Lio Ortega had to be coaxed by his father to step into the batter’s box. It took a little redirecting from the third base coach to keep him from running into the dugout. It remains questionable that he touched all four bases.
Yes, this “home run” trot for the 4-year-old cancer patient on Saturday at Falcon Field was adorably flawed. And it was absolutely perfect.
“As a parent, you never feel sad, you’re just thinking, ‘What great memory can I give him?’” Lio’s father, Manny “Fred” Ortega said. “At the end of the day, you never know. In the back of our heads is always, what happens if it ends? Can we give him as much experience, as much love ... That’s our focus.”
Air Force and New Mexico teams made it a priority to get this moment right, and they spared no effort.
Lio threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He met the falcons that serve as the academy’s mascots. He received a signed ball from Air Force and enjoyed high-fives from both teams.
But the biggest moment was his trip around the bases after he knocked a ground ball, albeit reluctantly, off a tee. He circled the bases before receiving a raucous greeting from Air Force and New Mexico players, who then hoisted him aloft and chanted, “Lio! Lio! Lio!”
“I’m proud of both teams,” Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky said. “It was one thing I expressed to both teams early was, let’s make sure we do this right. We have one chance to do this and let’s make sure we’re going to do it right.
“Let’s make this an everlasting moment for Lio.”
The idea was hatched when New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham called Kazlausky to ask if this moment could be arranged. Manny Ortega played for Birmingham in junior college in New Mexico and the two have maintained contact, with Ortega often bringing his family to games when the Lobos have visited Air Force.
Kazlausky, who writes the letters M-A-D under each of his caps to signify the need to “Make A Difference,” jumped at the chance to strike back at the disease that took his sister five years ago at age 45.
So, the teams worked together to plan out the day in Lio’s honor.
“He’s been talking about this all week,” Lio’s father said.
The only concern was what kind of day Lio would be having, because there have been a lot of low points over the past two years.
The diagnosis followed weeks of headaches and vomiting when Lio was just 2½ years old. Doctors eventually found a cluster of tumors at the top of the spine in a form of cancer called medulloblastoma. The tumors were removed, but Lio was too young to begin radiation treatment. A year later, the cancer returned.
“It destroyed us,” Manny Ortega said.
The family has since dealt with constant trips for treatment in Aurora and side effects that have left Lio zapped and with a constantly changing appetite. One minute he’ll be enjoying a hot dog, the next he has to spit it out.
The dips in Lio’s condition as he undergoes chemotherapy has been taxing on Manny, a human resources manager for a local utilities company, and his wife, Kirsten, a poetry professor in the English department at UCCS.
The family also has an 8-year-old daughter, Ariadne, who has learned to be a flexible playmate based on how her little brother feels on a given day.
On Saturday, Lio was up for the challenge. The only hiccup came in picking out clothes. He first insisted on pajamas before being convinced to wear a baseball T-shirt with a Lobos hat.
Kazlausky didn’t care that Lio opted to support the Falcons’ visitors. He wasn't even particularly bothered that Air Force lost the game 13-12 despite jumping in front by four runs in the first inning of a contest it desperately needed to secure a spot in the Mountain West Tournament.
“We’re just playing a baseball game,” Kazlausky said. “That young boy is fighting for his life.”
On Saturday, thanks to the cooperation of two coaches and their teams, he was fighting with a smile.
“It was more than I could have imagined,” Manny Ortega said. “When I saw them carrying him and his face … He’ll be telling all his friends about this.”
NOTE: The Ortega family has a GoFundMe account for “BraveLio” to help offset medical expenses.