Beltran lifting spirts of cancer-striken boy
Outfielder videotapes birthday messages to 13-year-old
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The assignment came from his wife, Jessica, and Carlos Beltran immediately embraced it. Like Jessica, Carlos has known Jeriel Rodriguez since the boy was 5 years old, long before he began undergoing chemotherapy treatments for a rare form of cancer.
So there was Beltran in the clubhouse earlier this week, bouncing from locker to locker, asking his Spanish-, English- and even Japanese-speaking teammates to deliver a simple video message to Rodriguez: Get well soon, buddy.
"Now this is going to make him feel better," Beltran said, clutching his pocket camcorder in one hand. "It's the least I can do, you know?"
It is, in fact, only a portion of what Beltran and others have done for the boy.
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Ever since their days together in Beltran's hometown of Manati, Puerto Rico, Carlos and Jessica have been friends with the Rodriguez family. And, of course, they knew Jeriel. Those close to the boy describe him as the definition of precocious, a child active in his church, school and community. When Jeriel and his parents moved to the Washington area several years ago, the boy began communicating regularly with Beltran and his wife through Facebook. And Beltran began offering the family tickets whenever the Mets were in town to play the Nationals.
But the relationship transformed last winter, when Jeriel, then 12 years old, was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer attacking the muscles in his chest. The prognosis at the time was grim, but Jeriel aimed to defy it. The night before beginning chemotherapy, he climbed on stage at a church function, singing a song that evoked the emotions of his struggle.
"There was not one dry eye in the entire auditorium, as you can imagine," said Gloria Harding, a local salon owner who has since raised significant money to support Jeriel's family. "And that's just the kind of kid he is. He believes very strongly in God, and he believes God is using him to help other people."
Upon hearing the news of Jeriel's condition last winter, Beltran invited Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez over to his house in Puerto Rico, where the two taped a video message and sent it to the boy. For a time, it worked -- despite needing five months of chemotherapy treatment, Jeriel was smiling again. He was, in other words, typical Jeriel again, the type of boy who starts conversations at his children's hospital in an attempt to cheer up other patients.
"He's just a remarkable child," Harding said. "He was like that before he was sick. Everybody knows Jeriel because he's just such a bright spot. He loves everybody. He's not a typical 13-year-old. He's very pleasant and very respectful, a really wonderful child and you just want to help him. Anyone who knows him just wants to help him."
So imagine how Jessica Beltran felt earlier this week when Jeriel -- in his third month of chemo -- sent her a Facebook message describing his treatment sessions, his side effects, his compete lack of energy. At an age when he should have been preoccupied by his upcoming birthday (he turned 13 on Thursday), Jeriel instead found himself in the midst of depression.
"He's a special kid, a very smart kid," Carlos said. "Just watching him going through what he's going through, it's very sad."
Thinking the same, Jessica hatched an idea, asking her husband to tape some more video messages from the Mets -- this time as a present for Jeriel's 13th birthday.
So Beltran sidled from locker to locker earlier this week, tracking down various teammates for the project. He filmed a birthday message from Jose Reyes. He taped well wishes from Ike Davis. He asked interpreter Mike Peters to help Ryota Igarashi send a greeting.
"Everybody thinks I'm up to something funny, but it's not funny," Beltran said as he made his clubhouse rounds on Tuesday afternoon. "This is something that's going to make his day. I'm going to send it to him, and when he receives it, he will feel better."
The Beltrans aren't the only ones helping out, either. Earlier this year, Harding's Tranquility Day Spa held a raffle in Jerial's honor, raising $10,400 and promoting local awareness. Two months later, a Washington-area bakery donated a cake for Jeriel's birthday.
"They asked him what he wanted on the cake," Beltran said, laughing, "and he said he wanted the Mets logo. He's a Nationals fan, but he's a huge Mets fan."
For Beltran, this has most certainly been a trying spring. More than a year removed from right knee surgery, Beltran volunteered to move from center to right field after reporting to camp in less than top shape, and now even playing right field has become a question. In his final year under contract with the Mets, Beltran's status for Opening Day remains very much in doubt.
But all those issues seem insignificant compared to the 13-year-old cancer patient who calls him Uncle Carlos.
"Sometimes we feel we have problems," Beltran said. "Compared to that, it makes you..."
He trailed off for a moment, before rediscovering the thought.
"I have a 3-year-old daughter, and it makes me come home and thank God for giving me a healthy child. Sometimes things don't go your way in life, but it's nothing compared to what he's going through."
Which is why Carlos, Jessica and so many others are committed to helping.
"He's doing really, really well," Harding said. "His doctors cannot believe the amount of progress that he's making, and the diagnosis they gave him was not very positive at all. He's beating the odds right now, and he believes that to be a miracle."