When Two Heroes Met: Recalling My Son’s Encounter with a Baseball Legend

Colleen Steele avatar

by Colleen Steele |

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Do you need to hear a happy and uplifting human interest story? Here is one about the day my son met the “Say Hey Kid.”

Cullen received a heart and double-lung transplant at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, California, at 14 years old because of pulmonary hypertension (PH). Four months later, on Dec. 18, 2014, he had just completed several long days of medical checkups and received the good news that test results validated how well he was feeling.

In a few days, his brother, Aidan, would be celebrating his birthday and Cullen couldn’t wait to return home to Washington state to be with him. As we anxiously waited for the hospital valet, we heard someone call out to Cullen, asking, “Would you like to meet Willie Mays?” I wish I had a picture of our shocked expressions.

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Cullen, age 5, shortly before he had to quit baseball. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

Cullen has always loved baseball. He played T-ball and briefly enjoyed Little League until his health declined at 6 years old. He enjoyed watching his brother play ball but not being able to participate with him was difficult. As the years went by, PH caused physical damage to Cullen’s heart and his inability to play sports was breaking it, too.

He continued to enjoy watching games on TV or at the stadium and discussing baseball with his Pop-Pop (my dad). It was something PH could not take away from him. So when we got that invitation to meet Willie Mays, Cullen’s response was an emphatic, “Yes!” He wanted to meet the great baseball hero and National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

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Cullen meets Willie Mays. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

It took just a few minutes of talking to Willie to recognize that there is so much more to him than his athletic achievements. He is known as a multitalented baseball player, and it was obvious to us that Willie Mays is also an all-around great guy. He greeted Cullen with a warm smile and expressed a genuine interest in why my son was at the hospital that day.

I will never forget how shocked and moved he was to learn that the young boy in front of him was four months post-heart-and double-lung transplant. Each of them looked at the other in amazement. It was a truly touching moment.

Willie May’s professional baseball career was with the New York/San Francisco Giants, and the New York Mets. His assistant tried to help a tongue-tied Cullen by asking, “Who is your favorite major league baseball team?” Embarrassed, Cullen looked down at his feet and whispered, “Boston Red Sox.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Willie responded with sincerity, looking Cullen in the eyes, as he assured him that what matters the most is his love for the game and not his favorite team. He was happy just to hear a kid expressing an appreciation for baseball.

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Willie Mays signs his cap for Cullen. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

He then took off the hat he was wearing, signed it, and placed it on Cullen’s head. Cullen tried to decline the gift, not wanting to deprive him of his hat, but Willie really wanted him to have it and also a signed baseball. To this day, those two items are among Cullen’s greatest treasures.

Sharing the memory of that day with others means a lot to Cullen. His Pop-Pop keeps the picture of his grandson with Willie Mays in his wallet and proudly gave a copy to the barbershop he has frequented since I was a little girl. The photograph hangs at Pat’s Place in New Jersey and inspires many conversations with customers.

Through a liaison with the San Francisco Giants, Willie Mays shared his memory of that meeting with Cullen:

“I visit the kids at Lucile Packard every December. I met Cullen a few years ago. He was polite and kind of quiet. I noticed that he kept looking at my cap. Maybe he wished he had a cap. So I took it off and gave it to him. He smiled so big! That smile stayed with me.

“They told me Cullen had gone through a heart and double-lung transplant! I can’t begin to know what kind of courage it took to go through what he went through. What I do know is that Cullen is a hero to me.”

Cullen explains why meeting Willie Mays is his most memorable hospital experience besides receiving a new heart and lungs. “After spending months at the hospital recovering and dealing with complications post-transplant, Willie was one of the first people who made me feel like a genuine, normal person.

“It was rare for me not to be treated as someone who was sick but as an equal. I thank Willie Mays for his kindness and will never forget that day!”


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


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