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'Chloe, you're an inspiration': Phillips homers for young fan

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ST. PETERSBURG — Before Tuesday night’s game at Tropicana Field, 8-year-old Chloe Grimes handed Tampa Bay outfielder Brett Phillips, her favorite player on her favorite team, a mint green and white rubber bracelet. Wrapped around the bracelet were the words: “Rally for Chloe our Princess Warrior.”

Phillips immediately put it on his left wrist and promised he’d try to do something special for her. Did he ever.

Inspired by Chloe, who’s battling cancer for the second time in her young life, Phillips launched a solo home run in the third inning hours before Manuel Margot laced a walk-off single to left field in the 10th to complete the Rays’ 9-8 win over the A’s. It was a welcome and wild win for Tampa Bay, one highlighted by a moment bigger than baseball.

“Perspective and appreciation for what I get to do on a daily basis, show up to play Major League Baseball and do this for a living,” Phillips said afterward. “And you have a young girl who’s 8 years old, battling cancer for a second time, and she can smile and enjoy her life? It’s crazy.”

Beyond the bracelet, Chloe played a part in Phillips’ home run. She and her mother, Jacquie, were being interviewed by Bally Sports Sun in-game reporter Tricia Whitaker as Phillips stepped up to the plate to lead off the third inning against A’s right-hander Jacob Lemoine. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Phillips — with Chloe’s bracelet still on his left wrist — unloaded on a slider and crushed it high and deep to right field.

“When I heard the crack then I heard everyone yelling, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I got goosebumps, then I started getting choked up,” Jacquie said. “Just amazing. It’s amazing.”

With a keen sense of the moment, Whitaker asked, “Chloe, do you know what just happened? What just happened, Chloe?”

Wearing a full Rays uniform with WARRIOR written above her No. 22, Chloe called it live on air.

“Brett Phillips just hit a home run!”

The ball came off Phillips’ bat at 107.8 mph, according to Statcast, and landed on Tropicana Field’s C-ring catwalk. (“C” for Chloe, perhaps?) The exit velocity reading might seem irrelevant in a story like this, but consider: It was the hardest-hit batted ball of Phillips’ Major League career, topping his previous best of 106.7.

That, Phillips believes, was no coincidence.

“I told her she gave me her power, and she sure did,” he said. “It’s just crazy. For me, it’s a God thing. … Sports are just so cool for moments like that.”

Stadium personnel retrieved the ball from the Tropicana Field catwalks before Wednesday night’s game. Phillips will sign it and, soon enough, present Chloe with a gift of his own: the home run ball he hit for her.

“That makes a good night better,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Chloe and her family, all born and raised in St. Petersburg, are big Rays fans. If she’s not playing softball, her brothers aren’t playing baseball or her parents aren’t coaching, they’re probably watching the Rays. And they’re closely connected to the club too, with Chloe’s siblings having played with the children of Rays clubhouse attendant Scott Cursi and Bally Sports Sun analyst Doug Waechter.

At some point, Jacquie challenged Chloe to pick a favorite player — but just one. Chloe’s choice was easy. It had to be Phillips, the Seminole High School product who embodies the words he wore across his chest after Tuesday’s game: “Baseball is fun.”

“He has the best smile, he’s always having fun, and I like how he does his airplane,” Chloe said on the Bally Sports Sun telecast, referencing Phillips’ famous celebration after his game-winning hit in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series — one that she replicated Tuesday during the interview.

Chloe was at Tuesday’s game, along with a bunch of her Fossil Park Little League teammates and friends in section 122, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — she requested that Phillips catch it, naturally, and he lunged to reel it in — and be recognized as part of the Rays’ “Tuesday’s Champion” program with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Children’s Dream Fund.

On Christmas Day in 2015, when Chloe was only 2 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with Type II pleuropulmonary blastoma, a rare and aggressive form of childhood lung cancer. She went through 36 rounds of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation. She lost weight and lost her hair, but found some solace in the Rays’ visits to her oncology floor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

After about a year and a half, Jacquie said, Chloe was declared cancer-free. She remained that way for the better part of five years, graduating to the All Children’s survivorship program. She took up softball, mostly playing pitcher and shortstop. Then, on March 10, doctors called her family with devastating news: Chloe’s latest scans revealed she had relapsed, and she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. On May 3, she will undergo surgery to have her thyroid removed in hopes of containing the cancer.

“We’ve got a long journey,” Jacquie said. “We’re just having as much fun in April as we can. We’re going to get ready and be prepared to fight the next one.”

Phillips said he would have had no idea, unless he’d been told, that Chloe was battling cancer for a second time. She was equally full of energy and gifts. First came one of her softballs, with Phillips’ name inscribed on it. Then a signed photo of her in uniform, made out for Phillips. And, finally, a handwritten note thanking her favorite player for catching her first pitch.

“Chloe’s such an inspiration, and I wish her all the best. I’m praying for her and her family. I can’t imagine,” Phillips said. “It puts perspective on my career and my life and how I go about things. Just continue to pour love and respect just as she did. Going through what she’s going through, what an inspiration.

“I hope she comes out of this stronger, and I believe she will. I know she will. And I hope to cross paths with her again sometime soon and thank her for the power.”

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