VALRICO — As of two weeks ago, Raelynn Nichols had never been to Tropicana Field, or any Major League Baseball stadium for that matter.
She'd seen the games on television and the highlights on ESPN's Sports Center, but not from the stands — let alone the view from the field.
That all changed on July 15 — in a big way.
Raelynn, 13, was one of three national finalists in her age group chosen to participate in the softball portion of Major League Baseball's Pitch, Hit & Run competition held at Yankee Stadium during the All-Star Game festivities.
"Wow, I was so excited to go up there and compete with all the other players," said Raelynn, who represented the Tampa Bay Rays in the 13- and 14-year-old division. "It was a lot of fun."
Raelynn enjoyed a free three-day trip to the All-Star Game after winning a super-regional competition in Winter Haven.
It was the first time Pitch, Hit & Run added softball to the competition, one that includes more than 60,000 children nationally. Before this year, boys and girls (ages 7-14) competed only in baseball.
"For (Raelynn) to make it that far among all the players in the country was such an honor," said her mother, Patty Nichols. "When I got the call from (MLB) saying Raelynn won (the super regional), I thought it was a joke."
So did Raelynn.
"My mom and dad told me the news, and I thought they were lying to me," she said. "I just figured they were messing with me."
Once reality set in, a difficult decision had to be made. Who would accompany Raelynn to New York City? Would it be her father, Eric, who coaches Raelynn for the under-14 Florida Fire fast-pitch softball team or mother Patty?
"(Eric) and I went back and forth," Patty Nichols said. "We both kept telling the other to go, but Eric insisted it was me because he thought mostly moms would accompany the softball players. So I went but, as it turned out, the two other girls in Raelynn's division brought their dads."
Raelynn and her mother had recently been to New York City, but their sightseeing was minimal.
"This time we got to go see the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge," Raelynn said. "It seemed like we were everywhere."
The first time Raelynn stepped into the House that Ruth Built and onto the field, she couldn't believe her eyes.
"The grass looked fake," she said. "It was so perfect and all checkered and stuff."
There was a reception the night of July 13 at Jay Z's 40/40 Club, followed by breakfast the next morning at the Waldorf-Astoria.
And then the competition.
The Pitch, Hit & Run activities got under way as fans filed in for July 14's Home Run Derby. After that, Raelynn got to shag fly balls during the derby, which was televised live on ESPN.
"I didn't catch any (balls) though," she said. "All the taller boys got in the way. But my friends back home text messaged me and told me they saw me."
The following day, Raelynn and her mother attended the All-Star Game.
She returned to Valrico with great memories and a bat bag full of souvenirs. She got autographs from Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers, former Chicago Cub great Andre Dawson and a batting helmet signed by the USA Softball team. Raelynn also stood next to New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.
"Yes," she said, when asked if Jeter was as handsome in person as advertised.
As for the competition, Nichols placed second in her age group. And while she didn't leave with the title, she did win the MLB Sportsmanship Award among the girls.
"The whole trip was amazing," she said.