrote. "No one was prepared, emotionally or financially, for the loss or to prepare a final memorial."

Paul's perfect funeral will be an intimate affair with just his family and friends present to "laugh, cry and tell anecdotal stories."

He hoped to win the funeral not for himself, but to help his relatives who "must now deal with a very rapidly approaching time of loss."

"My memorial should not be morbid or sad, but a gathering to enjoy and celebrate life and family I dearly loved," Paul wrote.

The contest ran throughout July. After the winning essay was read at Tuesday night's game, and Paul arrived in his wheelchair to accept his award, the entire crowd roared in support.

"It really turned into a very heartwarming and really tear-jerking moment," Landes said.

The funeral contest was meant as a celebration of life, not a glamorization of death, Landes said. It's one of many contests and fun promotions that the team sponsors every season.

The IronPigs made headlines this year with the installation of a urinal gaming system. It was a promotion sponsored with the Lehigh Valley Health Network to remind men to get checked for prostate cancer.

"You actually play the game by directing your stream," Landes said. "We have about four or five games on rotation, but our most popular is one where you control a snowmobile with your stream and you try to hit penguins. The more penguins you hit, the higher your score."

When you walk by the men's bathroom, you often see people high-fiving each other or joking about their high scores, he said.

Before, during and after the game, videos remind men about the importance of checking for prostate cancer.

The point of all of these promotions, Landes said, is to bring the community together and create an atmosphere of excitement around the team and the games.

"What's most important for us is to promote that atmosphere of creativity and community. We always want our fans to be excited about what's next," Landes said.

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