BRADENTON -- For a 9-year-old Palmetto boy who learned six days ago his acute leukemia was finally in remission, the perfect way to feel normal again included blasting down the highway Sunday as a "Conquistador for a Day" with the Crewe of the Hernando DeSoto Historical Society.
Matthew DeSantis, wind ruffling his hair at 50 mph as Co-Capt. Cliff Hulsart drove the towering San Cristobal III float ship from his house in the 4500 block of 35th Avenue Circle East out to U.S. Highway 301 and toward Pirate Fest near downtown Bradenton, almost smiled.
Almost, but not quite.
What came next finally did it.
That long-awaited smile bloomed as he donned a silver Conquistador helmet at McKechnie Field and all sorts of beads and other bling were placed around his neck by a pack of wild-eyed men in filigree and breastplates, including Sid "Hernando DeSoto" Jones, Capt. Johnny Jander, Lt. Ron Hernden, Lt. Roy McKenzie, and krewe members Cindy Mills, Erik Marshall, Joe Cuervo, Paul Haag and Patrick Cline.
"Matthew was a little overwhelmed at first when the float pulled up," said Matthew's mother, Donna DeSantis, owner of Sunny Daze Preschool in Bradenton. "But when they put that silver helmet on him he started smiling. When they tried to take it off he said, 'Nope.'"
The volunteer members of the society celebrate the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto landing near the mouth of the Manatee River in May 1539, a landing repeated nowadays in the form of charitable deeds.
Matthew also did not seem to mind attention received from 2014-15 DeSoto Queen Brianne Wilson and Princess Hannah Rowland.
Matthew, who loves baseball and said he can't wait to play again, took the mound in front of the McKechnie Field crowd to throw the first pitch -- a strike -- before Sunday's Pittsburgh Pirate-Baltimore Orioles spring exhibition game.
"You nailed it!" Sid "Hern" Jones told Matthew after his pitch.
Matthew's victory over cancer was announced at the ballpark to a huge roar, and members of the Pirates gave him high fives as he left the field.
"This is what we are all about," Jones said. "The parades are great, but this is why we do what we do, to make a kid smile like that. We are all about charity and fun."
Matthew's adventure came courtesy of Overcome Birth Defects, whose founder, Christina Sisti, is married to Hernden.
"When I told Ron all about Matthew he said: 'Let's go with it.'" Sisti said. "Matthew qualifies for our program because our mission since we started in 2010 is to help children with birth defects and disabilities and their families trying to deal with it. Leukemia becomes a disability due to all the medical treatments you must go through."
Matthew's family rode with him on the float including his father, James; his grandfather, Donald Whalen; and his sisters, Mikayla, 12 and Madison, 6.
The San Cristobal krewe, including Susan Roscoe, Scott Monroe, Sue Haag and Hulsart, catered to any needs the DeSantis family had, including a steady supply of soft drinks.
Pirate fest brings out baseball fans
Pirate Fest was a chance for Pirate fans to get player autographs, a special plastic Pirate bat, let their children play in the Pirate bounce house, listen to music and get some beads from Matthew, who handed them out courtesy of the DeSoto krewe.
Oriole fans Alan Strout, Trammell Miller and Rich Cress were proudly clad in orange Sunday.
"I've loved the Orioles since 1964 when I discovered the great Brooks Robinson and fell in love with the bird on the cap," said Strout who won a national contest held by Topps baseball and got to be a minor league player for a day last year, including getting his own baseball card.
Chester Spellman and his son, William, 6, were in Bradenton to conclude a three parks in three days spring training tour.
"I want to start a father-and-son tradition," said Spellman, who is from Tallahassee. "Hopefully, William will do this with his son. I also think spring training is great for Florida's economy and I want to support it."
Davie firefighter Adam Konick and his wife, Krystal Konick, came from Fort Lauderdale with their boys, Aiden, 6, and Austin, 4.
"Our tradition is that we have to go to Mixon's Fruit Farm for orange juice and ice cream and play miniature golf at Smugglers Cove Adventure Golf," Adam Konick said.
"He plays with the Little League in Lakewood Ranch so he loves anything baseball," Melissa Goodman said of her son, Ethan, 8, who got his bat signed by John Holdzkun and Justin Sellars.
Mike and Nancy Poe came to Bradenton from Pittsburgh for three games and were finishing their baseball vacation Sunday.
"We stayed at the Hampton Inn and ate all our meals in downtown Bradenton," Nancy Poe said. "We hit O'Brick's Irish Pub and Martini Bar, Fav's Italian Cucina, Robin's Downtown Cafe, Motorworks Brewing, Darwin Brewing Co. and even got lunch at Renaissance on 9th. We also walked Riverwalk. We love everything about Bradenton."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.