Eric's Heroes: King Felix and one brave little girl
SEATTLE -- Five days ago a little girl, flanked by her family, walked through a tunnel and out into the open. There laid out in front of her was the empty green grass and the empty green seats of Safeco Field.
"Look how pretty it is," said her dad, Jason.
"Oh look!" said her mom, Talia, pointing out to centerfield. "Look at the scoreboard!"
And there, in letters taller than the 8-year old girl, were the words, "The Seattle Mariners welcome Sophia Robinson."
Sophia was there to practice running around the bases of Safeco Field. And as she took her first lap around, her dad said, "She's actually super strong. It's pretty unbelievable."
He should know.
He was there when she was one week old and had open-heart surgery.
For the first time.
In her time on this planet, Sophia has had six heart surgeries. Two of them were open heart.
And sometime in the future, there will be another.
She was practicing running the bases so she could do it three days later in the Mariners' home opener.
The Mariners chose her because she is a symbol of something.
Her favorite player, without a doubt, is Felix Hernandez.
When her mom asks her why she likes Felix, she answers as if she's known him forever. "Because he's nice," she says.
Sophia was pooped and breathing hard after a couple trips around the bases in her practice session.
The next time she ran the bases, 44,000 people would be watching.
She looked off in the distance, contemplating what it would be like. "Ohhhhh... I'm kinda nervous."
Those who knew her story must have smiled when she said that. After what she's been through, it's amazing that anything makes Sophia nervous.
Three days later, it's Opening Day at Safeco.
The fans streamed in.
The roof rolled open.
The Moose made his entrance.
And so did Sophia, with her pink shoes and her big grin.
For a few moments she was so excited she was jumping up and down, like a colt turned out into a pasture.
When Felix trotted onto the field, Sophia pointed and gave out a little shriek.
And then a few minutes later, after the players had been introduced and the military jets did a fly-by and the ceremonial pitches were thrown out... a big guy wearing a smile and a baseball uniform came striding towards the little girl.
He reached down and gave her a big hug. Felix was bent at the waist, talking to Sophia, giving her words of encouragement and friendship.
And, as it turns out, they ARE friends.
You see, the two of them have met before. Many times.
It started a few years ago when the Make-A-Wish Foundation asked Sophia what she would do if she could do anything in the world. She answered, "I'd like to meet King Felix."
So she and her family came all the way from Anchorage, Alaska.
The two of them hit it off that day. Felix led her around Safeco Field and took her into the clubhouse, where they ate corndogs.
"I LOVE corndogs," the King had said that day.
At one point they actually got down on the ground and played in the dirt by home plate. They dug little roads and Felix piled up the dirt into a little mountain.
Then they wrote their initials in the dirt.
Just a couple of kids.
Felix saw something in Sophia. It was the same thing she saw in him: a friend.
Back home in Anchorage, Sophia's mom Talia followed Felix on Twitter.
To her surprise, he followed her back.
And then Sophia figured out that she could send her friend a private message on the account. So she did.
And he responded.
So they began keeping in touch.
"How are you feeling?" he asks in one tweet. "Just OK?"
She replies, "Yeah, just OK. My leg hurts, and I have a cold."
"That's no fun," replied King Felix.
Now the Robinson family comes to visit every year, so the unlikeliest of friendships can be rekindled again and again.
Sophia has not one, but TWO life-threatening heart conditions.
The first is a hole in her heart, called a "ventricular septal defect."
The other is something called, "coarctation of the aortic arch."
Neither is any fun. They are the kind of things that can bring a little girl, or a family, to their knees.
But on this day, as she was introduced to the cheering crowd, none of that mattered one little bit.
"Here to officially begin the 2017 season at Safeco Field," boomed the announcer Tom Hutyler, "to become the first ballplayer to touch 'em all, please welcome, from Anchorage Alaska, 8-year old Sofia Robinson!"
She got a huge ovation, and her grin seemed to stretch across the field like an infield tarp.
"On your mark! Get set! Go!"
She put one pink shoe in front of the other and floated down the first base line, waving to the crowd, smiling ear to ear.
Her 44,000 admirers shouted their encouragement.
She rounded second and headed for third, and she didn't look tired at all.
Around third she went, and when she looked up, there at home plate was a little welcoming party: Robinson Cano. Nelson Cruz. Kyle Seager... and her friend, Felix Hernandez.
She stomped on home plate, and everybody cheered and all four of them hugged her and patted her on the back. When they were done, King Felix wrapped her in his big arms for a bear hug.
When he let go, for a little moment, there was a huddle at the plate, and the five of them shared a private conversation right in the middle of a packed ballpark.
The crowd roared. Sophia grinned. And it was perfect.
Because, as we've learned, Sophia Robinson is a symbol of something.
Of perseverance. Of youth. Of friendship.
Just ask her pal, King Felix.