A few summers ago, Erick Cruz was playing summer ball with Bryce Harper.
This weekend, both were at baseball's All-Star celebration, with Harper playing in the Futures Game for top prospects. Cruz was overjoyed just to be watching the festivities from a suite at Chase Field, one of six families treated to the trip by the Phoenix-based Make-A-Wish Foundation
An 18-year-old from Claremont, Calif., Cruz made the varsity as a freshman at Claremont High during the 2007-08 school year.
"During the summer, I started getting tired for no reason," he recalled. "Little things made me gasp for air. When I got back home, I got a blood test."
The shocking diagnosis: leukemia.
"I was playing travel ball with the cancer in me," he said. "I didn't even know."
Following chemotherapy, radiation and prescription steroids, Cruz's cancer is in remission. But the treatment has taken a toll on his once-strong body. He needed knee surgery. When he started to work out again, he needed a full hip replacement.
"I haven't played in the last 2½ years," he said. "I'm starting now to work out, trying to get back in there."
While Harper was taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick of last year's amateur draft, Cruz had to take off a year from school because of his illness.
Now he will start his senior year at the end of the summer. Joined by his family, he was greeted with a reception Saturday night by Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Tim Brosnan and Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall.
Joining Cruz, a Los Angeles Angels season-ticket holder, were Clayton "Bo" Anderson, a 13-year-old from St. Bernard School who lives in Dallas; Jose Avalos, 16, who goes to Carver High and is from Houston; Steven Contreras, 17, who attends Rolling Hills Prep and lives in Wilmington, Calif.; Zachary McMasters, 13, who is entering Etiwanda High and lives in Fontana, Calif.; and Scott Selman, 14, who goes to Stevenson High and lives in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
MLB and the Make-A-Wish Foundation have been arranging such All-Star programs since 2003. The group arranged about 22,000 wishes for young people last year, including 13,580 in the United States.
"We grant more wishes during the summer than any other time of year. It's easier for kids to travel. The timing happens to be perfect," said Paul Allvin, vice president of brand advancement for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America. "Our kids all have life-threatening medical conditions. They're not terminal, but they have life-threatening conditions."
It's not just the kids who make the trip. Parents and siblings are included.
"Often times for these families, it's their first chance in a long time to forget about being sick and to just go back and be kids and family together," Allvin said. "It provides them a really important break. A lot of them really feel like it's a turning point in their fight to regain their health."
Selman walked off the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and was greeted by dozens of people, holding up a large banner and joyously shouting a welcome. The right-hander pitcher and devout Chicago Cubs fan, has Long QT syndrome (LQTS), as does his sister.
"It's an electrical short of the heart. It causes sudden death," said his mother, Aleyce.
He was diagnosed in the fourth grade. His father, Phil, is also his baseball coach. Both parents are proficient in using a defibrillator, just in case.
"My favorite thing in life is basically this. I just like playing. I love meeting players and I love baseball," Scott said. "I wasn't allowed to play for a year or two. I can't always — if it's really hot out, I can't do as much as I usually want to do. I have to sit out a couple more innings than most of the other people on my team."
Avalos is fighting muscular dystrophy, McMasters is battling brain cancer and Anderson is combating leukemia.
In a ballpark filled with thousands of happy fans at Tuesday night's game, these six may be the happiest.
"We can't control what we do on the field, but we can certainly control what we do off the field," Hall told them. "I'm so proud of those of you that are battling and even beating. I'm glad you're here healthy, happy."