A Whole New Ball Game

With his professional baseball career over, Jake Gronsky is focusing on his other passion: writing. His new book, “A Short Season,” tells the true story of his friend, Josiah Viera, a boy with a rare disease and an even rarer ability to inspire everyone he meets.

It was an inside fastball, and Jake Gronsky ’14 never had a chance. This was in Peoria, Illinois, back in the summer of 2015, and Gronsky was in his second season as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor-league system. He’d been struggling to find his rhythm at the plate, and then, just as he finally got it going, came that pitch—and a broken metacarpal on his left hand. Just like that, he was out for the season.

He swears it’s one of the best things that ever happened to him.

“It was a hard thing to go through,” Gronsky says now, “but if that never happened, I never would have gotten to know Josiah.”

Indeed, it was on a visit to the Cardinals’ single-A affiliate in State College, Pennsylvania, where the team sent him to have his hand checked out, that Gronsky met the kid who would change his life. He was in the State College Spikes’ clubhouse, catching up with some familiar faces from spring training, when “this kid comes bouncing through the room,” Gronsky remembers. “And the whole place just stops.”

Jake Gronsky and Josiah Viera at spring training in 2016. Photo by Dave Bohner.

The kid was Josiah Viera, a tiny, baseball-loving 10-year-old boy whose uniqueness was immediately apparent. Josiah was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria, a rare genetic disorder that essentially causes the body to age at eight to 10 times the normal rate; those afflicted rarely live past their teens. But if Josiah’s body was fragile, his spirit was buoyant—and, to hear Gronsky tell it, infectious. The two developed a bond, and over the next two years Gronsky grew close with Josiah and his family—particularly Josiah’s grandfather, Dave Bohner. Eventually, their friendship would lead to a joint conclusion: Josiah deserved to have his story told.

The result, published in March, is A Short Season: Faith, Family, and a Boy’s Love for Baseball. At its heart is Josiah, the sports-obsessed kid who was all but adopted by the minor-league team two hours from his rural Pennsylvania home. Gronsky and Bohner are listed as the book’s co-authors, but Gronsky says he served mostly as the medium for a story that has shown no limits in its ability to inspire. “A lot of people, when they see Josiah at a game or with a team, it’s like a charity event—they think people are doing so much for him,” Gronsky says. “But really, they have it wrong—he does so much for us.”

The connection that Gronsky made with the family that first summer was strengthened through the following offseason: Once a week over that span, Bohner would drive to Danville, Pennsylvania, to bring Josiah’s older sister to dance classes at a studio run by Gronsky’s mom, and the two men would pass the time with coffee and conversation. That’s when Gronsky learned Josiah’s story wasn’t the only one the family had to tell. “Dave had this incredibly rough childhood, and then he had this imperfect child come into his life, and it brought the family back together,” Gronsky says. “It’s one of the greatest stories I’ll ever hear in my life. Those talks were like going to church for me.”

They became something more the following March when Gronsky was released by the Cardinals. Suddenly, he was a 20-something college graduate whose dream of reaching the Major Leagues was nearing its end. He needed to figure out what was next. It was around that time that Bohner offered a challenge: I don’t want Josiah to ever be forgotten. Gronsky told him he was crazy, that his grandson’s bravery and spirit had already touched too many lives. But Bohner insisted. “He said, if it’s not written down, people will forget,” Gronsky remembers. “So I said, ‘You’re right, this story’s too good not to write. Let’s write it for us.’”

Gronsky, Viera, and Dave Bohner at the State College Spikes’ “Josiah Viera Day” in 2016. Photo by Karen Gronsky.

Josiah’s journey had been shared before—ESPN first featured him back in 2010, when he was just six years old—and writers had approached the family asking if they’d be interested in putting his story in print. Gronsky knew the story better than anyone, in all its heart-warming and heart-wrenching detail. The only problem: He wasn’t actually a writer—at least, not yet.

In fact, Gronsky had always thought of himself as a writer, certainly since he’d taken Chad Dell’s class as a Monmouth freshman. Dell, an associate professor in the Department of Communications, had seen Gronsky’s potential and encouraged him, even as Gronsky pushed off the possibility of making a career of it. “I was a baseball player—I lived, breathed, and slept baseball,” says Gronsky, a three-time all-conference pick who finished fifth in school history with 237 hits. “Writing was always my escape, and I knew I wanted to do something in writing, but I didn’t think the opportunity would come this soon.”

Accepting the task, Gronsky immersed himself in it, educating himself on relevant medical research, conducting extensive interviews, and detailing the lives of Josiah and his family, as well as four of Gronsky’s teammates who were similarly impacted by getting to know the boy. Throughout, he says he never lost sight of the primary goal: To record the truth of their experiences—“to just get it right,” he says—because Josiah and his family deserved nothing less. The rest—a book deal, promotion via ESPN, a line of hats and t-shirts that he and Josiah designed together—has been an unexpected blessing.

Josiah is 14 now, and the cruel math of what progeria has done to him physically is undeniable; as Gronsky notes, “His body is like 100 years old or more.” But Josiah started high school last year, and emotionally, he does his best to be a typical kid. “He’s a teenager, so of course he’s got a phone now,” Gronsky laughs. “We stay in touch, and I know he’s excited about the book, but he’s more excited about having sleepovers with his friends.”

Gronsky now lives in Philadelphia, where he works in digital marketing, and he’s already on to his second book project, co-authoring the autobiography of 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein. He’s come to terms with the end of his playing days, but the former second baseman is still passionate about the game, and would love to continue finding ways to combine that connection with his passion for writing. But he knows he’ll never have another project that means as much as his first book—or another subject who taught him as much as Josiah has.

“Every time he walked into that clubhouse or stepped on the field, he understood that we may not have control over how our life unfolds,” Gronsky says, “but we can always choose how we live.”