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Teen cancer victim visits Rays clubhouse

PITTSBURGH — Manager Joe Maddon may have found another motto after meeting his special guest Saturday.

Last week, Maddon was in his Fort Lauderdale hotel room when he saw an ESPN segment on John Challis, a Pittsburgh area teen who had an inspirational visit to PNC Park for a Yankees-Pirates game.

Challis, 18, who is battling liver and lung cancer, received national attention in April when he got a base hit in a high school game at Freedom (Pa.) High in his first at-bat in five years — "the hit heard around the world," said his coach, Steve Wetzel. The 5-foot-5, 95-pound Challis has since appeared on talk shows and at school assemblies across the nation spreading the message of his foundation, Courage for Life.

Maddon asked the Rays PR staff to try to get in touch with Wetzel and arrange for Challis to visit the Rays during this series. Challis walked into the clubhouse Saturday and found a personalized No. 11 jersey and met with veteran Troy Percival, starter Edwin Jackson and, his personal favorite, DH Cliff Floyd.

Maddon made a poster that had Challis' motto — Courage + Believe = Life — and had all the Rays sign it. Challis later gave Maddon a keepsake of his own.

When joining the manager's daily talk with the media, Challis said "Devil Rays." Maddon quipped that John owed him $1, a fine given in jest to those who use Tampa Bay's old name.

Someone produced a dollar and Challis signed it, a memento Maddon said he'll keep for life.

"I watch these guys on ESPN, and when they tell me they saw me on ESPN, it really puts it in perspective," Challis said. "It's really special."

UPTON UP IN ORDER: CF B.J. Upton made a rare appearance in the leadoff spot with Akinori Iwamura serving the first of a three-game suspension. Maddon approached Upton about the idea Friday night, and Upton said "it was a pretty quick answer for me. … I've always kind of liked the leadoff spot."

With Upton's leadoff-type numbers — .401 on-base percentage, 56 walks and 22 steals — Maddon felt he was the perfect fit. Saturday, Upton showed why, singling on the game's first pitch, going from first to third on a Carl Crawford single and scoring on a sacrifice fly.

Said Maddon: "He's kind of a leadoff hitter at heart."

TURNING TWO: SS Jason Bartlett has typically been so in synch with Iwamura, the two can anticipate each other's every move. With Willy Aybar taking over at second base the next couple of days, Bartlett admitted it'll be a transition, especially accepting a throw.

"Willy is pretty different as far as feed," Bartlett said. "I know Aki's rhythm, what kind of flips he's going to do, the speed of his flip. Willy likes to stay flat-footed and flip with his hands — I just have to get used to it."

For his part, Aybar played well in his first major-league start at second since 2006, turning a double play in the second and racing back to make a nice catch on a pop fly in the fifth.

MISCELLANY: Evan Longoria's three-game stretch with three hits and a home run in each made some history. The last rookie to do it was Johnny Frederick for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1929, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. … Rocco Baldelli went 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter for Vero Beach on Saturday and will continue his rehab today as DH in Sarasota. … Tickets remain for all three games in the Red Sox series starting Monday, but the Rays advise fans to buy tickets in advance. … ESPN the Magazine completed a photo shoot in Pittsburgh with four Rays — Longoria, Percival, Iwamura and Crawford — for an upcoming issue.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Teen cancer victim visits Rays clubhouse 06/28/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2008 11:35pm]
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