In the days leading up to the State College Spikes opening night at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, everything seemed to be running as it should.
On a sunny Friday afternoon a little more than a week from the first pitch, the concession stands were being set up, the grounds crew was working tediously to fix every imperfection in the baseball diamond, and the players were en route to Happy Valley for another season of minor league baseball.
For those within the Spikes organization, however, there’s something missing this year — Josiah Viera, the team’s 14-year-old honorary bench coach, who died in December.
To help fill the void left by a teen’s whose presence was much larger than his stature, the Spikes are dedicating their opening night at 7 p.m. Saturday to remembering Josiah.
“It’s certainly emotional,” said Joe Putnam, play-by-play announcer for the Spikes. “Josiah was the greatest friend and teammate you could ask for and the most inspirational figure anybody has ever known.”
Josiah was born in 2004 with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, an extremely rare and incurable disease that causes slow growth and rapid aging.
His love of baseball brought him to Medlar Field, and by 2013, the Spikes brought him in as one of their own, naming him honorary bench coach in 2014 — a position he would hold for four seasons.
“He had a way, he would touch so many lives,” Dave Bohner, Josiah’s grandfather, said. “Just his personality, not just because of baseball. He had a never-give-up attitude.”
With the Spikes, Josiah was an regular fixture in the organization, making the two-hour drive from his home in Hegins, Schuykill County, to every home game until his death last Christmas Eve.
The loss of Josiah, however, does not mean his contributions to the team will be forgotten.
On Saturday, the Spikes will unveil a commemorative patch with the initials “JV” inside a baseball diamond drawn by Josiah, which the Spikes will wear throughout the year.
Other activities planned include the retirement of Josiah’s No. 10 uniform and a pregame moment of silence followed by an in-game moment of celebration. The first pitches of the season will be thrown by Josiah’s grandfather and sister, Daisha Viera, as well as 15-year-old Anthony Fitzgerald, of State College, who is a Geisinger Miracle Kid.
“He meant so much,” Spikes general manager Scott Walker said. “He lit up the room everywhere he went so we are going to be celebrating the life of Josiah Viera.”
Josiah was an integral member of the Spikes clubhouse, and Walker believes that translated to on field success.
“He started coming here almost regularly back in 2013, and if you look at how the team performed in 2013 and ’14, I think it was a direct impact that Josiah had on all of those around him,” Walker said.
With Josiah, the Spikes won their division in 2013, and then their first and second New York Penn League titles in 2014 and 2016.
“He wouldn’t mince words, especially in the last few years,” Bohner said. “If he wanted to say something, the coaches would let him go.”
Former Spikes pitcher Daniel Castano said Josiah was a positive influence both on his life and baseball career.
Castano played for the Spikes in 2017, having come off a difficult start to his career in the Appalachian League, posting a 6.19 ERA in 12 games.
Before his first start of the season, Castano asked Josiah what he should do to help him out. Josiah told Castano should write his initials on the mound before the game — so he did.
Castano led the Spikes to a win that day, and at the end of the season he was named the Spikes 2017 pitcher of the year — and Castano, now with the Miami Marlins’ AA team, still writes Josiah’s initials on the mound before every game.
“Everyone always wanted to be with Josiah, everyone wanted to have their time with him,” Castano said. “He was always so encouraging and wise, so wise for his age.”
With players constantly coming and going, Castano said that the competitive atmosphere in minor league club houses is not always the best environment to be in, but that Josiah changed that.
“Because of him a lot of those guys from the Cardinals stay in touch, which is not always the case,” Castano said.
While most of the players who knew Josiah have since left the Spikes, the impact he’s had on the organization and the State College and Penn State athletics communities can still be felt.
Both Penn State’s head football coach James Franklin and men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers tweeted condolences to Josiah’s family upon his passing.
“His impact on the community was widespread,” Putnam said. “We are saddened by his loss but we know his spirit is with us. We know that he will still serve as an inspiration to the Spikes and we will certainly make him a part of our club forever.”
With the Spikes honoring Josiah on opening night, and Putnam saying the team is looking at more ways to honor Josiah in the ballpark, it is clear that the Spikes organization and former players are sure to hold on to the memory of Josiah, and are making sure those memories stay positive.
“I have comfort knowing he’s in a better place,” Castano said. “He’s playing shortstop in heaven.”