"How was the cancer? Was it hard?"
The innocent question posed by a little boy named Zein Youseff came at Major League Baseball star Jon Lester like a line drive back to the mound, but he fielded it with the deft touch only a cancer survivor could muster.
"Was it hard?" Lester replied thoughtfully. "Yeah, it was hard. But you know, it was-- I think it helps you later, you know? Once it's over, nothing else holds you down."
The meeting between the 7-year-old Southern California boy, who is battling brain cancer, and the then-Boston Red Sox ace who had successfully fought his own cancer diagnosis and would go on to win a second World Series ring came more than a year ago on a very hot August afternoon at Dodger stadium. It forged a bond that has endured even as Lester continued on his path of baseball stardom and Zein bravely battled a series of setbacks, inspired by the diamond idol who always has time for him.
Lester's baseball glove bears the little boy's signature, and Zein is on the left-hander's mind as he continues his work with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, meeting with hundreds of young cancer patients and their families to sign autographs and boost morale.
"He's just one of those kids, one of those personalities [with whom] just clicks," Lester told FoxNews.com. "It's just one of those deals where you hit it off and you feel comfortable talking to him."
This time last year, Lester and the Red Sox were still playing baseball, on their way to winning the World Series in six games against the St. Louis Cardinals. Lester has since been traded to the Oakland A's, bringing him closer to the boy who occupies a place in his heart. But even while the two are far apart, they stay connected. Lester is known to tweet out support before Zein undergoes procedures in his ongoing battle.
"He definitely pulled through for Zein quite a bit- his words of encouragement, his tweets," Zein's father, Tamer, told Fox News. "Through the darkest moments, they actually brought some light to him and to us."
This summer brought an unfortunate turn, when Zein relapsed after being in remission for a month and a half. Lester summoned his young friend and family to a conference room at Angels stadium, where his team was playing the Anaheim team. Meeting again with the 6-foot, 4-inch hurler inspired Zein anew.
"He's tall, big and good," Zein said. "And good at baseball, too.
"He told me 'never, ever quit,' and then after he was done saying that I said, 'Never, ever give up.'"
Lester also got a lot out of the reunion.
"If I can just lift his spirits a little bit, then that's great," he said. "He's a friend of mine, and somebody that I think of a lot."
As the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants prepared to play a seventh game to determine this year's world championship, Zein's cancer battle, which has included stem cell therapy, bone marrow transplants and gruelling chemotherapy sessions, continues. His parents keep his thousands of followers posted on his progress on Zein's Facebook page,
Lester is free agent, coming off an All-Star season that saw him win 16 games and post a career-best 2.46 earned run average. Several teams will almost certainly bid tens of millions of dollars for his services, and even he has no idea where he will land. But he vows to bring his work with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation with him.
And fans in the next city to have the 30-year-old ace on the team will be lucky to have him.
Just ask his buddy Zein.
Don Fair is coordinating producer for Fox News Channel, Los Angeles.