Harper draws inspiration from stricken teammate

PHOENIX – Erick Cruz is learning to bat left-handed. He used to hit behind Bryce Harper(notes) for the SoCal Redwings, a traveling youth baseball team, so he knows the look of a beautiful left-handed swing. Cruz's right-handed swing was almost as gorgeous. He wishes he still could bat right-handed.

The pain is too much. Cruz has been pumped full of chemotherapy and blasted by radiation. Weekly spinal taps ate at his will and shots of every manner and variety punctured his skin but not his spirit. Leukemia tried to take Cruz's life. It failed. The only thing missing is his right hip, ravaged by corticosteroids and removed on Valentine's Day; the prosthetic replacement ached too much when he tried to start playing baseball again after a couple months, so he turned himself around and found hitting lefty felt just fine.

Erick Cruz (left) and Steven Contreras were guests of the Make-A-Wish Foundation at Monday's All-Star Home Run Derby.
(Arizona Diamondbacks)

Bryce Harper was here this week for the Futures game, which showcases the next generation of stars in Major League Baseball. Erick Cruz was here this week for the All-Star game with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which gives children suffering from life-threatening illnesses a chance to live out a dream. Like, say, catching a home run ball.

During American League batting practice on Monday, Cruz stood behind the right-field fence at Chase Field with six other kids here through the program. Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters(notes) tattooed a ball toward him. It nearly scraped the top of the fence as it whirred toward Cruz. He stuck out his left hand. The ball struck it flush and hit the ground with a thud. He picked it up. He was a little rusty.

"He would've probably played college ball and gone on to the big leagues," Harper said. "That's something me and him truly believed when we were younger. That's all he wanted to do: play baseball and be a big leaguer. Erick is stronger than anybody I've ever been around in my life. Just being able to get through everything – it's amazing. He's loving being out here."

Cruz last went to an All-Star game in 2008 after a friend gave his father, Lupe, a pair of tickets. The Redwings had finished a month-long stretch on the road during which Cruz struggled to run to first base. He figured it was fatigue. Then he started throwing up. His lymph nodes swelled. Tests showed leukemia, cancer of the blood. Cruz was 14.

"I broke down at first," he said. "Two weeks later I had the mindset, 'I'm good. I can't do nothing about it.' If you were crying, I didn't want to see you. I didn't want no one feeling sorry for me."

The chemo and radiation and spinal taps drained Cruz, now 18. Especially the spinal taps. Doctors would stick long needles into his back and extract spinal fluid to ensure the cancer wasn't spreading. Cruz woke up in such pain he would punch holes in the wall. He missed a year at Claremont (Calif.) High.

But he improved. Doctors declared his cancer in remission six months ago, though they warned leukemia's recurrence rate is higher than most. Cruz shrugs. He's done with cancer. He wants to figure out how to drive the ball left-handed like he did right-handed.

"I draw inspiration from a lot of people," Cruz said. "But he's my inspiration to get back on the field."

He pointed to Steven Contreras, who stood against the fence and watched balls fly over his head. Contreras turned around and grinned.

"He's missing half a leg and still playing football," Cruz said.

"And baseball," Contreras made sure to note.

Contreras is 17. He goes to school at Rolling Hills Prep in San Pedro, Calif., about 50 miles from Claremont. Bone cancer took the bottom half of his left leg. It was either amputation or radiation, and Contreras wanted to get back to playing sports as soon as possible, so he told the doctors to cut. His one-year remission anniversary is July 23. Contreras uses a carbon-fiber prosthetic blade to walk. He balances better when he runs, which is how he still charges from third base, barehands balls and throws them to first base with ease.

Cruz met Contreras on Saturday at the Make-A-Wish meet-and-greet. They hit it off immediately. Cruz likes the Angels. Contreras likes the Dodgers. Both love baseball. They could've wished for anything. They chose the All-Star game.

Slugger Jose Bautista (middle) of the Blue Jays poses with members of the Make-A-Wish group prior to Monday's All-Star Home Run Derby.
(Arizona Diamondbacks)

Here they could meet Jose Bautista(notes), who took time during batting practice to walk behind the fence, introduce himself to each kid and sign balls and hats and baseball cards. And they could see Robinson Cano(notes) launch home run after home run with his perfect left-handed swing – the sort Cruz envies.

These were just men, though, mortal like everyone else. Sports helped Contreras beat his cancer. Just not as much as a little boy. The first night Contreras stayed in the hospital, scared this was the beginning of the end of his life, the boy, with a mask over his face and no hair on his head, barreled out of his room with a medicine pole cart, jumped on it and rode it down the hallway. He put his index finger toward his lips. Shhhh, he told Contreras. He was supposed to be in his room, but even a child knows isolation is no way to live life.

"He was a 3-year-old," Contreras said, "and he was my hero."

Bryce Harper saw his again this week. He tries to keep in touch with Cruz. Things are moving so fast for Harper – the promotion to Double-A and the major leagues and everything they dreamed about together – that it's tough to find time. He thinks Cruz understands.

"He's an unbelievable guy, an unbelievable player," Harper said. "I love him to death. He's a real hero."

Cruz gets it. He's happy for Harper. Cruz saw how hard he worked, the innate talent. The first time Cruz faced him, Harper hit a home run. The next day, Cruz's father recruited Harper to join the Redwings. They went 96-2 one summer. They did it together and were going to keep doing it until life intervened.

For now, Cruz is hitting live batting practice with friends. He still can't run. His hip should be ready by the spring, when he's going to try out for the baseball team at Claremont. By then, he figures, he'll feel as natural from the left as the right.

"My dad shares season tickets for the Angels," Cruz said. "I'm starting to not like going to games because I want to play so much. If a ball is coming toward me, I start twitching."

Baseball does that to him. He saw his old friend, Bryce Harper, the best power hitter in the minor leagues. He made a new one, Jose Bautista, the best power hitter in the major leagues. The whole thing was a home run. Another wish come true.

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