GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The first clue it would be a different sort of day at Camelback Ranch came in the morning, when someone noticed the white jersey hanging in the previously empty locker, with the name Ramirez and the number 24 on the back. The first thought was that Manny was once again being Manny, switching back to the familiar digits he wore for all those years in Boston, until the reminder came that not even a dreadlocked superstar is big enough to bring Walter Alston's number out of retirement.
As it turned out, the uniform and the locker was reserved for 17-year-old Chris Ramirez of San Francisco, who was diagnosed only five weeks ago with glioblastoma, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. A die-hard Manny fan, he was coming to meet his hero courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
A baseball player at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, Ramirez is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in an attempt to combat the disease, but this was a day to not think about that. This was a day for baseball, and it started in the Dodgers' clubhouse, where he got to meet several of the players and where catcher Russell Martin even gave him a new pair of bright-blue baseball shoes.
From there, Ramirez walked out to the field with the players but not all the way. Ramirez, who is a pitcher, catcher, shortstop and outfielder for his high school team, made a detour to the pitching mounds, where he got a personal lesson from Dodgers bullpen coach Ken Howell.
He then was taken to Field 2, where he took ground balls from Dodgers first-base coach Mariano Duncan and made throws softly to a 77-year-old Maury Wills at first.
"You can throw 'em hard, Chris," Wills yelled. "I can take it."
Ramirez obliged on the next few tosses, firing them across the diamond with considerable velocity. He needed to rest after that, but only for a couple of minutes, until Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti came and escorted him across the field to greet several of the players as they spilled onto Field 2 to warm up.
Ramirez played catch for several minutes with the other Ramirez, Brian Giles standing beside him and taking alternate throws from Manny. Then it was on to left field, where the Ramirezes stood together and fielded ground balls hit by third-base coach Larry Bowa. Chris elicited shouts from almost every Dodgers player as he fired one bullet in to second base, then another on one hop to home plate.
Chris then joined all the position players on a short walk into the stadium to take batting practice before the Dodgers' Cactus League opener against the Chicago White Sox. In between his turns in the cage, he had several more conversations with Manny and a couple with Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
Chris Ramirez wasn't hard to spot -- he was the only player wearing an all-white Dodgers ensemble on a day when the Dodgers were to be the designated visiting team against the White Sox, with whom they share a spring training facility. Other than that, though, he looked completely normal, with no outward signs that he was suffering from anything other than pure awe at his surroundings.
Through it all, his mother and little sister were never more than a few feet away. Anyone who has children of their own can imagine the fear Sara Beltran is feeling. But as she watched her son throwing off those mounds under Howell's watchful eye, she said she draws strength from his attitude.
"He is on chemo right now, but he seems pretty good," she said. "He is a very strong person. He said, 'Mom, I don't want you to worry. I will be a strong guy for you, and I won't leave you. I'm thankful that this happened to me, and not to you, because I can take the pain.' He has had two surgeries with this, and he never took any medication after either one of them. Never. The doctors and the nurses in the hospital asked him, 'Chris, don't you need any morphine?' and he just said no.
"They gave him a prescription for painkillers, and we went to the pharmacy and had it filled, but now they're still in the same bag we brought them home in. Sometimes, he says he feels a little soreness back here [putting her hand on the back of her neck], but he says it's just sore, that it doesn't really hurt.
"He is my boy. I'm a single mom, and I'm very proud of him."
Chris is taking the semester off from school while being treated, but his mom says he has maintained an active social life.
"He has a lot of friends," she said. "Anytime we go out in public, to the mall or anywhere, we always run into someone who is a friend of his. He goes out, goes to movies, goes dancing. He is just living a normal life. He doesn't want to just stay home all the time."
Beltran commended Chris' teachers at Capuchino High, especially his counselor, Shannon Millard, who she said has put together fundraisers to help defray the cost of Chris' treatment.
"Without her help, I wouldn't be able to handle this situation by myself," Beltran said. "She is there any time we need her. We can call her anytime, day or night."
Mostly, though, it is Chris himself who helps her deal with every parent's nightmare.
"He is giving me more strength than I am giving him," Beltran said. "He said, 'I know in my heart that it isn't my time to go yet because I want to play baseball. I want to buy you a house, and I don't want you to have to work.'"
An hour before the Dodgers' first exhibition game of the spring, on a perfectly sunny day in the desert and at a time of year that is all about optimism, Chris stood behind the batting cage and promised that even better days are ahead.
"Two more weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, and that's it," he said. "After that, I know we're going to get some good news."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.