Martin Fennelly Columns
Rays' Rodriguez has personal stake in fight
ST. PETERSBURG - Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez was laughing, talking about his young son. "I caught him," Rodriguez said. He meant in the delivery room, while the doctor looked on. Giselle really did all the work. It was June 2, 2009, and Sean Rodriguez held his second child, his son, Sean John Rodriguez Jr. "He had me right then," Rodriguez said. This morning at Raymond James Stadium, Sean and Giselle Rodriguez, their 4-year-old daughter, Sofia, Sean's mom and other family and friends, a regular team, will participate in 2012 Walk Now for Autism Speaks to raise awareness about autism and funds for care or a cure. Sean Jr., whose nickname is "GoGo" will probably lead the way. "I'll be running, because that's what he always does," Sean said with a smile.Sean Jr. was diagnosed with autism last July, a month after his second birthday. Giselle phoned Sean, who was on the road with the Rays. The high school sweethearts were devastated. "I was crying to him on the phone," Giselle said. Her husband's tears came. "You break down," Sean Rodriguez said. "I still break down. I see him getting better, making strides, then I see him around kids his age and I see how far he has to go." Autism is a spectrum of disorders of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication and by restricted or repetitive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says autism affects one in 88 children in this country. Sean Jr. had baby fat, so he was lovingly nicknamed gordo , the Spanish word for, well, sort of chunky. Only Sofia, a baby herself at the time, couldn't pronounce gordo _ only GoGo. It stuck. "It fits, too," Giselle said. "GoGo is always running." She noticed first. Sean Jr. wasn't talking. He wasn't playing with other children. He wasn't making eye contact. Sean didn't want to admit it, but he saw it, too. "I guess that's where it gets emotional for me sometimes," Sean said. "Before he got diagnosed, before it all happened, I was pitching to him and he was swinging. He'd run and slide. But that went away. Now, I get him to hold the bat but I have to swing it with him. "I've never been one of those who said my son has to play sports. Maybe he might want to, being around it, but I don't care. He can be a great piano player, or violinist, or a great architect. He kills puzzles. You could take a puzzle apart and he knows where everything goes, what goes in what corner. He kills puzzles. That tells me maybe he'll be an architect." "You care about (Sean) because of the kind of guy he is," said Rays outfielder B.J. Upton, who returned to the lineup Friday at the Trop. "His son is a bundle of energy, a great kid. You'd hardly know what Sean is going through. You see real strength, from him and the family." GoGo works nearly every day with therapists. He has high-functioning autism (HFA), meaning he is seen as more capable than some autistic people. Giselle and Sean constantly see signs of improvement. "He's been on a steady climb, slight, but steady," Sean said. "At first, I got angry at God a lot. That was wrong. My son has taught me so much. I've learned from him to take life, take what comes. I thank God for my boy every day." "We're blessed," Giselle said. They'll walk today in the name of autism awareness. The Rays have donated $5,000 to the Rodriguez walking team. You can learn more by going to the Autism Speaks Web site, autismspeaks.org. Every step matters. Sean Rodriguez recently saw Sean Jr. playing with big sister Sofia. GoGo had never done that in his life. The Rays returned from a long road trip and ... "When I woke up, he was there, and his eye contact was through the roof," Sean said. "I looked at him and he's looking at me and he smiles. I almost broke into tears _ his expressions, sharing things with me. You have to teach him that. He can't learn that on his own. Today, he was playing. I got down on my knees. He ran to me, big old smile. He gave me a hug and I picked him up. He looked me in the eyes and gave me a kiss. That's huge." Go, GoGo, go.