(ran East edition)
Simon Shewmaker first played baseball when he was a few months old.
He could barely sit up, so it wasn't really throw-and-catch with dad. It was more like roll-and-catch. His father, Lenny Rai, would slide dime store plastic orbs across the carpet to his bald baby boy.
On each ball Rai, an elementary school teacher, had painted a letter.
"That's how he learned his ABCs," Rai said.
Now Simon is a 9-year-old baseball connoisseur. He plays Little League _ "anything but catcher" _ he wrinkles his nose at the mere thought. He spouts major league baseball statistics. He also roots for the Devil Rays. They like him, too. Just look at the stuff they have signed for him.
It started last year when his father took him to the Devil Rays' first minor league game. Father and son snagged a foul ball.
"I guess Simon saw other kids getting things signed and decided he'd try it," Rai said.
Simon approached the players and left the game with a ball autographed by many of his favorite up-and-comers. It was just his first treasure.
Since then Simon, a fourth-grader at Rawlings Elementary, has accumulated a cabinet full of signed balls, bats, gloves, pictures and pennants. It keeps growing.
His collection is on display at Rawlings where his mom, Teri Shewmaker, teaches. Soon it will move to Sawgrass Lakes, where Rai works.
"This is my favorite," Simon said recently, pointing to a ball signed by pitcher Rolando Arrojo in the school's glass display case. Arrojo is a former Cuban star who is expected to be in the pitching rotation when the major league Rays begin play next year. His deal is believed to be worth $7-million.
"One time he brought me down on the field and played catch. He doesn't know a lot of English, so we just kind of used a lot of sign language. . . . When he sees me, he always gives me a high five."
And a big smile. Simon has become a favorite with the players. They sign his baseballs and bats. But they also often stop to give him words of encouragement. One player even gave him a personally written inspirational card.
Not all the players know his name, but they know him by his kind demeanor and cheeky grin. But he is not pushy.
"A lot of kids just go up the the players and say, "Here _ sign this,' " Simon said. He sighed and shook his head.
"I ask them to sign it, and then talk to them."
It's just that simple for a 9-year-old baseball fan with the dream of being both a major league player and manager. "Oh, but not at the same time."
He adds to his collection every week and doesn't plan to stop. Is he missing anything?
"Well," he said, looking over his collection seriously.
"I don't have season tickets."