13-year-old Josiah Viera an inspiration to Spikes as ‘face of this organization’

Former Spikes infielder Danny Hudzina hugs Josiah Viera during media day at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park before the 2017 season.
Former Spikes infielder Danny Hudzina hugs Josiah Viera during media day at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park before the 2017 season.

Outside the home dugout, 13-year-old Josiah Viera — dressed in his red and white Under Armour cleats — waits to make his next appearance on the State College Spikes’ pregame show.

Josiah, the team’s honorary bench coach, wears his No. 10 Spikes jersey and faded Spikes hat for the series opener Sunday against the Auburn Doubledays. He receives a high-five from a player while Spikes radio broadcasters Steve Jones and Joe Putnam discuss the final homestand before introducing Josiah, who suffers from Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare and fatal genetic disorder that causes accelerated aging in children.

“Some people go out to Las Vegas to find their wisdom. Others ascend the mountain of wisdom to find at the top of the mountain, someone that can tell you exactly what’s going to happen,” Jones says, sitting next to Putnam. “Here at the ballpark, we have the seer of all seers, the sage of all sages, at the top of our mountain of wisdom, we find Josiah Viera.”

Josiah and Putnam can’t help but smile.

With Putnam holding the microphone, the 13-year-old who stands about 37 inches tall greets Jones and later adds: “It’s good to be back in Happy Valley.”

In his fifth season with the Spikes, Josiah has become more than the honorary bench coach. He’s a teammate who plays cards in the clubhouse, takes pregame batting practice and offers encouragement in the dugout. He’s one of the voices of the franchise who appears on the pregame show and radio broadcasts. He’s a fan favorite who has his own baseball cards and bobblehead and signs autographs.

“He’s the face of this organization,” Spikes pitcher Will Latcham said. “I believe that. I’m sure people who’ve been here longer than I am will take that to their grave as well.”

The State College Spikes players watched in silence as ESPN’s “E:60” story on Josiah played in the clubhouse in 2013.

It was the first time relief pitcher Mitch Harris had seen Josiah’s story, and it left him and his teammates in awe before meeting him later that day. Josiah connected with the Spikes through Children’s Miracle Network for the game and lit up the clubhouse with his infectious smile and energetic personality. He gave high-fives and threw ball with the players, and he came back for more games that season, making the two-hour trip from Hegins, Pa., with his grandfather, Dave Bohner.

Josiah always brought his bat, glove and helmet with him, and Harris could sense that Josiah just wanted to be a part of the team. So one day after batting practice, Harris dropped to one knee and threw him batting practice with the entire team crowded around home plate cheering.

But one memory from that 2013 season stands above the rest for Harris, who acted as the pitcher as Josiah showed off his swing after a game at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

When Harris told Josiah, “Let’s see the home run trot,” the 9-year-old took off for first base and rounded second base to cheers from the fans still in the stadium. The excitement grew with the team waiting for him at home plate, where Bohner remembers the players hoisting Josiah onto their shoulders to celebrate as if he just hit a walk-off home run.

“That’s probably one of the memories that I’ll never forget ’til the day that I die,” Harris said. “Of all the moments I’ve had on a baseball field, that was actually probably one of the more chilling moments — butterfly, have-goosebumps moments — ever.”

For former outfielder Collin Radack, that “goosebumps moment” came at the start of the 2014 season when he first met Josiah. Radack immediately recognized Josiah from ESPN, and the young boy’s story and passion for the game stuck with him. Radack was wrestling with self-doubt when he joined the Spikes, wondering if he could succeed in professional baseball, but seeing Josiah provided perspective.

“In the professional baseball world, it can be a very lonely world because sometimes you feel like it’s just all about you, right? You’re on this island and you’re expected to perform,” Radack said. “When Josiah was around, it just kind of reminded us that there’s kind of a bigger purpose behind what we’re doing.”

Josiah became part of the Spikes organization that season, wearing a helmet to watch the games from the dugout and getting his own locker and No. 10 jerseys.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Josiah said. “That was a really special day for me.”

Added Josiah’s grandfather: “He was like on cloud nine.”

Radack cherishes his time playing cards and seeing Josiah learn Spanish from his teammates in the clubhouse. Josiah grew close with manager Oliver Marmol, who showed Josiah the lineup and took his suggestions in his time leading the Spikes. The players rallied around Josiah and enjoyed watching him take batting practice that season.

“I don’t think we even expected him to still be alive at this point,” Radack said. “So in our minds, it was sort of like, ‘This may be his last baseball season.’”

Radack and some teammates discussed that possibility in 2014 as the Spikes rallied around Josiah on their way to the New York-Penn League championship.

In the bottom of the fifth inning Sunday, with the Spikes and Doubledays still scoreless, Josiah’s voice echoes throughout the ballpark.

The 13-year-old combines with Putnam to introduce the players throughout the inning as the Spikes jump out to a 3-0 lead. They follow the same formula in the bottom of the sixth, and Josiah puts on a show.

“Now batting,” Putnam says.

“No. 12 Ricaaaardo Bautista,” Josiah says.

It’s Josiah’s debut as the stadium’s public address announcer, and the Spikes add three more runs in the sixth to take a 6-0 lead. At the end of the inning, Putnam recognizes the honorary bench coach/face of the organization: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for assistant PA announcer tonight, Josiah Viera.”

The crowd cheers and breaks into applause.

His grandfather warns him to expect some playful teasing when he gets back to the dugout. Sure enough, the players point out they just scored six runs and tell him to get back to the press box.

“I’ll remember his voice forever,” Spikes infielder Caleb Lopes said. “Hearing him over the PA was so funny because we know him. He’s so close to us.”

Spikes pitcher Daniel Castano carries Josiah onto the field Sunday after throwing eight shutout innings to earn his ninth win, tying a Spikes’ single-season record. Castano drew Josiah’s initials in the mound between innings throughout the season and relished the opportunity to celebrate his wins with Josiah.

“He’s truly a part of this team,” Castano said. “We all love him to death.”

Castano bonded with Josiah over their shared Christian faith as Josiah sat on the pitcher’s lap at the team’s Bible studies. Castano also wore a cross necklace like Josiah, and other teammates connected with the 13-year-old in similar ways. Rather than a special handshake, Lopes often banged his cross necklace with Josiah’s cross, followed by a hug. When Josiah forgot his one day late in the season, Latcham gave him a silver chain with a cross.

After Latcham met Josiah for the first time this season, he watched the ESPN story and started to tear up. He’s been impressed by Josiah’s encyclopedic knowledge of the game and players’ stats, and he’s enjoyed the light moments playing cards and talking trash.

Latcham has also soaked in the moments watching him taking batting practice this year with his wood Louisville Slugger bats featuring his name and No. 10. Latcham and his teammates smile as they watch Josiah lace pitch after pitch.

“It goes back to the love of the game,” Latcham said. “He doesn’t take any days off when he’s here.”

Josiah even made the trip to Troy, N.Y., for this year’s New York-Penn League All-Star Game and received a standing ovation in the ninth inning after making a pitching change. Josiah sat in Spikes manager Joe Kruzel’s lap with one out when he learned he’d be handing the ball to State College’s Andrew Summerville for the final out.

Josiah signaled for time to the home plate umpire and replaced Aberdeen’s James Teague with Summerville. He came back to the dugout and said he made his “major league debut,” and tipped his hat to the crowd.

“You couldn’t have scripted it for a movie because you didn’t know how people were going to react,” Kruzel said.

Kruzel felt chills and watched everything unfold teary-eyed.

“That was a huge deal for him,” said Bohner, his grandfather, who watched from the dugout. “It was probably the big moment in my life to see him do something like that.”

Josiah snacks on french fries with his headset on for the radio broadcast at the end of the fifth inning Monday.

He sits next to Putnam in his red jersey with eye black on his face and chimes in with his thoughts. Putnam welcomes listeners back in the top of the sixth, saying “Joe Putnam, Josiah Viera, Steve Jones with you” and talks about the upcoming book about Josiah titled “A Short Season.”

“It’s been a wild ride, has it not?” Putnam says.

“Yes,” Josiah answers.

They go back-and-forth, mentioning they’ve seen extra-inning games and walk-off wins together. And by the end of the inning, they share another noteworthy moment as the Spikes record their first triple play in franchise history. It was a memorable day for Josiah — he presented pitcher Levi MaVorhis with the Josiah Viera Perseverance Award, and his T-shirts featuring the words “never give up” in a baseball diamond were sold in the ballpark.

After the game, outside the Spikes clubhouse, Lopes and Josiah trade T-shirts and pose for a photo. Lopes plans to keep in touch with Josiah during the offseason like past Spikes players. Harris has talked on the phone with his “little brother” and reconnected at spring training since they first bonded, and Josiah served as the ring bearer at former Spikes outfielder Nick Thompson’s wedding.

Those relationships span the past five seasons, and they all started in the Spikes clubhouse at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

“It’s been incredible,” Josiah said.