Joe Maddon, ill St. Petersburg teenager and his family forge mutual inspiration

April 8, 2017

By Tom Jones | Tampa Bay Times

It was supposed to be nothing more than a short thank-you note from Aiden to his new friend Joe.

I want to thank you for the amazing trip.

But it said so much more than thank you.

I have been sick my whole life and it usually has not been very fun. There’s been a lot of bad memories.

Keep reading and you see someone who has been through so many bad memories but can’t help thinking of others.

And although I have been very sick, my brother has gone through a lot and it makes me happy to see him happy. I really appreciate all you have done for me and my family and I wanted to say thank you. It means so much to me.

The writer of this letter is Aiden Hawk, a 14-year-old from St. Petersburg who wasn’t supposed to live past his first birthday. The recipient is Cubs and former Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Their special bond was created last month and cemented by their love of life, family and, of course, baseball. Maddon, through his Respect 90 Foundation, took care of everything, flying Aiden, his brother and parents to visit the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz.

“For all those bad memories that have been built up,” said Aiden’s mom, Lisa, “there’s this good memory to wipe them away.”

The trip came at a perfect time. In recent weeks, Aiden’s latest medical tests were not good. He had not been feeling well. Then again, Aiden hasn’t felt well his whole life.

Doctors knew there was something wrong with Aiden when he was 3 days old. He was unusually jaundiced. A five-hour exploratory surgery revealed a rare liver disease called biliary atresia. Pretty much the only way to survive is to get a liver transplant. At 8 months, Aiden was flown to Atlanta where he received a new liver.

He has survived but not without major setbacks. His body tried to reject the new liver. His immune system is all out of whack, making him constantly susceptible to colds or worse. His body doesn’t sweat properly, leaving him unable to control his body temperature. He can’t stay hydrated, meaning he needs IVs. He takes medication to help with blood pressure, hormones, adrenaline and heart rate. He’s allergic to almost everything.

The Hawks have traveled the country getting Aiden help — Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Toledo, Ohio. At 14, he has been in more ambulances and spent more nights in hospitals than anyone should in 10 lifetimes.

“He has had big bumps in the road,” Lisa said. “Big bumps.”

The latest and most serious problem started in 2014. His kidneys are struggling. He’s often nauseous and always tired.

“I could take a nap right now,” Aiden said on a recent afternoon.

You can’t tell by looking at Aiden that he’s sick. He goes to school at St. Petersburg High. He plays golf. He’s really good at science and math, and wants to work for NASA some day. He loves baseball, especially Maddon and the Cubs, although he roots for the Rays, too.

Someone who is a business acquaintance of Maddon is friends with Lisa, a Chicago native and lifelong Cubs fan. Knowing how much the Hawks love the Cubs, the friend tried to set up a meeting at Maddon’s restaurant, Ava, in South Tampa last winter. It never worked out, partly because Maddon’s offseason was cut short by the Cubs’ first World Series since 1908.

But Maddon didn’t forget about the Hawks and thought of something better than dinner. How about a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to visit the Cubs in Arizona during spring training?

“My mom picked me up at school to surprise me (with the news),” Aiden said. “When she came, I thought something was wrong. She had tears in her eyes. We had just had gotten lab results and I thought something was really wrong.”

When Aiden found out that Lisa’s tears were tears of joy, he and his mom raced to pick up his little brother, Mason, from school to tell him the awesome news. Truth be known, Mason is the real baseball fanatic. He walks around the house wearing a fake beard like his favorite pitcher, the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta.

On a Thursday morning, the Hawks were picked up in a limo and driven to a private airport. They boarded a private jet donated by a local businessman. And along with Rick Vaughn, the former Rays PR director who now works with Maddon’s Respect 90, they flew to Arizona.

“You have to understand,” Lisa said, “we don’t travel like this.”

Aiden’s father, Joey, 43, works for the Department of Agriculture. Lisa, 41, stays home to take care of Aiden. And 11-year-old Mason is the family’s baseball player. As you can imagine, their medical bills are enormous and only somewhat offset by Joey’s insurance, a trust fund from the American Liver Foundation and countless bake sales, yard sales and auctions.

“We don’t take family vacations,” Lisa said. “Most everywhere we go is for Aiden’s medical trips. We thought it was a really big deal just to get crackers on the plane.”

After landing in Arizona, Maddon set up the Hawks to eat at a swanky restaurant. That, too, is a big deal because Aiden rarely goes out to eat other than, maybe, Chick-fil-A, one of the few places that doesn’t set off his food allergies. The chef came out and personally prepared something special for Aiden. The Hawks thought that would end up being the best part of the trip.

Until the next day. The Hawks went to the Cubs’ facility where they were given complete behind-the-scenes access with Maddon as their guide. They hung out with coaches and players during workouts. Aiden met his favorite players, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez. Mason wore his fake beard for Arrieta.

Then it was game time — a spring game between the Cubs and Reds. The Hawks had great seats, next to Maddon’s grandkids. As a bonus, Lisa’s brother and sister-in-law, who live in Arizona, came to the game. During the seventh-inning stretch, the Hawks were called onto the field to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

That night, Maddon and his wife, Jaye, took the Hawks out for another special dinner.

The next day, the private jet flew them back to St. Petersburg.

“The whole thing was all so surreal,” Aiden said. “Meeting Joe was crazy.”

Yet, there was one thing Aiden kept saying all through the trip. He kept telling his mom, “The best part of this for me is just seeing how happy Mason is.”

That, more than anything, shows what kind of kid Aiden is. As does this story from Lisa: “Aiden told me, ‘I don’t deserve this. There are way more sicker kids than me.’ ”

For as great as the trip was for the Hawks, it was just as special for Maddon.

“I am a huge Aiden fan,” Maddon said. “His poise, intelligence and ability to gracefully deal with a lifetime health issue are inspirational. He has a unique way of making you feel like he is the adult in the room and you are the adolescent, and not with a condescending tone. I think it’s just that he understands all of this better than most and is a reflection of wonderful parenting and a sidekick brother who can keep all of us entertained and coming back for more.”

Credit should go to Joey and Lisa. And Aiden.

“When you get that second chance and get this gift, we raised him this way and he’s just naturally a very happy kid,” Lisa said. “That second chance. You’re living on someone else’s lost chance. It’s truly a gift. Even though there are bad days, it’s really silly to feel like, ‘Oh, heavens, this is the worst,’ because it’s not. Every day, is truly — I know it’s a cliche — a gift.”

The trip was a gift. A gift from Maddon. But for Maddon, too. And for Aiden and his family.

And for the rest of us who just get to read Aiden’s thank-you note and the story behind it.