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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Steve Kelley

Mariners, other local athletes, have long history with Make-A-Wish Foundation

Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has found success matching local athletes and kids.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Jack Zduriencik was having a bad week. The Mariners were losing and the team's general manager was taking flak from all sides, reading criticism in the newspapers and getting blasted on talk radio for his team's downward spiral.

In Bothell, a 15-year-old boy with a life-threatening illness felt the sting as surely as Zduriencik. Cullen Rogers knew intuitively that his good friend Jack Zduriencik needed a lift.

Cullen sent Zduriencik a note that encouraged him to keep his head up and remember to have faith in himself. It was signed, "Your No. 1 Fan, Cullen."

This is the kind of magic that happens when the Make-A-Wish Foundation matches its wish kids with their wishes.

The foundation asks a very simple question: "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?"

When he was 13, Cullen's wish was to meet Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez.

"Why me?" Hernandez asked.

You see, many of the athletes who are chosen by the wish kids are overwhelmed by the idea that a child with a serious health issue would want to spend time with them.

When they met, Cullen and Hernandez hit it off like pitcher and catcher. A student of the game, Cullen asked Hernandez thoughtful questions about the art of pitching. Leaning on a bat, in front of the dugout, Hernandez answered the questions as if he were talking to the pitching coach.

"Cullen loved the science behind the game, and when he was talking with Felix you could just see the love both had for baseball," his mother, Shelley, said last week. "Felix extended himself to Cullen.

"He was remarkable, and for a parent it was just so much fun to see Cullen so happy. He was a kid just enjoying what he enjoyed the most. It was perfect."

Subsequently, Cullen met Zduriencik at a Make-A-Wish breakfast, and quickly they became friends. Zduriencik often called for health updates and sent Cullen notes and gifts.

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The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington is celebrating its 25th anniversary. That's 25 years of lifting spirits — not only of the children whose wondrous wishes it fulfills, but those athletes who help make the wishes come true.

"I'm not a scientist or physician," said Barry McConnell, president and CEO of the foundation, "yet after 20 years of working with wish children, I am convinced there is a positive and direct relationship between a magical wish experience and a child's physical and emotional health."

Make-A-Wish is enduring. The value isn't just in the experience of the day, it's in the anticipation and preparation before the day of the wish, and it's in the reliving of the experience afterward.

It allows children that spend so much time in hospitals and sick beds, to spend a day feeling normal. It allows kids to be kids. There are no procedures, no medical appointments, no lab tests to run on the day of their wishes.

"His Make-A-Wish experience was a light source for Cullen when things were tough," his mother said.

Seattle is fortunate that its sports teams are enthusiastic in their support of M.A.W. Some of the city's biggest stars have been the foundation's most ambitious supporters.

If there were a Make-a-Wish Hall of Fame of Seattle athletes it would include Ken Griffey Jr., Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, Gary Payton, Ray Allen, Lofa Tatupu, Matt Hasselbeck and the Washington athletic department.

Griffey has granted more wishes than any Seattle athlete. And when he's with a wish kid, he is totally immersed in the child.

"It's like there's nobody else around," said vice president Donna Verretto, the foundation's wish coordinator, who has maybe the best job on the planet. "I like to say at those moments, 'It's Griffey's world and we just live in it.'

"Everything else for him stops and he just takes care of the kids. It's overwhelming, it's amazing to watch. Ken set the standard. Now, when every other Mariner grants a wish, they think, 'What would Ken do?' "

Make-A-Wish is so important to the Mariners that former players like Griffey, Wilson and Buhner have often mentored the younger players about their wish days. Sometimes after the experience, players come up to Verretto and ask, "Did I do OK?"

Seahawks linebacker Tatupu had lunch with Make-A-Wish kid Kyle Cronk after practice last season. Shortly after, Tatupu had a pick-six against Carolina and, without fanfare, sent the football to Kyle with the inscription, "This one's for Kyle."

Every opening day since Safeco Field opened, M.A.W. has chosen a child to run around the bases before the game. This April, Kamrin Cramer will be the first person in a Mariners uniform to cross home plate.

When Zduriencik returned from last year's winter meetings, he learned that Cullen Rogers had died from complications following a double-lung transplant. The Mariners general manager attended the memorial service.

"Jack is really a remarkable individual," Shelley Rogers said. "When he would visit Cullen he would talk about what the Mariners were doing and he'd ask Cullen, 'What do you think of that?' It meant so much to Cullen."

Cullen spent most of his final months at Children's Hospital. Last Nov. 4, Cullen's 16th birthday, Zduriencik came to the hospital. He brought new manager Eric Wedge with him.

"A 16th birthday, that's a time in a kid's life when he should be learning how to drive and getting his license and all of that fun stuff," Shelley said. "Obviously, Cullen wasn't going to be able to do that and Jack, even though he was crazy busy, understood that. His visit was the highlight of Cullen's birthday."

For 25 years, Make-A-Wish has been making these moments happen. The foundation has granted thousands of wishes that are as enduring as memory.

Here's to a future for Make-A-Wish that is as bright as Cullen Rogers' spirit.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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