Tuesday morning started out like most for young Dillin LaRue since being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma in February.The 10-year-old from Cottonwood, Ariz., who was at Phoenix Children's Hospital for another round of chemotherapy, was sitting on his bed playing on his tablet when
Tuesday morning started out like most for young Dillin LaRue since being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma in February.
The 10-year-old from Cottonwood, Ariz., who was at Phoenix Children's Hospital for another round of chemotherapy, was sitting on his bed playing on his tablet when his door swung open to reveal Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitchers J.J. Hoover and Tom Wilhelmsen. The duo stopped by to visit many of the young patients and their families at the healthcare facility -- the first of many such appearances by D-backs players slated for this season.
The trio sat in the youngster's room, talking to one another about Nerf toys, superheroes and, of course, baseball. But no matter where the conversation took them, the 10-year-old couldn't stop smiling.
"I just couldn't believe they came to see me," said LaRue, holding a baseball that the pitchers had signed for him. "I just hope they come back so we can play together when I'm healthy. Today was one of the greatest things ever."
LaRue's mother, Melissa "Lucy" Tennihill, was nearly in tears as she watched the two pitchers take time out of their schedule to interact with her son and the other young patients.
"The fact that these men come to see people in our situation is just amazing," said Tennihill. "Dillin is a pretty happy kid who loves to talk, but he is a huge fan of the D-backs and this means the world to him. I'd be surprised if he ever puts that ball down."
Hoover called LaRue "a fighter with a great spirit" and said that it is kids like Dillin that remind him how important it is for MLB clubs to show support throughout the community.
"I did these kinds of appearances a few times when I was with the Reds, so coming here and helping take the kids' minds off their problems for a day is important to me," said Hoover.
Two floors above LaRue's room sat Christopher Watson, a 17-year-old from Payson, Ariz., who was recovering from surgery to correct a chest wall deformity resulting in a sunken sternum.
Hoover and Wilhelmsen talked to Watson, and at one point, Wilhemsen even gave his own rendition of a song he plays on his didgeridoo.
"It almost felt like I was just talking to two of my friends," said Watson.
Watson said he wasn't a huge baseball fan until last season, when he got caught up in the Cubs' championship run. However, the self-proclaimed musician said he is eager to get out to a D-backs game to see Hoover, Wilhelmsen and their D-backs teammates out on the field.
"The fact they came out and signed baseballs for me and just sat and talked about music with me for a while was really cool," said Watson. "So seeing them play is definitely something I want to do."
After meeting several other children, the players went down to The Child Life Zone at the hospital, where they were able to interact with 13 other kids and their families, which included impromptu piano playing for Wilhelmsen, as well as some shutout air hockey.
"What can I say?" laughed the reliever, who lost, 1-0. "The kid could play."
Wilhelmsen, a native of Tucson, Ariz., said this visit was something he's wanted to do in part due to his connection to the local community, but more importantly to help brighten the kids' day.
"We met some super All-Stars who were kind enough to welcome us and share their stories," said Wilhelmsen. "I got my butt kicked in air hockey, but all in all, it was a pretty successful morning. It's great to be able to step away from the park, meet some fans and spend some time with them. It keeps you grounded a little bit and helps you realize what's truly important out there."
Hoover expressed how he would feed off the strength of the children he met and put it toward his work on the mound.
"They absolutely have the right attitude," said Hoover. "They're a bunch of fighters, and I just loved being around them."
Ian Kraft is a contributor to MLB.com.