At Miller Park in Milwaukee last season, Derek Lendosky's hero walked over to hand him a baseball during batting practice. Jose Bautista didn't know the boy, didn't know Derek had picked him every time he played the MLB video game, didn't know he'd followed his career for years.
That is, until Derek's father, Steve, stunned him with a message sent via Twitter last Wednesday.
"On Friday I will be burying my 9yr old son," the message said. "He will be wearing his Bautista jersey and taking a ball you gave him with him. You were his favourite player. He would have wanted me to share this with you."
Bautista, the Blue Jays right fielder, would learn that the boy was riding on the back of an ATV being driven by his father, at their home in Fennimore, Wis. Derek lost his balance while standing up to pick a walnut off a tree, fell underneath a rotary bush lawnmower, and passed away on site.
Genuinely touched by the horrible accident, Bautista, a father of two children, messaged a reply to express sympathy to the grieving family and to dedicate Friday's game against the Oakland A's in Derek's memory. He would hit a home run and two doubles in the game.
"What he did was way over and beyond what we could have asked for," Lendosky, an insurance broker, said by telephone on Sunday. "Just those few words touched a lot of hearts. This kid, he was such a good kid, he touched a lot of hearts too, and the community needed something like this to help with the grieving."
Derek wore his Blue Jays t-shirt underneath a Milwaukee Brewers shirt when the Jays visited Milwaukee on June 19, 2012. "Jose came over to him and you should have seen his eyes, they were so wide," said Steve Lendosky. "He wouldn't let go of that ball. He brought it to school. You seen these guys on TV, whether they're stars or not, they're bigger than life, and when they show compassion ..."
The Blue Jays hit back-to-back-to-back home runs during that game, Bautista's sandwiched between Colby Rasmus's and Edwin Encarnacion's.
"He jumped out of his seat," said Steve, who had visited Southern Ontario frequently in his former career, training employees for newly opening Michael's Arts & Crafts stores.
Following the funeral at nearby St. Peter Lutheran Church on Friday, alerted by mourners that Bautista had dedicated that night's game, Steve tweeted back to Bautista: "Thanks @JoeyBats19. I couldn't ask for a better ending to a very difficult day. Derek thanks you. You made a community smile tonight."
He said that at least 150 in the community of 2,500 people purchased Bautista jerseys over the weekend, out of appreciation for the player's gesture, and a group of 50 bought tickets to the Blue Jays-Minnesota Twins game on Sept. 7 in Minneapolis. They've chosen their seats in right field, to be located close to Bautista.
"What they have to be going through, it's not easy," Bautista said after Sunday's loss to Oakland. "I'm glad I was able to bring a little relief to them."
Robert Callahan, the editor of the weekly Fennimore Times, messaged that the community rallied around the family, some locals signing on to Twitter to encourage Bautista. "In our community ... this tragedy has brought everyone together like never before," he said. "All of us are grieving with the Lendosky family. When Mr. Bautista dedicated the game to Derek, it lifted everyone's spirits."
On the telephon, Derek's mother, Brandee, said: "If anything good can come out of this, he has helped our town heal, and that's all we can ask for. He was such a good boy."
Other players joined the Twitter link. Kansas City Royals pitcher Ervin Santana messaged directly to Steve: "We all feel your pain and are proud of what Jose is doing for your family." Replied Steve, to Santana: "I was just sending a message to my son's favourite player. I asked for nothing in return. What Jose did was great."
News of the boy's death also inspired a random-acts-of-kindness page on Facebook, #ActsofKindessforDerek. Steve Lendosky returned another person's expression of sympathy with this message: "@Mass_Haas Thanks Jim. Derek has touched so many since his passing. It is amazing what a 9 yr old child can accomplish."