Jackson Cruthis has come a long way since being born eight weeks premature.
But no step was any bigger than the one he took at Busch Stadium on Monday night.
The 12-year-old son of Lebanon High School athletic director Chad Cruthis was born with kidney deformities and had a transplant by the time he was 3.
He still carries some of the embarrassment he felt when he had to wear a surgical mask to protect his weakened immune system. Yet, Jackson stepped onto the Busch Stadium turf in front of nearly 37,000 people to deliver a ceremonial first pitch before the St. Louis Cardinals took on the Milwaukee Brewers.
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“I don’t think he would have done it last year,” said Chad Cruthis, who was at his son’s side, iPhone camera in hand. “I think having to wear that mask in public like he did is attributable to him not being very social, but he’s been trying to come out of his shell a little bit.”
Chad and Kirsta Cruthis didn’t expect Jackson to arrive until late-July 2005, but he arrived May 19 with a posterior urethral valve disorder that stunted the development of his kidneys.
“They were about the size of a raisin and functioning at about 10 percent,” Chad Cruthis said.
I teased him, ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll tackle you and throw the first pitch myself. You’ll become a YouTube sensation, and the world will think I’m the worst dad ever.’
With some fundraising help from the Lebanon High School boys basketball team, which Cruthis coached at the time, and the support of the community, Jackson received an adult kidney.
It won’t be his last.
“His body has been rejecting it for the last four years,” said Cruthis, who now coaches the Lady Greyhounds girls basketball team. “We keep saying we’re on borrowed time because he’ll have another transplant. It could be two years; it could be 10.”
While his Lady Greyhounds were playing a game in the Lebanon Holiday Tournament in December, Cruthis was summoned off the floor to his gym office, where Jackson was overcome by a seizure. He had another later at the hospital, where he spent the next four days of his holiday break.
The seizure was attributed to low sodium in his blood, but it typified the kind of worried stress the family has had to endure.
“Sometimes you just get to the point where you think a new kidney would make everything better,” Cruthis said. “Each time things get a little worse, the insurance companies say, ‘You’re not sick enough to have a new kidney.’
“But the professionals at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital have done just an amazing job keeping him healthy.”
Jackson, for now, appears perfectly fit.
Doctors won’t clear him to play contact sports like football, wrestling, or even soccer (neither will his parents), but he plans to try out for the eighth-grade basketball team next fall.
And he can throw a baseball.
Jackson’s big-league moment came courtesy of Amy Garrett, an attorney at Simmons-Hanley-Conroy, where Kirsta Cruthis also works. Garrett directs the Alton firm’s Employee Foundation, and arranged a fundraiser through the Cardinals group-ticket office.
She invited Jackson and three others to throw out the first pitches Monday.
He enjoyed it, but I honestly think it meant more to me because I know what it took for him to do it. It was a big step.
With some of his teachers from Lebanon Middle School in the crowd, Jackson walked through the corridor beneath the home-plate grandstand, passed the Cardinals clubhouse and onto the field.
Speaking through his dad, he told the News-Democrat that Busch Stadium looked much bigger — and the seats much fuller — from the field than it does from the stands.
Chad Cruthis had to get to work keeping his son’s nerves in check.
“I could tell he was starting to get nervous, so I just kept him talking,” Cruthis said. “I teased him, ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll tackle you and throw the first pitch myself. You’ll become a YouTube sensation, and the world will think I’m the worst dad ever.’”
Jackson hoped he’d get to throw the pitch to his favorite Cardinals player, Matt Carpenter, but was none-the-less pleased to deliver a strike to reserve catcher Eric Fryer instead.
Afterward, he crossed paths with former Cardinals Gold Glove catcher Tom Pagnozzi, who signed a ball and posed for a photo. It was the best part of the experience, Jackson said, even though he hadn’t previously heard of Pagnozzi.
The best part of the day for Chad Cruthis was seeing his son healthy and confident.
“He enjoyed it, but I honestly think it meant more to me because I know what it took for him to do it,” Cruthis said. “It was a big step.”