SNOHOMISH — Caleb Johnson was in the intensive care unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital, heavily sedated and needing a tube in his throat and a ventilator to breathe.
In one of his brief moments of lucidity, he found a way to “mouth” a message to his mom: “My last game is tomorrow.”
“Baseball is almost everything to Caleb,” his mom, Annie Thurman, said. “He couldn’t speak. I don’t understand how he even knew about his last game.”
Since he was a toddler, Caleb has had problems battling colds. “If Caleb gets anything, it goes to croup,” she said.
His most recent problem began in much the same way: A common cold triggering what at first was a little cough.
Croup, a viral infection, can cause the windpipe to constrict, making it hard to breathe and triggering its signature deep, barking cough.
“Within a day, he could barely breathe,” his mom said.
On the evening of June 13, she told him to get into the car; they were heading to the emergency room at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.
Along the way, his breathing became even more labored. “As I’m speeding down the road he said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to hurry. Mom, you’ve got to hurry, please!’ “
Hospital staff rushed Caleb to a treatment room. Then they grabbed his mom. “You’ve got to come now!” they told her. She ran to be with him.
His mom told them she thought it was his usual reaction to croup. “They said, ‘I don’t think you know what’s going on.’ ” His airway was completely closed.
“They had to put a tube down his throat,” she said. “The tube was for an infant. They could barely get that in there.”
Caleb was taken by ambulance to Children’s early the next morning.
Cases such as Caleb’s are caused when a viral respiratory infection causes the vocal cords to swell. “The swelling becomes so pronounced, there’s no airway,” said Dr. Michelle Terry, a hospitalist at Children’s.
“If all goes well, then over a period of a day or two or three, the swelling goes down.”
By unhappy fortune, Caleb was hospitalized on the eve of the pinnacle event of the Little League season.
The next day, his team, the Rookie White Sox, was playing its last scheduled game, followed by a team party and awarding of trophies.
On June 16, his third day in the hospital, Caleb’s breathing tube was finally removed. One of the first things he talked about was missing his last game.
His mom, though, had unexpected news. Someone besides Caleb and his mom had noticed his absence.
His coach, Ty Hale, had an idea. “We wanted to do something special for him,” he explained.
He talked to Jesse Podoll, one of the coaches of another Little League team, the Rookie Reds. “Hey, do you want to have another baseball game?” Hale asked.
Podoll, whose twin sons have played against Caleb since T-ball, quickly agreed.
“Caleb was most upset he was letting his team down,” Podoll said. “He’s got a big heart and is a good kid.”
They planned a makeup “final” game and a barbecue for June 24.
Caleb was discharged from the hospital on June 17. It only took about two days after coming home for Caleb to be back to his normal self, “bouncing off the walls,” his mom said.
He was able to attend his final two days of second-grade classes at Snohomish’s Central Primary School.
Being discharged from the hospital, attending school, all those events, though important, were just preliminaries to the makeup game the following week.
The box score tells just part of the story. Caleb had three hits and just missed hitting a home run by a fraction of an inch, his mom said.
In the final inning, with the game knotted at 10-10, the Reds erupted for five runs to win it. “They tried their hardest and had fun and that’s all that matters,” Caleb’s mom said.
Hale and Podoll had one final surprise for the 8-year-old.
Podoll’s team, the Reds, is sponsored by the Everett AquaSox. He helped arrange for Caleb to be among a group of people throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the team’s Aug. 5 game.
Caleb couldn’t believe every Little Leaguer’s dream was about to come true, and wanted to be prepared. Every day he woke up telling him mom, “We’ve got to practice.”
Caleb arrived at last Sunday’s game plenty early, a cap on his head and a mitt at his side.
AquaSox staff gave him a ball to go warm up.
He found a large patch of grass south of the concession stands where he could play catch with his mom.
It was pretty obvious after a couple of throws that mom and son have played their share of baseball.
“He’s got a cannon,” said his grandfather, Jon Thurman, who was tossing a baseball with Caleb’s younger brother, Brayden, 6.
Ten minutes later, three generations of Caleb’s family returned to the front row of the third-base line bleachers as minor league ballplayers walked by, their cleats clacking on the asphalt leading to the grass turf.
Caleb had to wait his turn to throw out the ceremonial pitch.
A businessman threw a ball that bounced on its way to the plate. A boy representing the Camano library delivered a smooth, accurate toss. A tiny girl representing the Lynnwood library was lifted up by her dad and carried to within a few feet of her intended target.
Then it was Caleb’s turn. He marched 38 steps to the designated spot in the middle of the diamond where he would let it fly.
His throw appeared to sail right over the plate. Yet Caleb wouldn’t allow emotion to taint his judgment. He said he would have called it a ball had he been the umpire.
“That’s exactly him,” Podoll said. “He’s the pro’s pro.”