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Rick Houston | | May 28, 2014

Houston: Tampa has huge heart, and not just for baseball

  Tampa head coach Joe Urso, his son J.D. (left) and Nathan Maxwell.

CARY, N.C. -- Imagine nine-year-old Nathan Maxwell standing there on the Little League field when the bus pulled into the parking lot.

After going through treatments for a cancerous tumor at the base of his brain, it’s the first full season of baseball he’s been able to play in three years. The kid has endured an astonishing 78 weeks of chemo, and the unimaginable side effects that went with it.

Nathan has loved baseball with all of his heart for virtually all of his life. He tried to keep playing, and there were times he’d play catch and hit with his grandfather Gary Calhoun for hours on end and then go to the side of their home and throw up.

The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which pairs those with pediatric brain tumors with local high school and college teams, had already hooked Nathan up with the Tampa Spartans baseball team. Head coach Joe Urso had gathered his team after practice. He got Nathan and his brother Caleb to sign letters of intent to become members of the squad, complete with a uniform and locker.

Nathan got No. 3. That was Tino Martinez’s number at Tampa, and it’s been retired in honor of the player who went on to stardom in the big leagues. That was Babe Ruth’s number, too. It’s a low number for a young man with huge heart.

Still, Nathan seemed shy and a little withdrawn around Urso and the rest of the players. Go through what he’s been through, and that can happen.

A couple of weeks later on a Saturday, Nathan had his game. Just the fact that he was there and able to take part was a triumph, but what happened next brought him out of his protective shell once and for all.

Urso and most, if not every member of the Spartans piled out of the bus, filled up the stands and started cheering for Nathan. Afterward, Urso ordered up 30 pizzas or so and had a big party for both teams that played that day.

Ice breaker? Absolutely. Nathan has since become a full-fledged part of the team, and they’ve accepted him as one of their own. A big part of the reason is that he doesn’t appear to be star-struck by hanging out with the defending NCAA Division II baseball national champions, and one that’s playing here again for the sport’s biggest prize.

“Nathan just wants to play baseball,” Calhoun said. “He doesn’t understand how cool it is to do what’s he doing and who he’s doing it with. He just wants to go out there and throw. He just wants to go out there and hit off the tee.

“It’s all about baseball to him. I think that’s why all the players love him so much. It’s not who they are. It’s that, ‘Hey, you’re a baseball player and I’m a baseball player.’”

As much as he has come to mean to the entire team, shortstop Giovanny Alfonzo, designated hitter/outfielder Stephen Dezzi and catcher Tyler York in particular have taken Nathan under their wing.

Urso’s sons, J.D. and Preston, have also shown Nathan and Caleb the ropes.

“They have coached my two boys into the way of UT – what you do, when you be quiet,” Calhoun said. “If the coach is talking, you don’t say a word. You set there, you be quiet and you listen. J.D. and Preston have kind of mentored them. Joe’s boys are following in his footsteps, because he’s got two outstanding kids.’

Alfonzo wrote a blog entitled, “Do You Love Baseball As Much As Nathan Maxwell” that was enough to bring tears to Calhoun’s eyes. The first time they met, York asked if he could pray with Nathan and his family.

“We went outside and he prayed with us,” Calhoun said. “Those three guys are even a step above the others, and the others are golden. I’m telling you, that team is the most special team I’ve ever been around. I’m so proud of the guys, and I admire Joe Urso beyond words. I could not tell you enough about that man.”

Over the years, Nathan has had a staggering 28 MRIs and seven surgeries. He seems to be doing well, and the size of the tumor has shrunk from about that of a walnut down to maybe a peanut. He’s got another scan scheduled for Friday.

“The day before the MRI, you hold your breath because you never know,” Calhoun admitted. “Every time you do that, the fear that lives in you, it just comes out. You overthink things because of the situation. But he’s doing good. We just finished school for the year, and he did good in school. He had a full season in baseball, so he’s doing well.”

Win or lose here this week, it doesn’t really matter to Calhoun or even Nathan. He’s a part of the team, regardless, and none of them would have it any other way.

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