David Price squatted behind an imaginary home plate while an imaginary Alex Rodriguez prepared to bat.
"Let's start him off with something soft. Change-up," Price called to Leigh Dittman.
Leigh sat 15 feet away on the seat of her adolescent walker. She wrapped her 11-year-old fingers around a baseball, holding it the way Price taught her to grip a change-up. Leigh went into her windup and tried to sneak a first-pitch strike past the Yankees slugger.
The imaginary Rodriguez watched the ball sail into Price's glove.
"Good job," Price shouted. "Strike one."
Next came an inside fastball for strike two.
"Let's go inside again," Price said.
Leigh gripped the ball the way Price taught her to throw a fastball and let fly with another pitch the imaginary Rodriguez could only watch go by.
"Strike three," Price yelled. "Sit down, A-Rod."
Leigh giggled until she laughed.
They met during the
2009 season at GameWorks in Tampa, the major-league pitcher with the million-dollar arm and the little girl from Lutz born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.
Leigh was three weeks old when she broke her wrist and fractured a bone in her arm.
"I think it was me just trying to hold her," said Leigh's mother, Ellen.
All told, Leigh has broken 29 bones, had seven surgeries and worn a total of 40 casts on her legs, arms and hands. She has rods in both femurs and in one tibia.
Leigh had one leg in a cast the day she met Price at a function for Tampa Bay Rays season-ticket holders. Her dad, David, a captain with Tampa Fire and Rescue, inched her wheelchair to the front of the line as Price signed autographs.
Leigh looked up at Price with her sparkling blue eyes and 1,000-watt smile.
"I saw her and I instantly knew she was somebody I was going to be friends with," Price said.
"Some players will ask why you're in a wheelchair," Leigh said. "David didn't seem to notice that."
They spent the rest of the afternoon playing video games, skee ball and air hockey. What Price didn't know that day was his new friend was a bigger star in the world of the Shriners Hospital for Children than he was in the world of baseball.
At a ceremony in July at the Shriners Hospital in Tampa, where Leigh has been a regular patient since she was less than a month old, a bronze plaque was placed on the hospital's wall of fame in recognition of her fundraising efforts.
Beginning with her fourth birthday, Leigh has raised more than $375,000 for Shriners.
"She is," said Bethanne Demas, director of public relations, outreach and marketing for Shriners in Tampa, "an incredible kid."
Leigh has traveled the country to attend fundraisers for Shriners. She was an honorary captain at the East-West Shrine Game. She is comfortable speaking in front of crowds of more than a thousand.
"She has every reason to complain about her situation," David Dittman said. "But she doesn't. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she'll motivate people."
Ellen was 16 weeks into
her pregnancy when she was advised by her doctor to terminate. The pictures from the ultrasounds were that bad. The baby didn't stand a chance.
"I found a different doctor," Ellen said.
Shortly after Leigh's birth, doctors discovered she had broken five ribs while in her mother's womb.
Fortunately for the Dittmans, Shriners Hospital in Tampa began a new treatment for osteogenesis imperfecta around the time Leigh was born. The treatment included medicines that would make her bones stronger and reduce the risk of fractures.
Shriners became Leigh's second home, the staff her extended family.
For her fourth birthday, Leigh asked for money instead of presents, and she wanted to donate the money to Shriners.
"When I was a kid I thought, well they're doing this for me, why don't I do this for them," Leigh said. "All I could think of was donating the money, and it's really blossomed."
Leigh invited Price to the ceremony in July and presented him with his own plaque. Price received $10,000 in 2010 when he was named the Players' Choice American League Pitcher of the Year. He donated half to Shriners in Leigh's name.
"David is awesome, because he'll do anything for my cause," Leigh said. "And it's cool he lets me bring my friends out to the games."
Price has provided dozens of autographed items for Leigh's cause.
"To see her in the position she's in and not be down about it, and to see how she impacts other people's lives is pretty special," Price said. "Maybe I've impacted her life, but she's absolutely impacted mine."
Leigh has two goals: To be a nurse at Shriners and to raise $1 million so she can earn a gold plaque.
"She has goals of helping others in a big way," Demas said. "She connects with people in a big way. I don't doubt she will reach ($1 million). She's only 11. She's got time."
It wasn't long after
they met that Price began leaving pregame field passes for the Dittmans, wheeling Leigh around the bases so she could know what it feels like to hit a home run, having her pitch to imaginary batters in front of the Rays dugout before batting practice.
Price kept a picture of Leigh in his locker during the 2010 season, the year he won 19 games.
Leigh texts Price on the days he pitches.
"I love you."
"What would you tell a friend who's going to play a game?" Leigh asked.
"If I need a pick-me-up, Leigh is probably the person I'm going to talk to," Price said. "She's so positive in the things she says. I'm sure (her life is) not easy, but she's handled it well. I've seen her when she's had casts on her legs and casts on her arms, she's the same person."
The Dittmans consider Price a member of the family.
"It's really unique," David Dittman said.
But he is far from the only athlete in Leigh's growing circle of friends.
There is former Buccaneers receiver Michael Clayton, whose autographed jersey hangs on the wall next to Leigh's bed. Clayton and his family once stopped by the Dittman's house on Christmas Eve to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and drop off a few presents.
On her 10th birthday, Clayton came over for ice cream and cake and played Monopoly with Leigh, who was wearing another cast on her leg at the time.
"It was awesome he did that," Leigh said. "We've become really good friends."
There's former Bucs coach Jon Gruden and former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. Josh Hamilton with the Texas Rangers.
Leigh wrote a letter to former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow after reading Tebow's book. She's hoping he writes back.
And then there is Gregg Zaun, the former big-league catcher who met Leigh when he played for the Rays at the end of the 2009 season.
"She's one of the toughest people I know," Zaun said. "I call her the 'Little General.' "
Zaun was with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 when he dislocated his shoulder in May. It was a career-ending injury, and Zaun knew it, but he wasn't ready to admit it.
"I was feeling down, I was feeling sorry for myself," Zaun said. "A bad day at the ballpark, a bad week, a bad month, is a day in the park compared to what Leigh goes through. I needed some perspective."
So, Zaun called his friend, the one with the sparkling blue eyes, the brilliant smile, the infectious laugh. The one who can strike out A-Rod on three pitches. The one who plans to raise $1 million so doctors can someday develop the means to detect osteogenesis imperfecta while the baby is still in the womb and develop treatments so children no longer endure her painful journey through life.
"I was feeling sorry for myself," Zaun said. "One 20-minute conversation with Leigh cured me of that."
How you can help
Shriners Hospitals for Children is a health care system of 22 hospitals dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing specialty pediatric care, innovative research and outstanding teaching programs. Children up to the age of 18 with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate are eligible for admission and receive all care in a family-centered environment regardless of the patients’ ability to pay.
Shriners Hospitals in Tampa has a skilled team of specialists to accommodate more than 13,000 patient visits and 1,000 specialized surgeries on an annual basis. The hospital continues to be a major referral center for complex and highly specialized orthopedic treatment for children throughout Florida and south Georgia. If your child could benefit from this pediatric orthopedic care, call the patient referral line at 1-888-665-KIDS.
Want to help Leigh Dittman reach her goals? Send donations to Shriners Hospitals for Children, 12502 USF Pine Dr. Tampa, FL 33612. Designate that your donation is in honor of Leigh Dittman.
Visit Leigh's website at www.leighdittman.com to learn more about her and her fundraising efforts.