Glenn Willey-Hope For Heroes

We've all had heroes in our lives and for me it was Pete Rose. I played baseball just like "Charlie Hustle." I slid into second base headfirst and would always run to first when I was walked. If Pete did it, I did it. Unfortunately, like many heroes Pete had faults. As a kid I never recognized those faults but as an adult, I was truly heartbroken when Pete admitted to gambling on baseball. I tried to defend him because he was my hero, but I couldn't. It made me angry and it made me sad. Even though I'd never met him, my hero had let me down.

Charles Barkley made it clear a few years ago that he was not a "role model." I argue athletes are role models like it or not. How many times did you and your friends get together for a wiffle ball game and you proudly yelled out, "I'm Derek Jeter or I'm Albert Pujols!" Yet so often these super human talents prove to be just regular human beings and often let us down.

My oldest son is 8 and a HUGE baseball fan. He can hold his own in a baseball conversation with any sportswriter. He's a die hard Tampa Rays fan mainly from our time in Durham, North Carolina. Durham is the home of the Bulls, the Triple A affiliate of the Rays. We had the chance to follow players like Longoria, Price and Upton since their minor league days.

A little more than a year ago my son had the chance to take a private baseball lesson from Elliot Johnson. You may not know Elliot, he came up through the Rays organization with a stop in Durham. He's spent the past two seasons up with the Rays and is having a fantastic year. Back when he was with the Bulls, Elliot would offer private lessons in the off season.  

Since that day a few years ago when my son had the lesson with Elliot we've stayed in touch. We've sent Elliot notes about my son's baseball team and congratulated him when the Rays clinched a playoff spot last season. Each time Elliot has taken the time to respond, it's meant so much to my son and to me as a parent. You see, my son has chosen Elliot Johnson as one of his "heroes." He's got an Elliot Johnson t-shirt, plays shortstop like Elliot and insisted I draft Elliot for my fantasy baseball team this season. As a boy I played baseball like Pete Rose. Today, my son wants to play baseball like Elliot Johnson.

Recently we had the chance to go to Anaheim to see the Rays take on the Angels. It was my son's first major league baseball game in person. He was busting at the seams talking about seeing Longoria, Price and of course Elliot.

We got to the stadium early and waited along the right field line for autographs just hoping to get a minute with Elliot. But Elliot was busy getting ready for the game, he plays shortstop so he spent most of batting practice at shortstop and left field. As batting practice came to an end and the players went to the dugout I could see the life draining out of my son. The usher politely told us to go to our seats, the game was going to start soon and we weren't going to see Elliot.

I knew exactly how my son felt. I'd spent hours waiting along the rails at Riverfront Stadium back in the 70s hoping to catch a minute with Pete Rose or maybe Johnny Bench but it never happened. I patted my son on the back and said, "let's go have a seat buddy the game will be starting soon."

As we were walking back to our seats I felt helpless. I wanted my son to have a few minutes with his hero but didn't know what to do. In what may be my first ever legitimate use of Twitter I sent a "tweet" to Elliot Johnson. "Elliot, sorry we missed you during BP. We were in RF (Right Field), U R a LF (Left Field) guy. Good Luck today!" It wasn't 5 minutes later I got a private message from Elliot on Twitter! "Sorry I missed you guys, I'll be out at 7..come down to the dugout."

My heart was racing, I told my son Elliot was coming out and wanted to see us! I could immediately see my son's face coming back to life. Grinning ear to ear we both walked past an unsuspecting usher toward the dugout when we saw Elliot come out. Keeping in mind it's now 5 minutes to game time and Elliot Johnson is standing in the dugout talking with me and my son. It was just a few minutes neither me nor my son will ever forget. Elliot ended our talk by reaching into the dugout, pulling out a baseball and signing it for my son. What a moment!

I'm not sure Elliot has any idea what those few minutes meant to my son. Here's a major league baseball player taking time to meet with an 8-year-old just minutes before a game. I think the world of Elliot Johnson and heck, even an old Reds fan like myself has developed a BIG soft spot for the Tampa Rays and specifically, Elliot Johnson.

Thanks Elliot for restoring some of my faith in professional athletes. You're a first class guy and a player I'm more than happy to have my son try to imitate.

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