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Bryce Harper’s visit with Gavin Rupp

Bryce Harper shakes hands with Gavin Rupp after the 13-year-old threw the ceremonial first pitch to Harper on Friday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Baseball has helped sustain Gavin Rupp since his cancer first formed, back in February 2011. Gavin received radiation treatment and visited Children’s National Medical Center and twice underwent surgery to remove a glioblastoma tumor from his brain. He went through hell, and he still kept his starting position on his travel team. Gavin played shortstop.

Last month Gavin’s father, Chris Rupp, had to make sense of a collection of unfathomable phrases. The doctors were telling them there was another tumor. It was at the center of Gavin’s brain. The surgery risk was too high. There were no options. “The doctors and our team at Children’s National kind of told us it was time to start moving to hospice,” Chris Rupp said. Chris needed to tell his 13-year-old all of this.

The Rupps of Ashburn have had too many bad days. Friday was a good day. The Nationals invited Gavin to throw out the first pitch before the team played the San Diego Padres. Late in the afternoon, at around 5:15, they were hanging out together in the Nationals dugout, Gavin’s parents and his siblings, Abby and Ian. Gavin’s favorite player came walking out.

“You guys want to go out on the field?” Bryce Harper asked.

The group stood off to the side as the Padres started taking batting practice. An hour later, up until about 45 minutes to first pitch, Harper was still there talking to Gavin and his family. Kyle Mann, the Nationals coordinator of community relations, had never seen a player spend so much time with a kid before a game.

The Nationals knew Gavin’s story because the Rupps had become involved in Kyle’s Kamp, a foundation that raises money to support Children’s National for pediatric cancer research. One way Kyle’s Kamp raises money is a series of youth baseball tournaments. Local teams raise money to play, and because the Nationals sponsor Kyle’s Kamp, the final two games are played at Nationals Park. This year, the tournament raised $370,000.

On May 19, Gavin’s team played at Nationals Park. Gavin pitched the first inning, went 2 for 3 and scored the first run. It was the last game he played.

After the recent diagnosis, Kyle’s Kamp founder Rob Hahne called Mann. Mann invited the Rupps to come to a game. He told Gavin he could throw out the first pitch, and maybe he could meet his favorite player.

When Mann asked Harper if he would spend time with Gavin, Harper did not hesitate. On the field, he gave Gavin the hat off his head and signed it for him. After a while, Gavin sat down in the air-conditioned tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse.

Because of where his tumor is located in his brain, Gavin has lost control of the muscles in his face. “If you ask him something, he’ll be happy, but you can’t see it,” Rupp said. “The nonverbal communication isn’t there. I was kind of telling Bryce that. I said, ‘When you talk to him, even though inside he’s happy, you don’t visually see it.’ So it’s kind of hard to have a conversation with somebody.”

Harper asked questions to draw Gavin out. Gavin sat in a folding chair in the Nationals dugout. Harper leaned forward and put his elbow on his left knee, so his eyes would be at the same level as Gavin’s.

The conversation meandered from topic to topic. They talked about Harper’s pre-game routine. Gavin asked Harper about his favorite ballpark to play in, his most memorable home run, his hardest pitcher to hit off of. Gavin loves Ohio State football, and Harper’s girlfriend just transferred there, and they talked about that. They talked about Las Vegas, Harper’s home town. Harper’s father grew up rooting for the Reds, and Gavin likes them almost as much as the Nationals, and they talked about that.

Harper traded one of his wristbands for one of Gavin’s neon wristbands. Harper asked Gavin to sign a baseball for him. They hung out for an hour.

“I can’t say enough. A guy who is 20 years old, to take that much time,” Chris Rupp said. His voice quivered and his eyes watered. “When I was 20 years old, I didn’t have that maturity, to do what he just did.”

Harper eventually had to prepare for the game. The Nationals upgraded the family’s tickets to the suites behind home plate and invited them to come back next year.

A few minutes before 7, Gavin walked on the field to throw out the first pitch. His dad had warned him against throwing from the mound, worried that maybe he would not be strong enough to throw 60 feet, 6 inches. Gavin stood on the rubber. Behind home plate, Harper crouched and caught the pitch in the air. Chris Rupp stood on the dirt by the Nationals dugout, holding up a camera.

“This was an incredible day,” Chris Rupp said. “We had to tell Gavin there were no more options. He’s going to die. That was hard. You take that day, and then follow it up with a day like today, it means the world. You’ll do anything for your kids. There’s only so much you can do as a parent. For Bryce to do what he did, you can’t put a price tag on this. You just can’t do it. For Gavin to have this honor, it’s like of those days that just doesn’t get any better.”

For more information about Kyle’s Kamp or to make a donation, click this link.