CARY, N.C. – Jordan Lehman couldn’t help but notice the kid.

As the Quincy (Ill.) Gems of the Prospect League prepared to play last season, eight-year-old Bryce Heiden was a fixture at the ballpark. Bryce was always on the scene as soon as his dad, Rob, could get off work and get him there. He hoped to snag a ball during batting practice, get an autograph or two and maybe even talk to one of his heroes.

Lehman, now a senior pitcher for West Chester, played for the Gems earlier this summer during the college offseason. He took Bryce under his wing.

“You could just tell that he had that love for baseball in him,” Lehman said. “There’s a lot of kids who come to the game who don’t quite understand the game yet. They’re just learning it. He knew a lot for his age, and that’s just the kind of kid you want to take under your wing, even if it’s just for a couple of months.

It made me proud that he saw something in Bryce and took him out there on the field. There’s hundreds of other kids that show up every night to the games, and he picked Bryce. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Jordan for doing that.
-- Bryce's dad Rob Heiden

“He’s a great kid. You really can’t explain him any other way. I wish – I won’t say guys on my team – but I wish guys our age had as much passion for baseball as he does at his young age. It’s unreal. He was at the field when we got there.”

It wasn’t long before Bryce was in the dugout, a bat boy and de facto mascot for the Gems. For a month, that’s the way it was for the youngster – playing catch, riding the cart to put the bullpen mound away and drag the field. He was living a dream of dreams, and for a baseball fanatic, he could not possibly have asked for more.

Not once did Bryce mention the fact that he has Type I diabetes.

“I didn’t know,” Lehman said. “His dad kind of kept it to himself. He and his dad kind of came up with hand signals from the dugout, like if he needed insulin or something to eat, so they could communicate. I was wondering what he was doing. Then, there were certain times you could tell, in the fourth or fifth inning, that he was getting tired. You could just see it in his face.”

A month and a half or so into the season, Bryce didn’t show for a Gems game. He tracked Rob Heiden down via Facebook, and found out what had happened. Bryce was in a St. Louis hospital with diabetic ketoacidosis – a life-threatening condition caused by blood cells not getting enough sugar.

“He was out almost two weeks,” said Rob Heiden. “He thought Jordan forgot about him, and that he wasn’t going to let him back in the dugout. He was worried the whole time we were in St. Louis that Jordan was going to find someone else.”

Not a chance.

Bryce stationed himself in his usual spot after being gone for about two weeks, hoping to again chat with the players. Lehman found him and took him right back into the dugout. For Lehman, Bryce’s absence was like a teammate was missing. The two had become close, so much so that the tall and stocky pitcher figured that Bryce “almost felt like a younger brother about halfway through the summer.”

“When he came back, you could tell he was a little bit of a different kid,” Lehman continued. “He was real weak. He was trying to come back and get healthy. But it’s funny how much baseball can do for you. I think that helped his recovery real quick, getting back in the dugout.”

Bryce threw out the first pitch prior to the Gems’ division championship game, spent the game in the dugout and then celebrated on the field after the team’s victory. It will be a very, very long time before Rob Heiden will forget Lehman’s generosity toward his son.

“It made me proud that he saw something in Bryce and took him out there on the field,” Heiden said. “There’s hundreds of other kids that show up every night to the games, and he picked Bryce. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Jordan for doing that.

“It was a pretty exciting time for us last year. Bryce kind of knows it might be a once-in-a-lifetime type of season. The Gems’ new season starts tonight, and he’s going to go back to his spot. But I think he knows he’s probably not going to get back in the dugout this year. You never know.”