BOARDMAN, Ohio -- When the rehab is over, when he regains the strength and capacity to walk without any assistance and to speak each and every word in his vocabulary, and when he finally gets back to being a kid again, 4-year-old Luke Holko has a wish. He wants to go back to a baseball game. That might sound like a strange desire for the boy who was struck in the head by a baseball at a Minor League game last September. And it might seem like a request little Luke's parents, whose lives have been permanently altered by that stray foul ball, would be leery of honoring.
But for all they've been through, the Holkos -- and Luke, especially -- remain the biggest of baseball fans. And that's why what happened Tuesday night at Akron Children's Hospital's Mahoning Valley branch meant so much to them. The Indians were here for the Youngstown-area stop on their annual winter Press Tour. But before pitchers Aaron Laffey, Chris Perez and David Huff and assistant general manager Chris Antonetti took part in the usual Town Hall session with fans and signed autographs, they paid a special visit to Luke and his family. "Just seeing him smile means so much," Perez said. "He's only four years old, and he's already gone through a lifetime of surgery and rehab and doctors. He hasn't had a chance to be a kid. What I do for a living is very insignificant compared to what's important in life, and that's family. So bringing a smile to his face means a lot to me." It certainly meant a lot to the Holkos, who have been overwhelmed by the support they've received from both their community and the baseball community. Early in the Tribe event, Luke's father, Chad, and mother, Nicole, used this public forum to try to find the words to thank everybody for their support, be it financial or spiritual. And in doing so, Nicole made an announcement that would surely touch the heart of anyone who felt chills when hearing about what happened to Luke on Sept. 2, 2009. "We have our son back," she said through her tears. That, in itself, is a miracle, considering the circumstances. On that fateful late-summer day, the Holkos had front-row seats for a doubleheader at nearby Mahoning Valley, of the Class A New York-Penn League. Luke was sitting on Chad's lap when a foul ball off the bat of Scrappers' first baseman Ben Carlson struck him in the back of the head. He immediately fell limp. Chad rushed up the stands to find the paramedics stationed at the ballpark. And if not for their quick action and the work of the doctors at St. Elizabeth Health Center, Luke could have died. The road to recovery has been a long one for Luke, who had tissue destroyed in his brain and cerebellum. He remains far from the finish line. But the Holkos and the medical staff at Akron Children's Hospital, where Luke's rehab program takes place, are seeing marked improvement in him each day. "I compare it to when your baby first learns to walk and talk," Nicole said. "It kind of follows the same pattern, but you just see the determination in him and his strength. He never gives up. It's amazing. You can compare it to when he's a baby seeing those things for the first time all over again." Nicole takes Luke on the 40-mile trek from the Holkos' home near Warren to Akron at least three days each week for rehab sessions that last up to six hours. One of Luke's most significant advancements to date came two weeks before Christmas, when he said his first word since the accident. He was being fed goldfish crackers, and he asked for "more." On Monday came another achievement, as Luke was able to take steps using a walker, without an additional brace around his torso. He is inching closer and closer to walking on his own. "You look forward to every positive thing, and there's been so many," Chad said. "And I know he's going to do great. He might not walk like he would have before, but he will walk. And intellectually, he's still so smart. Little things he says, the way he puts his words together, it's amazing." Chad and Nicole document Luke's recovery on an online journal. And while Luke's long-term prognosis is still uncertain, Dr. Micah Baird, who oversees the rehab program, continues to give the family encouraging reports. "Dr. Baird had a lot of faith in him, putting him in this program," Nicole said. "When he saw Luke [on Monday], he said, 'Luke, I just want to take you and walk you around and show everybody -- all those people who said you'd never walk -- how you're doing now.' We just had a feeling, deep down, that Luke was going to be OK." The baseball community, including the Indians, reached out to the Holkos after the accident, through care packages and monetary donations. The New York-Penn League collected about $24,000 in fan donations during its playoffs. For Tuesday's Press Tour stop, the Indians arranged a meet-and-greet with Luke, who was, understandably, a bit intimidated when the three ballplayers and their gigantic mascot, Slider, stepped into the room. "It took him a little while to warm up, as you can imagine," Antonetti said with a smile. "But he warmed up and gave the guys high-fives as they were walking out." Perez, Laffey and Huff signed a ball for Luke and told him they look forward to hosting him at an Indians game this summer. "The amount of fight that kid has -- and he's only four years old -- is amazing," Laffey said. "Right now, it's a positive outlook for him. If we get a chance to brighten his day a little bit just by showing up and talking to him a little bit, that means the world to us." Antonetti told the Holkos they have an open invitation to an Indians game any time they'd like. And Nicole said the Holkos intend to take the Tribe up on that offer very soon. "Luke wants to go back," she said. "His only comment is that we have to sit way, way, way up high."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.