Clark immediately connects with Lester in emotional visit to iconic ballpark

Photo submitted by Ashlyn Clark Ashlyn Clark of Humboldt stands next to Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Jon Lester in the dugout at Wrigley Field on Wednesday.

CHICAGO — Wrigley Field was in all its vibrant, sun-soaked splendor by the time Ashlyn Clark and her family walked out of the tunnel and into the majestic light of the Chicago Cubs’ world for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.

The mother of the girl who is in the fight of her life took in the sights, sounds and perks of being ace pitcher and cancer survivor Jon Lester’s special guest as the team prepared to take on the Cincinnati Reds. There was complimentary food, beverages, access to the clubhouse, and seats so close “it kind of took our breath away,” Kristi Clark admitted.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” Kristi said. “When we go back, it will never be like this again. We weren’t just an everyday family in everyday seats for a few hours … it was pretty awesome to get the VIP treatment.”

The intimacy of the environment and access to the amenities made for a memorable experience in the family’s eyes, without question. But for a mom whose main concern is the physical and mental well-being of her 18-year-old daughter above all else, Ashlyn’s instant connection to Jon Lester the man will forever be the lasting image of their Chicago visit.

“Just seeing Ashlyn’s face light up when Jon walked down the dugout steps and started talking to her … nothing else mattered at that point in time,” said Kristi, an elementary physical education teacher in the Fort Dodge Community School District. “He wasn’t Jon Lester the famous pitcher. He was Jon Lester, who fought and beat cancer. And I could tell Ashlyn felt that immediately. As a mom, you just know. You recognize it.

Photo submitted by Ashlyn Clark and Mark Freund Ashlyn Clark’s signed ball sits in the glove of Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Jon Lester at Wrigley Field on Wednesday.

“Jon could have a conversation with her on a level that I can’t. Her dad can’t. Her siblings and friends can’t. He talked to her about specifics: the treatments, the hospital and doctors, the gameplan … everything he went through (13 years ago). It was an immediate bond they were able to share.”

Officially, Ashlyn Clark has been battling Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma since being formally diagnosed in May. The recently-graduated Humboldt senior hadn’t been feeling well since last fall, and had undergone a battery of tests and countless trips to the hospital in search of answers.

Clark’s story has spread far and wide in a whirlwind 10-week stretch since. The Humboldt community presented “Ashlyn’s Night at the Ballpark” late last month, which brought Hawkeye and Cyclone football celebrities to town for a fundraiser event. Schools from around the state have also raised money in their own ways to support Clark’s cause.

Clark captured the attention of thousands on-line when she hit her first career home run on Senior Night as her Wildcats clinched the North Central Conference softball championship. A picture of Clark holding the ball after the game went viral and eventually caught the eye of Lester last Thursday, who responded to The Messenger’s Twitter post by inviting Clark and her family — Kristi; her father, Derrik; her brother, Devon; and her sister, Kendal — to a Cubs game.

Five days later, the Clarks were Chicago-bound in their first Wrigley adventure and only the second trip ever as a family to see a Major League game.

Submitted photo by Mark Freund The Clark family — (left to right) Devon, Kristi, Ashlyn, Kendal and Derrk — stands together at Wrigley Field in Chicago before Wednesday’s Cubs game against Cincinnati.

“We’d been to the old Metrodome in Minneapolis for a Twins game,” Kristi said. “But that was it until now.”

Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large-cell lymphoma in 2006. After going through successful treatment and during his remission, Lester — a five-time Major League Baseball All-Star and three-time World Champion — established NVRQT, short for Never Quit, to support children with cancer and its researchers.

Lester met Ashlyn and her family on the field before Wednesday’s game.

“I could tell Ashlyn was pretty nervous at first, but that feeling went away quickly and she seemed very comfortable talking to him,” Kristi said. “He could’ve easily signed a ball, given her a hug and moved on. But he truly cared, and made Ashlyn feel so important. We weren’t asking for pictures … he was asking us.

“Of course, we were out of our element. He put us all at ease. He’s just a very special person.”

After the game, Lester confirmed he put a ball Ashlyn had signed in his locker — and it would “sit there until I’m done.”

“I only wish we had a little more time to sit with him and find out where his compassion comes from — who touched him either during his (cancer) fight or in his recovery that made him so invested in doing something like this for kids from all over,” Kristi said. “And he has now shared that gift with Ashlyn, who will do the same someday.

“On the way home, Ashlyn said, ‘he made me forget I even had cancer, because he was looking in my eyes when he was talking to me, not at my bald head.’ He’s been where Ashlyn is, and dealt with the intensity and emotions that go along with it. It’s a cancer survivor passing along his respect and gift to our girl, and that means everything.”