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Dying Spring Hill fan finds fellowship with Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

Harry Cummings sat in his wheelchair by the dugout and took it all in.

"Is that home plate?" asked the 80-year-old Spring Hill man who doctors say has only weeks left to live. "It doesn't look that far from here to hit a home run."

Cummings is dying from kidney cancer. The former Baptist preacher says he is ready to go when God is ready to take him.

But Sunday he had some living to do, thanks to grandson Jeremy Via and the Tampa Bay Rays, who arranged for a pregame tour and meet-and-greet with players.

Cummings watches every Rays game on television and has followed the team intensely since its first game in 1998. But before Sunday, he had never been down on the field at Tropicana Field. He'd never met a Ray.

His favorite is Ben Zobrist, the All Star who is vocal about his Christianity. As Zobrist approached, Cummings got up from his wheelchair and stood at his side for nearly 10 minutes as they talked about baseball and their faith.

"A fellow Christian," said Zobrist, putting his arm around the frail man with a ready smile who had once played catcher in Little Genesee, N.Y.

Rays baseball helps keep him going, Cummings said. He's excited about the team's recent surge and hopes to see them back in the World Series.

And he's still thrilled that they dumped "Devil" from their name for the 2008 season, the same year that they made it to the World Series.

"Best thing they ever did," Cummings said.

He beamed as he chatted with Evan Longoria ("Hello, young man," Longoria said); jokingly scolded Jose Molina for not blocking wild pitches well enough ("I'm doing the best I can," Molina replied with a smile); and complimented the clutch hitting of rookie Wil Myers ("Thank you, thank you, thank you," Myers said).

"This is the happiest I've seen him in a long time," said Via, 23, who struggled not to cry.

Cummings helped raise Via and took him to his first Rays game about a dozen years ago. "He's like a father to me," Via said.

Via had been trying to gather enough money through an online fundraising site to take his grandfather back to a Rays game when Hernando County firefighters took up his cause, contacting the Rays.

The Rays provided four tickets in the plush Hancock Bank Club with free food and beverages for Cummings; Via; his brother, Garrett Helton, 15; and their mother, Celinda Jones, 54, who is Cummings' daughter.

It was a memory that everyone will hold onto in the difficult days ahead, Jones said.

"God, family, Rays," she said, reciting the family motto as she watched her father talk baseball with Rays manager Joe Maddon.

When it was time to leave the field, Cummings' white Rays hat was dotted with player autographs.

And he had met, touched and laughed with the men who he roots for every day.

"It keeps your mind off things," Cummings said. "But I know where I'm going."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

Dying Spring Hill fan finds fellowship with Rays 08/04/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 4, 2013 10:06pm]
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