The cherry UNM baseball helmet is entirely too large but 3-year-old Lio Ortega couldn’t care less.
The oversize headgear symbolizes what’s been an exceptionally difficult year for Ortega – and that the University of New Mexico baseball team has his back.
Ortega, who turned 3 on July 13, has spent the past six months fighting brain cancer and is only now getting back to the business of being a little boy. Far too much of his year has been spent on surgical procedures, chemotherapy sessions and moments when his family wondered whether Lio would live to see 2017.
“When you hear your son has brain cancer, the first thing that crosses your mind is, ‘How long do I have with him?’ ” Lio’s father, Fred Ortega, said. “I tried to hold my emotions in, but my mind was racing all over the place. It was rough.”
The Ortegas, who live in Colorado Springs, have borne heavy physical, emotional and financial burdens during Lio’s battle, but their spirits received a boost from out of state. It came through an unlikely connection between Lio and the UNM baseball team, one that Fred insists has been instrumental in his son’s recovery.
“He went crazy for the Lobos, and they made him part of the team,” Fred said. “During the worst times that gave him something to take his mind away from all the bad things happening. I can’t tell you what a big deal that was.”
The Ortegas’ ties to UNM baseball actually started forming in Hobbs long before Lio was born. Fred played for current UNM coach Ray Birmingham at New Mexico Junior College in 1994 and ’95, helping the Thunderbirds finish 48-9 in his final season. Fred never forgot the experience or his junior college mentor.
“Coach Birmingham recruited me out of New York and gave me a great opportunity,” he said. “He was very influential in my life.”
Birmingham tracks many of his former players through Facebook, which is how he learned of Lio Ortega’s fight against brain cancer. Birmingham contacted Fred and invited the Ortegas to attend a game in May, when the Lobos were scheduled to visit the nearby Air Force Academy.
“I’d been wanting to go see them play and catch up with coach Birmingham,” Fred said, “but with everything Lio was going through, I didn’t think we’d make it this year. He was so sick.”
Fearing the worst
Lio’s health started deteriorating in January when he began to suffer recurring headaches and vomiting. In February he was diagnosed with medullablastoma, a fast-growing malignant brain tumor. Lio had two masses behind his left ear and required immediate surgery to remove them.
“We experienced a period of not knowing whether he would live,” Li’s mother, Kirsten, said in an open email letter to Birmingham this week, “and then not knowing how his physical and mental abilities would be affected by brain surgery.”
The February surgery was successful but Lio’s condition required intensive postoperative treatment designed to prevent recurrence of his cancer. It included multiple sessions chemotherapy, as well as a procedure that involved harvesting and later replacing some of Lio’s stem cells to boost his recovery.
The process hit Lio and his family hard.
“It’s crushing to see a little kid so full of life being drained like that,” Fred said. “He couldn’t hardly walk. He got sick whenever he ate. There were lines coming in and out of his chest. He was like a ghost.”
Lio was between chemotherapy sessions when the Lobos traveled to Colorado Springs for a three-game series. He was feeling well enough to attend, so the Ortegas went to Falcon Field on May 20 to see UNM take on Air Force.
Darlene Tripp, whose son, Christian, pitches for the Lobos, ended up sitting next to the Ortegas and learned their story.
“It was Lio’s first baseball game, and I saw how much he loved it,” Darlene Tripp said. “It was just one of those special moments, so I took it upon myself to get him involved with Lobo baseball. I got their address and promised to send them some gear.”
A bond formed even sooner as Fred took Lio to the dugout to meet Birmingham immediately after Air Force’s 1-0 victory.
“I was pretty upset about the game,” Birmingham recalled, “but when Freddy and Lio came down I felt like God was sending me a message. We lost a ballgame but look what this kid’s fighting. It puts your priorities right back in line.”
Birmingham began introducing Lio to UNM’s players, including senior Jared Holley.
“It’s kind of a humbling experience meeting a kid like that,” Holley said. “It takes your mind off baseball, but when you think about him later it gives you something to play for. I feel like he helped motivate us for the Mountain West tournament.”
Lio left the field that day as a converted Lobo fan, albeit reluctantly.
“We had to carry him off the field kicking and screaming when everything was over,” Kirsten said. “He would have set up camp and stayed on the field forever.”
After the series, the Lobos returned to Albuquerque to host the Mountain West tournament, while Lio endured more treatments. Darlene Tripp followed through on her promise, purchasing a Lobo hat and T-shirt for Lio. Christian Tripp got them autographed by all the Lobo players and coaches.
“We got the T-shirt signed after the boys won the Mountain West tournament,” Darlene Tripp said, “so it said ‘MWC Champions’ on the back. That was pretty fitting, I thought.”
The inspired Lobos later collected other gear, including bats, gloves and the prized batting helmet. The gear arrived in Colorado Springs when Lio was recovering from stem cell replacement surgery and before UNM’s appearance in NCAA Regionals.
At the time the Ortegas were staying in a hotel near Children’s Hospital in Aurora, Colo. With his immune system compromised, Lio was not allowed to venture outside but he was able to follow his new favorite team online.
“Lio would gear up with his Lobos batting helmet, batting gloves and shirt to watch the (Regional) games,” Kirsten said. “Cheering for the team was so exciting for him that he found energy to jump and play catch while we watched.”
Between games, Fred, Kirsten and Lio’s 6-year-old sister, Ariadne, informed Lio about UNM’s players and coaches from their bios on the team’s website. He began to recognize some Lobos during games but reacted most strongly when Birmingham appeared onscreen.
“He fell in love with coach Birmingham,” Fred said. “Every time he saw him it was, ‘There’s my coach! That’s coach B!’ I don’t think he’ll stay around UNM long enough to coach Lio, but he might have to try.”
The Lobos came up short in their run at NCAA Regionals, but Lio’s 2016 fortunes have since taken a positive turn.
“He’s doing fantastic,” Fred said. “The lines are out of his chest. He’s gone camping and swimming, and he’s getting dirty like little boys should. His hair’s even starting to come back.”
Unfortunately, Lio’s high-dose chemotherapy produced side effects. For example, he lost some high-pitch hearing and will have to be fitted for hearing aids. He also must undergo magnetic resonance image (MRI) testing every three months to be sure there is no recurrence of his cancer.
“He has some things to overcome,” Fred said, “but he’s alive, and he’s the same Lio, a great kid.”
Baseball continues to be a motivating force for Lio. The Ortegas plan to visit Albuquerque for a Lobos game next season, and Lio plans to line up for his first season of tee-ball next spring.
Hair figures to obscure the scar behind Lio’s left ear long before Opening Day 2017 arrives, but few figure to see it in the interim anyway.
“It’s covered by the batting helmet,” Fred said with a laugh. “To this day he’s always wearing that thing. We have to make him take it off or he’d sleep in it.
“He’s pretty much a Lobo fan for life. I guess we all are.”