On Monday, during the Mariners’ home opener, two fast friends will reunite. Sophia, who has battled heart ailments her entire life, will participate in the ceremonial “First Run Around the Bases.” Waiting at home plate to give her a big hug will be Felix Hernandez.
Standing in the visiting clubhouse at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Felix Hernandez’s eyes light up when you mention 8-year-old Sophia Robinson.
“She’s so special,” he said.
And standing at home plate at Safeco Field a few days later, Sophia smiles brightly when asked about Hernandez. The two first met in June 2013 through a Make-A-Wish request, but their relationship transcended that brief encounter and has endured for four years.
Now, says Sophia’s mom, Talia Robinson, “Felix has become our family. I truly mean that.”
And Hernandez says he will be friends with Sophia for life.
On Monday, during the Mariners’ home opener at Safeco, the two fast friends will reunite in a most touching manner. Sophia, who has battled heart ailments her entire life, will participate in the ceremonial “First Run Around the Bases” that the Mariners have used to christen Safeco Field for the past 18 seasons. And waiting at home plate to give her a big hug will be Felix Hernandez.
It will no doubt be an emotional moment for the family, who flew from their home in Anchorage on Thursday and were at Safeco on Friday to allow Sophia a couple of practice runs (with the Mariner Moose offering stretching tips and encouragement).
“I cry every year when I watch the kids run on opening day, and now it’s my own daughter. I’m fully prepared to be a hot mess,” said Talia with a laugh.
Sophia was born with two life-threatening heart conditions — ventricular septal defect (a congenital hole in the heart) and coarctation of the aortic arch (a narrowing of the aorta, which carries blood from the left ventricle to the organs).
She has had two open-heart surgeries and four other heart procedures, all done at Seattle Children’s hospital because of a scarcity of pediatric heart surgeons in Alaska. She will eventually need another open-heart surgery when she grows bigger. In 2013, a year in which Sophia endured three operations at age 4, her parents wanted to brighten her life through the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington.
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Talia asked Sophia what she wanted — a trip to Disney World? A Taylor Swift concert?
Nope. Sophia wanted to meet Felix Hernandez. At the Robinson home, the television is always turned to the Mariners game, and through osmosis Sophia had become enamored of King Felix.
“I don’t know why, to be honest,” said her father, Jason Robinson. “Maybe it was because he was the face of the franchise. He was on the commercials — it was kind of a natural thing.”
The parents cautioned Sophia it might take until the next season to work out the logistics. But 2½ weeks later, the family received word the wish would be granted soon — on June 10 of that year. The pictures of that first connection with Hernandez at Safeco Field are still exhilarating to Talia and Jason. There’s Hernandez and Sophia down on their knees playing in the warning-track dirt; Hernandez reading her a story; drop-by visits by Kyle Seager, who talked to Sophia about his own open-heart surgery as a 5-month-old, and Mike Morse.
But what Sophia remembers most is the corn-dog-eating contest she and Hernandez had in the clubhouse. Who won?
“I did!” said Sophia.
Hernandez confirms: She ate two; he could manage just one.
Shortly after the visit, Talia started a Twitter account when she learned that pictures of her daughter and Hernandez were getting wide circulation on Twitter. She followed Hernandez, and he followed her back.
“Like all 4-year-olds, Sophia thought she could send Felix private messages on Twitter,” said Talia, laughing.
Pretty soon, Sophia and Hernandez were conversing regularly via Twitter. Actually, the family wondered if it was really him or just a surrogate, until they returned to Seattle for another procedure and met Hernandez again at Safeco Field. When he began bringing up events he could have only known through the Twitter chats, they knew it was legit.
Eventually, Hernandez gave the Robinsons his phone number, “and Twitter conversations back and forth became texting back and forth,’’ said Talia.
Sophia chatted with him electronically while Hernandez was in Africa on vacation with his family. He told the Robinsons not to worry about what time it was, he would be available. Hernandez says they text “a lot. Pretty much every week. We talk about life.”
The Robinsons decided that the family — which includes Sophia’s big sister, Gabi, 11 — had so much fun at the ballpark during the Wish visit and other trips to Seattle built around Sophia’s medical needs, they would make an annual baseball trip to Safeco, surgery or not. Hernandez became a part of those, too.
“He’d be mad if he knew we were going to Seattle for a surgery and didn’t tell him,’’ Talia said.
Last year, Hernandez invited the Robinson family to his house for dinner, where Gabi bonded instantly with Felix’s daughter, Mia. Talia believes the connection that Sandra Hernandez, Felix’s wife, has with Sophia is just as strong as his.
Jason Robinson feels this friendship with Hernandez has boosted his daughter’s spirits — and it’s a two-way street.
“I think it’s actually good for both of them,” he said. “You can really see it. When they’re together, it’s fun for both of them.”
Meanwhile, Sophia Robinson is a happy, active third-grader back in Anchorage, where, says her mom, “You’d look at her and never know she’s a ‘heart kid.’ ”
Sophia is a bundle of energy as she practices for Monday’s run, chattering excitedly. “She’s always been our family firecracker, as you can tell,” Jason said. “She’s kind of the energy of our family, definitely kind of the cog that gets the wheel going. It’s an effort keeping up with her sometimes.”
The hope is that the need for medical procedures will dwindle as Sophia grows older. But she’ll always have Felix Hernandez to lean on during the trying times — and in between. He’s assured Sophia’s parents that she’ll get through this because she’s such a strong girl.
“He knows her,” said Talia.
Jessica Mathews, communications manager at Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, says this is a particularly poignant example of the enduring power of a wish.
“It provides joy at the time, but so many kids face medical challenges and disruption of their childhood, the wish gives them memories to look on for years and years to come,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not as obvious as this friendship, but it does stick with them for their whole life.”
When Sophia first texted Hernandez and told him she’d be running the bases on Monday, he texted back and said, “I’ll be waiting at home plate for you.”
And the Robinson family is already looking ahead — far ahead — to another reunion with Hernandez.
“We’re planning for his Hall of Fame ceremony,” Talia said. “I keep telling my husband, ‘How early can we get tickets for Cooperstown?’ It’s absolutely a lifetime relationship.”