Viera a constant inspiration for Cardinals

10-year-old with rare condition visits camp; he was an honorary coach for State College last year

March 30th, 2015

JUPITER, Fla. -- Outside his grandson's hospital room, Dave Bohner knew nothing except that he needed to pray.

On the second floor of the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, 1-year-old Josiah Viera was fading. His life had already been a perpetual fight of regular surgeries and an exhausting search for a diagnosis. When one finally came, it offered no solution and little hope. At best, Josiah might live another decade. At this moment, it seemed he'd likely not make it another day.

He wasn't eating. His intestines were detached. He had a collapsed lung and another filling with fluid. The life support plug had already been pulled, though Josiah's mother reattached the oxygen after seeing Josiah's heart continue to beat.

It was too much for Bohner, then 50 years old. He stepped out to escape the sounds of medical equipment and sobs, and he remembered those moments when Josiah would pull at his nose and laugh. He pleaded for one more tug.

"I said, 'Lord, just let him grab my nose one more time,'" Bohner prayed. "'And then, he's yours.'"

It was a moment Bohner recalled last week, one that causes his eyes to first well and then shift. For a few dozen feet to his right and through a mesh screen, he can make out the 27-inch silhouette of the boy who was never supposed to make it out of that hospital bed. But a miracle -- that's how the doctors still describe it -- occurred that day in Philadelphia, with Bohner's prayer being followed by a tug and a series of healing moments.

Josiah's one lung re-inflated; the other went empty. The hole in his stomach slowly closed, allowing the toddler to eat and therefore gain weight. He started walking and showed the mental capacity of a child his age despite living with Hutchinson/Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a genetic condition so rare that it affects approximately one in every four million newborns.

Progeria comes from a Greek word meaning "prematurely old," an appropriate term given that the condition ages the body about 10 years for every actual year of life.

It has left Josiah with arthritis and needing to take blood thinners and cholesterol medicine. Two years ago, a dentist had to remove nearly half of his teeth. Three were abscessed. One was fused to his lower jaw bone.

Josiah had never complained.

"All he said was, 'I have a little toothache,'" Bohner said. "He has a high tolerance for pain because that's all he knows."

None of it, though, has stopped Josiah, now 10, from immersing himself in baseball. And so on a stifling Florida day that had already worn most down by mid-afternoon, Josiah did his darndest to mask the fatigue of a busy first day at Cardinals Spring Training.

He asked to join an impromptu pickup game atop the Cardinals' backfields bullpen. A trash can was dragged over to serve as first base. A bag of dirt sufficed for second, and a tennis shoe became third. Home plate was marked by a cleat. Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday took his position as permanent pitcher.

From around the corner, Bohner shook his head.

"It makes me happy, even today," he turned to say. "It's hard to explain, hard to put into words, because to watch the joy in his face is more than enough for me. To see what's happening, I never dreamed in a lifetime that we would be here backstage with the Cardinals. I tell him, 'You're a very fortunate little man to be able to have this opportunity.'

"He says, 'I know, Pappy.'"

It was to be like any such wish granted by the Children's Miracle Network, a one-time opportunity for Josiah to spend a day with the State College Spikes, the Cardinals' short-season Class A club in central Pennsylvania. Along with his grandfather, who had gained custody of him the previous summer, Josiah made the two-hour drive to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Inside the Spikes' clubhouse, players and staff prepared for the youngster they'd soon meet. First-year Spikes manager Oliver Marmol and others re-watched a 2010 E:60 segment that had traced Josiah's journey from his deathbed to a Little League field. Some were moved to tears by that alone.

There was another wave of emotion when Josiah finally walked through the clubhouse door.

"You can only prepare yourself so much to see someone like that," said reliever Mitch Harris, a member of the 2013 Spikes club. "Then to see the smile on his face, to see the joy he had when he came to the ballpark, it puts things in perspective for you."

It was the first meeting of what has become a forever connection.

The Spikes celebrated a walk-off win that night and, being the superstitious bunch that they were, several players begged Josiah to return for another game. He did, and as Harris recalls it, the club walked off that day, too. Perhaps they did, or perhaps that just helps the tale live up to the extraordinary little boy in the middle of it.

"Josiah found a way to make his way into everybody's heart and build a relationship with those guys immediately," Marmol said. "There are different things or people you come across in life that just wake you up or open up your eyes and allow you to see things just a little bit different."

Josiah attended a handful of Spikes games that summer of 2013, but circumstances changed last year which allowed him to attend most of the team's 38 home games. Bohner was forced into early retirement so he could care for his wife, Josiah and Josiah's older sister. With free time came regular road trips from their home in Hegins, Pa., to State College.

The Spikes embraced the family's presence, going so far as to make Josiah an honorary coach. He was provided a locker and full uniform. He'd stretch with players before batting practice and play cards with them as they passed the time before first pitch. Josiah would even trek into Marmol's office to discuss the day's lineup, often suggesting that Marmol make a switch.

It wasn't until the final game of the 2014 season that Marmol finally heeded the advice. He made the lineup change that Josiah requested, inserting a player who would go on to drive in multiple runs in a Spikes win. That victory sealed the franchise's first New York-Penn League championship.

"I should have listened to him earlier," Marmol jokes.

Josiah watched games from the dugout, wearing a hard hat for protection and yelling encouragement as loud as his tiny voice would allow. In the third inning, he'd briefly retreat to the clubhouse to chow down on cheese fries.

"You could strike out and walk back, and Josiah was there to give you a fist pump and say, 'Get him next time,'" outfielder Nick Thompson said. "Or if you made a boneheaded play, he'd be there to correct you. … He fit right in. It was almost as if he was just one of us."

However, Josiah's biggest impact came not from what he said but from what others saw. Over and over again, he was a shot of perspective to players aspiring to graduate from the affiliate.

Like the time Marmol went to go console Alex de Leon after an 0-for-4, three-strikeout game only to hear the first baseman respond: "When I see that little guy across the clubhouse, [I know] I'll be fine."

Or the night when a stadium stopped to watch Josiah run the bases, no small feat given his condition. Said Harris: "I've never had chills like that, ever, on the field."
Or the postgame gathering in which Bohner pulled a player aside and implored him to channel the same perseverance Josiah did.
"I hope they appreciate what he's been through," Bohner said. "And I hope they take to heart that whatever struggle they're going through, they can work through it and take the courage he had. I want them to think, 'If Josiah can do that, I can do it.'"

Perhaps the cruelest part of Progeria is its finite diagnosis. It remains a condition without a cure and one that typically takes a child's life before he or she reaches the age of 13. Most die of a heart attack or stroke.

Bohner acknowledges that reality -- "It will be tough when I don't have him around anymore," he said -- and has to live prepared for it. During the family's recent trip to Spring Training, he had Josiah's medical papers in hand so they could be flown back to Pennsylvania should there be an emergency.

But awaiting the inevitable doesn't consume this family. Baseball does. With the help of a central Pennsylvania car salesman, Bohner and Josiah spent five days at Cardinals' camp this month. He arrived wearing the T-shirt of his favorite player (Holliday) and soon found himself in the batting cages talking shop with the outfielder.

"It's a fun game to play," Josiah said of his favorite sport.

There were so many such snapshots.

Thompson spotted him while playing left field during an Adam Wainwright-pitched simulation game. Josiah, perched upon his grandfather's shoulders, started calling out to the outfielder, one of his closest friends on last year's State College club. At the end of the half-inning, Thompson convinced a Cardinals official to permit Josiah to sit on his lap in the dugout.

"Frankly, everything baseball-related kind of just faded away," Thompson said. "It was all about Josiah."

Once the game was over, Josiah migrated over to where reliever Sam Tuivailala was signing for fans. Tuivailala, who had followed Josiah's story via social media, stopped to chat with the 10-year-old. He'd later chase Josiah down so he could get a picture on his phone. Before leaving, he asked that Josiah autograph it for him.

"It's definitely going to stay in my photo album, for sure," Tuivailala said.

Harris noticed Josiah next and, after a big hug, swept him into the Major League clubhouse. Josiah made his rounds, first meeting Michael Wacha and then circling the lunch table for a series of high-fives and hugs. He took a tour of the trainer's room and ran into manager Mike Matheny while trekking down a hallway.

Outside, Harris had Josiah join him for lunch where the two revisited a prediction and a promise. It was Josiah who, in the summer of 2013, told Harris he would make it to the Majors in two years. Harris, now on the cusp, has promised Josiah tickets when he does.

"He's almost like a little brother," Harris later explained. "Just a guy who has that much impact on you, you always want to give back to him. Sometimes he comes out here and it's like we're trying to do something for him, but what he doesn't realize is he's really helping us. That means a lot to us to have him around."

The two then headed to the batting cages, with Josiah carrying a new bat purchased specifically for the trip. Bohner, unable to find a red helmet that fit Josiah, had painted a black one red and plastered it with stickers spelling out 'Viera' and Josiah's number, 10.

Josiah hit Harris' soft toss for a while before sitting to watch Cardinals hitters take their turns. Scott Moore brought him a red wrist band. Holliday chatted him up for several minutes. The session was interrupted only because Josiah's presence was requested on the Roger Dean Stadium field.

There, he lined up with the players and staff from last season's State College championship club for a pregame ring ceremony. Though Josiah didn't know it, the timing of his visit had been intentional. The Spikes had asked that he be recognized and presented with his very own ring, inscribed with "Josiah" and "Coach" on the sides.

"I couldn't see it going any other way," Marmol said. "One of the first things he asked was if we could win him a ring."

"I was helping them step by step and eventually they won a championship," added Josiah. "It was fun."

His visit lasted another four days and included his attendance at a Grapefruit League game, many hours spent with the Minor league Players on the backfields and his first ever visit to the ocean. The more time Josiah spent around the complex, the more it became evident that players and coaches needed Josiah as much as he needed them.

They adore him in the same way he adores the game they play

"This is the kind of stuff, this here," Bohner said amid it all. "He's so happy to be a part of this organization. I don't know if he realizes … I don't know. I always said, 'God had a plan for him.' And as I watch what's going on around here, I see that he has touched a lot of people, maybe people I don't even know. They have taken us into their family here, no questions asked."