CARY, N.C. -- Caleb Stewart will not see any playing time for Catawba this week in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship.
He won’t hit the dramatic game-winning home run, and he won’t pitch a perfect game. He’s not even on the Indians’ roster.
But here’s a fact nobody in the Catawba baseball community would dispute. The 10-year-old Caleb who serves as a bat boy has become the heart and soul of this baseball team.
Caleb has cystic fibrosis, an insidious disease that causes frequent lung infections and difficulty in breathing. He sometimes has to wear a special vest that vibrates his chest to keep fluids from building up in his lungs. He’s in and out of the hospital a lot, and sometimes, the daily treatments he endures may last as much an hour and a half to two hours.He is also a Catawba Indian, just like head coach Jim Gantt and DII player of the year Will Albertson. He takes batting practice with the team, has a locker with his name on it and the very same uniforms and equipment as the players and coaching staff get.
The team has his back, and he has theirs. He was voted the team’s most improved player last year, and when they won a conference championship, he got a ring just like they did. When Caleb played his last baseball game before a planned hospital stay last October, the entire team showed up -- the entire team, the coach, assistant coaches, star players and substitute players. Everybody was there.
“He goes through treatments, but you’d never know it,” Gantt said. “He just takes it in stride. He’s just a great kid, one of us. He does everything we do. It’s just like he’s one of the guys. That’s the way the players treat him, just like he’s one of their teammates, because that’s what he is to all of us.”
It all started with Team IMPACT, a program that matches children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses with local college sports teams. At first, Caleb’s parents Adam and Shea turned down the opportunity because they didn’t want a child with a more serious condition to be left out.
Eventually Shea, a Catawba graduate who’d never before attended one of the school’s baseball games, relented. Caleb now lives and breathes Catawba baseball, wanting to be a part of what’s going on there as much as his illness and schooling will allow.
“He’s very quiet and shy when he’s around other people, but he is very serious about baseball,” Shea said. “This is his team. This is his priority. He wants to be with these boys twenty-four hours a day.”
Caleb is indeed shy, a man of few words when talking to a reporter.
"It means a lot that I can be a part of the team."
Don’t tell anybody, but Number 6, freshman pitcher Michael Elwell is his favorite player on the team. Why is that?
"Because we always play around in the outfield."
One of the most striking things about Gantt, if the truth be known, is that he looks for all the world like a tough-as-nails hardcore drill sergeant straight out of Hollywood central casting. Not to Caleb.
What does it mean to a mom to see a son who has been through so much treated like royalty?
“Oh my gosh, it’s overwhelming that the thirty-seven boys on this team would take such an interest in my little boy,” said Shea, who has three other children besides Caleb. “All of them say, ‘You don’t realize what an inspiration he is to us.’
“But I’m like, ‘Y’all don’t realize what you do for him.’ For him, it gives him a way to kind of be a little regular kid. I really think these boys love Caleb.”
They do. They really, really do. Caleb Stewart is one of them.