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In season of giving, young fan's story inspires

Vazquez, Bogaerts and Schultz family thankful for moments shared with Ari @IanMBrowne

BOSTON -- At a time of year when people look for ways to give back and make a true difference in someone's life, a shared act of kindness by Red Sox players Christian Vazquez and Xander Bogaerts that took place four months ago can certainly serve as inspiration.

As the Red Sox were going through the grind of their season, a 5-year-old named Ari Schultz was in a fight for his life.

BOSTON -- At a time of year when people look for ways to give back and make a true difference in someone's life, a shared act of kindness by Red Sox players Christian Vazquez and Xander Bogaerts that took place four months ago can certainly serve as inspiration.

As the Red Sox were going through the grind of their season, a 5-year-old named Ari Schultz was in a fight for his life.

Then again, Ari, who lived in Stowe, Mass., had been fighting since he was in utero.

When Mike Schultz took his wife, Erica, for what was supposed to be a routine 18-week ultrasound, the doctor delivered some tough news when he informed them that their soon-to-be-born son had an extreme form of critical aortic stenosis, which limits the flow of blood from the heart to the body. Ari would have two heart surgeries before he was even born.

For most of Ari's life -- which sadly lasted less than six years -- he had a congenital heart defect.

The story that went viral

By the time Bogaerts and Vazquez had become aware of Ari, he was in the late stages of a 189-day stay in the hospital following a heart transplant. He stayed in the hospital so long because his body and immune system acutely rejected his new heart, and he suffered cardiac arrest and was placed on life support. For 36 hours, Ari's heart didn't beat at all.

But not long after what felt like a miracle as Ari's heart regained a beat, he resumed his near lifelong obsession with sports. Nothing made him happier than when a bat was in his hand or a sporting event -- literally any sporting event -- was in his view.

"Ari was a savant at all sports," said Mike, a proud father.

A video taken shortly before Ari was at last released from the hospital showed him mimicking a two-run homer by Bogaerts and even narrating his own play-by-play as he completed the swing. Needless to say, it went viral on social media.

ESPN showed that video during the Red Sox-Astros Sunday night game in Houston on June 18 with split-screens of Bogaerts and Ari swinging at the same time. It was striking how much Ari resembled Bogaerts on his top-handed release at the end of the swing.

Bogaerts was made aware of the video by many friends and family back home in Aruba, as well as several teammates. He decided then he would find a way to meet Ari.

Vazquez had also become aware of the story through his agent, and knew he had to do something.

"I got a message from Christian's agent in Puerto Rico, and he said Christian would like to come visit," Mike Schultz said. "He said, 'Christian would like to come -- no cameras, no PR staff, no one knowing. He just wants to come sit with Ari.' And then he said he was going to work on bringing a surprise friend."

That surprise friend was Bogaerts.

A real field of dreams

On July 14, Bogaerts and Vazquez quite literally turned Ari's backyard into a field of dreams.

"We went to the house, myself and Xander, and it was a great experience," Vazquez said. "It broke my heart when I saw him hooked up to the cable with oxygen. We went, like, four hours with him playing baseball in the backyard, and it was a very special moment for me."

For Vazquez, it hit home.

"I had a brother who died at 9 months with heart problems, and that's why I wanted to go and give a lot of love to him that day," Vazquez said. "It was a very special and great moment for me an Xander, and if I had to repeat it, I'd do it many times again for many kids in that situation."

Ari was wearing a Bogaerts T-shirt when his surprise visitors arrived. First, Vazquez got there. Moments later, Bogaerts emerged. Before you knew it, Ari was playing backyard baseball with two Red Sox players. They played for hours, even shifting gears to flag football at one point.

Ari eventually showed the ballplayers his room, which was a sports shrine, and he explained the origin of just about every piece of memorabilia in his collection.

"With Xander and Christian coming to visit, we really didn't know what to expect," Erica said. "We figured they were going to come and give him some signed stuff and some pictures and leave. But they were there for almost three hours, and you could tell that there was just a really special bond that Ari made with each of them."

If not for the fact the Red Sox were opening a series against the Yankees that night, the visit could have gone on quite a bit longer.

"And at the end, Ari didn't want them to go, and they didn't want to go, either. It was so obvious. We were so grateful. It kind of blew us away," Erica said. "I can't say enough about them and their character and just how gracious they are. To see your son's dream come true, to get to play baseball with a couple of the Red Sox players, that was amazing."

In truth, Vazquez and Bogaerts were the ones amazed by Ari.

"He was the most upbeat kid I've ever met," Bogaerts said, "especially the situation he was in."

One of the sweetest parts of the day was when Vazquez and Bogaerts invited Ari to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park on Aug. 27 and told him he would be throwing out the first pitch. Ari beamed with excitement.

A big loss

When Vazquez and Bogaerts finally left Ari's home, they looked forward to reuniting with the special young boy at Fenway.

Sadly, Ari didn't make it that long. On the night of July 20, just six days after his visit with Bogaerts and Vazquez, Ari had a seizure. The reason is that his body was again rejecting the new heart. Ari went into cardiac arrest and passed away the next day.

Ari was buried with his baseball glove and some infield dirt from the clinching Game 6 of the 2013 World Series.

"He's at Fenway, and Fenway is with him," said Mike Schultz.

For Vazquez, the story serves as a reminder of how precious life is, and how much he can make a difference just by representing his team and his city to the best of his ability.

"I get to play baseball and play hard for this team, and it helps every player to get better and play harder when you see stories like this," Vazquez said.

Video: Quick Pitch: Schultz's story an inspirational one

The Fenway first pitch

In one of his final conversations with his mother, Ari wanted to make sure he would still be able to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. Erica assured him that it would happen no matter what.

So as hard as it was for the Schultz family to go to Fenway without their baseball-obsessed child, they knew they had to go for him.

"I told him nothing was going to stop us from doing that, and I knew we had to go forward and do it, as hard as it was going to be," Erica said. "We had to do it for him. One of the very last things I said to him was, 'You're going to have to help me be strong.'

"At Fenway Park, it was a really hard day, and it was hard seeing Ari on the jumbotron and not having him there physically. I could feel him there. I don't think I'll ever go to Fenway Park again and not feel him there."

By the way, Erica threw a perfect strike to Vazquez, as Bogaerts and Mike stood near her off to the side of the mound.

"He gave me the strength to throw that pitch, and honestly the hardest part of the day was walking off the field, because as we were walking off, that was when I lost it because I knew that it was supposed to be his moment," Erica said.

Mike felt a bitter sense of closure after his wife's first pitch.

"About a month after Ari's funeral, we had a memorial celebration in town. But throwing out the first pitch, to us -- it was like the end of Ari's funeral activities, so to speak," Mike said. "When Ari was here, he was huge. And we would just take him to places where he would be huge, because he was just like a shooting star of a person. He's still with us, but that day at Fenway, it was like the ending of the feeling of having him with us. It's just tremendously hard."

Vazquez and Bogaerts made T-shirts leading up to Aug. 27 that had a picture of Ari on the front and a message on the back that read, "Ari, we miss you." They made enough for their teammates and gave some to the Schultz family. Vazquez wears his Ari shirt frequently when he works out.

It was hard or Bogaerts and Vazquez to not see Ari during their Fenway reunion with the Schultz family.

"I saw the family crying, and I was very sad to see them without Ari. It's hard to lose a son," Vazquez said. "We told them that they are part of the Red Sox now."

During Ari's life and after his death, the Boston sports teams would take turns reaching out. Red Sox owner John Henry and his wife, Linda, sent a handwritten letter to Ari and his family and included a Bogaerts bat. Celtics coach Brad Stevens attended Ari's memorial service. Patriots owner Robert Kraft offered Gillette Stadium for the funeral.

"The reputation of the Boston teams kind of precedes us actually getting to know them," Mike said. "The Boston sports teams understand their place in the community not just as teams, but as a public trust, and they take that seriously."

Moving forward

The Schultz family is doing as well as can be expected. Mike and Erica are busy raising daughter Lexi (4) and son Eli (1), but it's hard not to feel the void.

"It's hard knowing he's not going to be here for the holidays, and we were literally just talking about what ornaments can we make for him or what can we do for other people that will help them remember Ari," Mike said. "Ari was very sick before he was born. Erica and I had to make the decision of whether or not we were going to bring him into the world and go through this battle. We didn't know it was going to end like this.

"Really, a lot of kids have started off the way we started off and have done OK. Some of them don't have the good luck. Ari didn't have that good luck. But for five years, we got to live our lives with the kind of person that we all hoped we get to spend any time with in the world. It was just magical getting to be his parents and getting to be with him and hang around with him and take care of him. I'm grateful for that every day, and I'm going to try to take that into the holidays and feel that, while I also feel like he should be here but he's not."

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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