ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The idea came to Joe Maddon as he heard Kevin Garcia’s story of resilience Thursday, and the Tampa Bay Rays manager wanted to continue the recognition. There, Maddon saw a chance to extend Garcia’s happiness. There, Maddon saw an opportunity to make a strong young man’s day.
On Thursday night, Garcia was recognized at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission’s third annual “Sneaker Soiree,” which honored the region’s standout amateur and professional athletes. Garcia, who graduates June 6 from Strawberry Crest High School in nearby Dover, Fla., was given the Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award for playing in his school’s varsity basketball game on Senior Night in January despite suffering from scoliosis, a condition characterized by a abnormal curvature of the spine.
Before that night, Garcia had played two years on the junior-varsity team. But Strawberry Crest High coach Andre Lewis wanted to give Garcia a Senior Night to remember. So Lewis asked Isaiah Channer, a varsity player, to sit out the game against Spoto High School and allow Garcia to play.
Channer agreed, and a dream was realized. Garcia shot five 3-point attempts, missing each one, but he was fouled in the final seconds and made two free throws. The crowd cheered. After time expired, Garcia danced. The student’s story, the student’s energy, touched Maddon.
“I was just so impressed,” the manager said Friday, before the Rays began a three-game series against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. “How could you not be?”
Maddon has become known for creative guests this season — from musical acts to members of the animal kingdom — and Garcia might be the best of them all. How the meeting came to be shows the manager’s awareness.
Also Thursday at the Sneaker Soiree, left-hander David Price was presented the “Rays Moment of the Year” for winning the 2012 American League Cy Young Award. As Francis Garcia, Kevin’s mother, recalls the conversation, Maddon approached Kevin at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre about Price’s “Rays Moment of the Year” trophy and said, “Can you take this award home with you and bring it back?”
Garcia did just that, keeping the prize close to his bed as he slept. He was invited to Tropicana Field on Friday to present the honor to Price before the first pitch. But prior to the ceremony, there were a number of meet-and-greets with Rays players during batting practice, courtesy of Maddon.
“Ryan,” the manager said to infielder Ryan Roberts near the batting cage, “I want you to meet a friend.”
“This,” Maddon said later, “is (infielder/outfielder) Kelly Johnson.”
Finally, Garcia met Price.
“This guy can shoot some hoops,” Maddon said to the pitcher, as the three spoke near the Rays’ dugout.
“They’re pretty good,” Garcia, 18, said of the players. “They’ve got skills. They’ve got everything. … I’m a No. 1 Rays fan.”
Francis said her son was on “cloud nine” and called the experience a “dream come true.” Kevin is the family’s sports enthusiast, the mother said, and he stood on the field with a white No. 15 Rays jersey among members of his favorite team. It was a moment he never would have imagined more than a day earlier.
Garcia was surprised to receive an invite to be Maddon’s special guest. He made the most of his chance, and the Rays made a memory for him.
“I didn’t know all this was going to unfold,” Francis said, “but he’s enjoying it.”
After the presentation was complete Friday, Garcia moved to the side, close to an exit behind home plate. Players gathered. Another game was about to begin.
Maddon stepped from his dugout and walked toward Garcia. He had one more thing to say.