MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs made Wednesday a pretty special day for nine kids and their families. Think of those nine kids as representing each position on a baseball diamond.
The Cubs partnered with Advocate Children's Hospital in Chicago and American Airlines to bring the kids and their families from O'Hare to Mesa to spend the day at Sloan Park, meet the players and tour the team's spring-training facility.
Bright and early Wednesday morning, the kids joined the players on the field and some stretched and exercised right alongside their favorite Cubs.
The kids are current or former patients at Advocate Children's Hospital, and each has battled or is battling through various illnesses.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Adrienne Balow of Des Plaines. Balow's 11-year-old son, Aidan, was among the guests of honor. "To see Aidan, he was hoping he had a chance to meet Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Those are his favorites; he's a first baseman. He said those were the two he really wanted to meet. To watch him out there, stretching and hanging out, it's just amazing. A lot of these kids have been through so much. Today they forget about all that."
Opinion seemed split among the group as to whether Bryant or Rizzo was the favorite.
"It was unbelievably amazing," said Sara Trznadel, mother of 11-year-old Saida, of Carpentersville. "She was so, so excited. It meant the world to her to get this once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Saida confirmed that she was indeed excited.
"I was going to pass out," she said. "I would just fall over and pass out. Anthony Rizzo was standing three feet from my face."
Olivia Gryson, 8, of Elgin, was in the Bryant camp.
"He's cute," she said.
Olivia has Type 1 diabetes, and she must take insulin shots and have her finger pricked multiple times each day. She bravely carries on.
"Sometimes I like to watch it (the shots) so I know when it goes in," she said. "But sometimes I have this ball that I squeeze."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he was more than happy his players were so willing to oblige.
"That came extemporaneously," he said. "They (the families) were here, and I wasn't aware they were going to be on the field. I was doing something else. I'm glad I got out there in time. It was beautiful. That's what I like for us to be able to do. We just did it.
"It was the right thing to do. I know it made their day. It made family -- mom, dad, whoever was there with them -- it made their day, also. I love the way our players reacted. I think it really adds to balance and perspective. The kids are awesome. It's terrible that they have to be there in those circumstances, but again, it's wonderful. I thought it went over really well."
The Cactus League season will open for the Cubs Saturday. They'll play a pair of split-squad games, hosting the Oakland Athletics at Sloan Park. Another team of Cubs will make the short trip to Scottsdale for a game against the Giants.
Joe Maddon said Mike Montgomery will pitch against the A's while Rob Zastryzny will work against the Giants.
Jake Buchanan will pitch Sunday at home against Cleveland, and Brett Anderson will go Monday against the White Sox at Sloan Park. It will be into March before the Cubs' top four pitchers (Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey) start games.
Having split-squad games off the bat presents challenges.
"It's kind of awkward," Maddon said. "We have enough minor-leaguers in camp and also the satellite group that's going to be here. It's hard to handle two nine-inning games with your regular guys because even after they've played on Saturday, to have them play on Sunday is not a good idea. You have to really balance this out.
"Everybody wants you to use at least four regular guys, but we're also including starters and closers among the four that are going to be playing in the games. It's really hard in the beginning especially when you start with a deuce on that first day."
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