Eric's Heroes: The littlest Little Leaguer with the biggest heart
BOTHELL, Wash. -- When the North Bothell Little League Apple Sox line up side by side, it's like a miniature version of the Yankees famous Murderer's Row. They're handsome bunch of baseball-crushing sluggers if there ever was one.
And if you were to scan the whole bunch as they stand there, you would be hard pressed not to notice that there is one player, who, for lack of a better word, is "different."
His name is Ayden Harris. In addition to his blue and red Apple Sox jersey, and his white baseball pants, he perpetually wears a big loopy grin.
He is, for lack of a better word "different" because of his height. Or lack of it.
Ayden is 42 inches tall.
"Different" is our word, not his. We use it only because we don't know any better.
His teammates are better than that.
Aiden Kim says simply, "He seems like everybody else." He says it as if the very question is ridiculous.
For the record, Ayden Harris, the Littlest Leaguer, has the most common form of dwarfism. It's called achondroplasia. He is a little person.
And yet, as anyone connected to Little League in Bothell can tell you, his heart is a massive thing that knows no boundaries.
The first time I laid eyes on Ayden, I was struck by the fact that he's built like a smaller version of The Bambino himself, Babe Ruth.
And to watch him play ball is to remember the sheer joy of being a child. He giggles when he plays baseball, and cheers and laughs. He's constantly running here and there on legs that take three steps to go the distance of just one of his teammates strides.
His buddy Ryan Waldrop describes him this way: "He's aggressive and is always a 'wanna get in the game' kind of player. "
And oh yeah, Ayden is quite possibly (and I hope he's not going to be mad at me for saying this) the cutest baseball player in the history of the game. Ever. Period.
And the kid can hit. I mean it! The first game we went to, he stroked a line drive single into left field. He charged down the first-base line like he was shot out of a cannon. The crowd let out a yell. And when he got to first, he stood on top of the bag and gave his coach a high-five. He put his hands on his hips and looks around at everyone cheering, and he broke into the biggest, most joyous grin you've ever seen.
Oh, the glory of it all!
He has a smooth stroke all right. And even though he has a strike-zone about the size of a graham cracker, he walks up to the plate ready to swing the bat. He'll take a walk (and he gets plenty of them) but mostly he wants to hit the dang ball!
I'm here to tell you people, if you don't smile watching Ayden Harris play the game he loves, you might have to have your heart checked.
He plays catcher sometimes and second base. The other night he let a couple balls get past him at the plate, and his coach yelled out, "Hey Harris! Catch the ball! You're not there to look cute!" Yep, just one of the guys.
On his road to North Bothell Little League immortality, Ayden has had plenty of help.
He's actually a year older than everybody else in the league. When he announced to the world that he wanted to play ball, the league director asked all the other teams in the league if they had any objections. Everybody said, "Let the kid play."
Ayden says, "Not just big people can play baseball. Little people can play baseball, too, if they want."
His favorite player is Felix Hernandez.
Ayden lives with his custodial grandmother Deana Harris, and her love for the kid flows out of every word she speaks. "It's really emotional," she says, trying to keep it together. "I mean, for him to be successful, it's him being like every other kid. For him, that is success. Just being treated like everybody else."
And so, his foray into Little League baseball has been a resounding, thunderous success.
He's truly just one of the guys. His buddies give him grief and he gives it right back.
He's constantly chattering. Chanting. Teasing.
In the dugout he tries to explain the whole experience. "I love baseball," he says, "because I get to meet new friends and people." As if to illustrate the point, he reaches back and grabs one of his teammates around the neck and gives him a big hug.
Who knows how long Ayden will get to play? But one thing for sure: Right now he is signing up for the full experience.
One day, for instance, he asked if he could pitch.
His coach, Ben Kim, remembers the day well. "He had a desire to try something and we just said, 'Why not?'"
So, they asked around the league again, and everybody responded, "Let the kid pitch!"
Now, you need to understand that there are physics at play here. The mound is a long, long way from home plate when you are 42-inches tall. There's no downward leverage at all. But Ayden winds up and heaves the baseball with every ounce of strength he has.
And after he releases the ball, his body rocks backwards and wobbles from the recoil, and sometimes it looks like he's going to fall down.
The other night he actually struck a guy out, and he hasn't stopped talking about it yet.
"I struck a guy out last week," he told me.
"Yes, Ayden, I know..."
And, ultimately, Ayden Harris loves the game of baseball so much that it hurts. It actually hurts.
People with dwarfism battle chronic pain. All the time. Their joints are built differently, and their bones are bowed. And the result is a dull soreness that gets worse the longer they are on their feet or running.
Ayden loads up on a bunch of Ibuprofen before games. He mostly ignores the pain, until it get to be too much.
He and his coach have developed a signal which means, "I'm in pain, and I need to come out."
The other night after he pitched an inning, he sat in the dugout seemingly forever, with his head back looking up at the ceiling. He gritted his teeth, then put his face into his hands.
His grandmother says that after one game he was hurting so much that he had to sit in the dugout for a long time just to get enough strength back to walk to the car.
Yes, Ayden Harris loves the game of baseball.
Watching him run around on the field, chattering and laughing, I was struck by the notion that no matter what happens next season, whether he plays or not, Ayden will always have some things tucked away in his mind, and for the rest of his life when he's watching a game he can call them up for reference.
What it feels like to hit a ball on the screws.
Or to bear down on the mound with a full count.
Or to be a teammate.
Yep, the Littlest Leaguer will forever know exactly what it feels like to be a real ballplayer.
That's all the guy ever wanted.
Let the kid play!
Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.