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Tampa Bay Rays' Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza carry reminder of boy with cerebral palsy

ST. PETERSBURG

The band around the shortstop's right wrist is pale blue, the color of a child's unseeing eyes.

The words written on it mention strength, and it is a time that a man and a boy could use a bit of it.

The reason for the wristband is a message about hope, about faith, about the counting of blessings and how they can encircle a player and a budding fan.

This is a story about smiles, the one that Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett had to spare, and the one that occasionally creases the tender face of 1-year-old Landon Harrington, and the one that flashes across the face of his mother, Michelle Morales, when she thinks about them both. It is the story about a baseball player and a blind child he has barely met and how the two of them have touched each other's lives. It is the story about big moments and tiny ones, and how either can help to define a man.

It is a story that begins with Landon, the boy with the blue hair, as he sits in a stroller in his grandfather's house while a Mickey Mouse doll dances in front of him. It is Monday, the day before Game 5 of the ALDS but already, he is dressed in a Rays shirt and Rays shorts. Next to him is a plastic Rays bat. There is blue coloring across the top of his hair in the shape of a Rayhawk. Some infants, it seems, don't have a choice as to which team they will follow.

You should also know this: Landon has cerebral palsy. He is blind, and he has suffered from severe brain damage, and doctors are unsure if he will walk. Last week, he had surgery to have a feeding tube inserted because he was having trouble swallowing.

Also, you should know this: When Bartlett takes the field tonight, he will once again wear a rubber bracelet around his wrist to honor Landon. Not far away, teammate Matt Garza will wear one, too.

"It shows what kind of character he has," said Morales, 28. "He doesn't have to wear that wristband. He chooses to wear it. Yeah, he makes a lot of money, but he's just a regular human being. There is something past the uniform."

Yes, athletes can still have an effect on the lives around them. Sometimes, it just takes a moment, or a few words, or the simple act of sliding a rubber wristband over your hand.

"It's amazing that a normal person like myself can have that kind of effect," Bartlett said quietly. "Why am I the one in that position? Why did someone bless me like that?"

It was August when Bartlett and Landon met. He was signing autographs at an AT&T store, and Morales was so excited she canceled Landon's therapy for the day. For a long time, she had been a Bartlett fan because, "he seems like an all-around good guy. He seems like the sort of person I would want to be friends with."

That day, Morales showed up at 10 a.m. and was the second person in line. Unfortunately, she was told, the signing didn't start until 1 p.m. She stayed. "He was very young," Bartlett remembered. "He was still a little baby. Looking at him, you couldn't tell any of his problems. I didn't know until his mother handed me a letter telling me about them.

"It touched me right then. That's when she gave me the bracelet."

It is a simple enough bracelet, one Morales ordered online. "Landon Timothy," it says on one side. "Mr. Strong," it says on the other.

For Bartlett, the father of a healthy 2-year-old son named Jayden, it was difficult not to think about his own child. Wouldn't anyone? He brought the letter home and read it to his wife, Kelly. And then he put on the bracelet. Even now, he wears it on the field and off.

"When I look at it, it puts a smile on my face," said Bartlett, 30. "I think about how blessed I am. His mother said he will remember it all of his life. I know I'll remember it all of mine."

A couple of days after Morales gave Bartlett the wristband, she was watching a game. Something caught her eye, and she paused her DVR. Sure enough, he was wearing the wristband.

"It was so exciting," she said. "I got goose bumps. It was the coolest thing."

A few days ago, Bartlett was passing a man in the stands. He pointed out to Bartlett that he, too, had such a wristband. It was Landon's grandfather, Pedro Morales, a local physician.

As for Garza, he got his at a recent game, too. Michelle Morales was trying to get autographs, told Garza the story and gave him a wristband. Garza wears it, too.

"It was a humbling experience," said Garza, a father of three. "It's a reminder that there are worse things than losing a ball game. Fighting for your life is worse than fighting for an out."

The true baseball fan of the bunch is, of course, Michelle Morales. As a girl, she can remember following her father to games. When the Rays played their first game ever, she was delighted that he allowed her to skip school to attend.

How big a fan is she? Big enough that neighbors can hear her screaming as she watches games on television. Big enough that she protests when her husband, Tim Harrington Jr., dares to change the channel during commercials because, after all, the team will be right back. Big enough that her house key bears the team emblem. "The key to my house and the key to my heart," she says.

Around the room, there is the evidence of her passion for baseball. A replica of Bartlett's jersey from the 2009 All-Star Game is draped over a chair. On a nearby table, there are two action photos of Bartlett — and the wristband is evident in them both. Not far away, there is a framed photo of Garza throwing a no-hitter (complete with her ticket and a sample of dirt from the mound).

"Landon was born to be a Rays fan," she said.

Even with Landon at a year old, the Rays seem to excite him. Whether that is from her mom's excitement or from what he is hearing, and Morales thinks it's a bit of both, doesn't seem to matter. He kicks his legs, and he smiles, and he seems happy. What more could a mother want?

He was born two months premature, and after his birth, Morales got to hold him only a few seconds before he was whisked away. Brain hemorrhaging, they told her. He would spend 56 days in the hospital. More challenges are ahead.

"He's had a lot of diagnoses," Morales said, "but that's what he has, it's not who he is. He's the greatest. He's awesome. He's my buddy. I think he's really happy, and his smile just melts me. I just feel blessed to have him as a son. No regrets. Never.

"I think he's made me a better person. He's taught me to live in the moment. You don't look five years from now. If you look too far ahead, it gets kind of crazy. It's overwhelming."

For a moment, however, she looks into the future and imagines her son meeting Bartlett years from now. What would she want Landon to say to him?

"I'd want him to say, 'Thank you,' " she said. "Thank you for being my inspiration. Thank you would be good enough."

Tampa Bay Rays' Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza carry reminder of boy with cerebral palsy 10/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 8:43am]
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