Bobby Ison embraces special-needs brother with a “B” for blessing

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Some words so unnerve that people can’t bring themselves to utter but the first letter. A word that’s spoken out of ignorance, yet masquerades as hatred.

For some it’s the profane “F” word. For many, it’s the hate-filled “N” word. For Bobby Ison, it’s the despicable “R” word.

It’s been years since the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league outfielder and his special-needs brother Jared have heard the word uttered in their presence. But there have been times when the elder Ison brother put others in their place when they disrespected Jared with that dreaded “R” word.

“I’d say, ‘He’s my brother and don’t you dare talk to him like that,’” said Ison, whose 18-year old brother has Angelman Syndrome — a neuro-genetic disorder characterized by severe intellectual and developmental disability. “I’ve always been his protector. There was this one time on the bus in eighth grade when this kid called my brother the ‘R’ word. Let me tell you, that world just does not fly with me. It didn’t go over well. That word gets me to the core.”

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Bobby and Jared Ison at Thanksgiving. (Photo courtesy Ison family)

Bobby Ison was 3 when Jared was born, watching as his new baby brother suffered through bouts of pneumonia twice as an infant. Jared was later diagnosed with the disorder that explained his severe developmental limitations.

“Sometimes my friends didn’t understand why Bobby’s brother couldn’t talk and do things like other kids,” Ison said. “But I took to it at a young age and grew up wanting to be the best big brother I could be and help out with Jared.”

Whether that came by defending Jared from ignorant kids who’s occasionally let the “R” word slip, or simply babysitting his younger brother so that his divorced parents could go out and spend some uninterrupted time away from home Bobby did what he could.

In between, Ison grew to develop a love for something else — baseball. Luckily, it was something Jared could be a part of, often present at the edges of his older brother’s games.

Ison, 21, excelled in baseball at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C. He continued that success at nearby Charleston Southern University, where Jared was often spotted in and around the field while his brother stayed close to home.

“I don’t think he understands what baseball is per se,” Ison said. “He sees me out on the field, and I’m sure he sees the bats and the balls. Simple things like that. But he doesn’t know what a double or a triple is.

“Plus, Jared has a very short attention span. He’s usually trying to run to the concession stand to get something to eat — usually some candy. Even though he’s running around the field the whole time with my mom or dad chasing behind him, he’s still the happiest kid in the world.”

Even Sarah Ison is amazed by the bond between her two sons.

“Bobby has always been an amazing big brother,” she said. “He adores Jared. He has always treated Jared as an equal. Bobby would help with feeding, dressing, changing, bathing … basically whatever I needed at the moment.”

Baseball calls

Not long after the Indians drafted Ison in the 21st round last year, he began his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League. In those 32 games away from home he hit .240 with two doubles and nine RBI. Although his hitting didn’t blow away Indians officials, the 5-8, 170-pounder flashed a glimpse of his potential patience at the plate as he accumulated more walks (15) than strikeouts (11).

This year in his first full season at low Class-A Lake County, Ison is still finding his way at the plate. He’s batting .220 with two doubles, a triple and six RBI through 35 games. The increase in competition, among other things, has seen the left-handed hitter rack up nearly twice as many strikeouts (23) as walks (12).

Ison, however, has improved in another area of his game. He has five stolen bases in seven attempts already with the Captains, while last year in Arizona he was thrown out five times in seven attempts.

But there’s more that goes into the transition between college and professional baseball; the switch to the less-explosive wooden bats, for starters. And for those not used to playing in the cold and  snow as winter gives way to spring in states like Ohio, the start of the baseball season can be a bone-chilling experience.

“There’s a couple good reasons for Bobby’s (slow) start,” said Carter Hawkins, the Indians first-year director of player development. “But nothing that we’re worried about. We’ve talked to Bobby about the type of player he wants to become — a contact hitter who gets on base and is unafraid to run and cause disruption on the base paths.”

Another big part of Bobby’s game is he is also the kind of teammate who instinctively motivates those around him. Ison is thrilled to be out on the field during games, and he helps lead his teammates during practice by the sheer gusto with which he competes.

“The kind of person Bobby is off the field translates onto the field as well,” Hawkins said. “He’s a much more well-rounded person than most guys in A ball. He’s had a great foundation off the field that allows him to take a step back every now and then to see the bigger picture.”

Proper perspective

Right now, the bigger picture for Ison is knowing that as much as he misses being near his brother, his job now is to earn a living through the game. That way, he’ll be in a position to help Jared even more in the future.

“It’s hard to be away, but we FaceTime two times a week,” Ison said. “He doesn’t understand where I’m at, he just knows I’m gone. My mom says he puts pictures of me playing baseball in the living room. I guess it’s his way of saying; ‘Let’s go see Bobby.’”

Jared is unable to fly on an airplane, nor is he capable to sit through the 10-hour car ride from Goose Creek, S.C., to Eastlake, Ohio, to see Bobby play with his new team.

“If I were just a few hours away, that wouldn’t be too hard to manage,” Ison said. “But 10 hours? That’s just too much for my family because of Jared’s short attention span. After an hour or two, he wouldn’t understand what’s going on and why he’s going so far away.”

Jared’s comfort zone comes with order and having a strict routine. He needs to be in familiar places. Places such as his grandparents’ house, his Mom’s or his dad’s house. And perhaps most of all — the pool.

“I love to watch Jared when our grandfather pulls up in his blue truck,” Ison said. “He knows he’s going for a ride and he gets so excited. He knows they’ll go to the McDonald’s drive-thru and order.”

Jared’s favorite treat is a double cheeseburger and a sweet tea.

Sarah Ison marvels at her two sons: “Bobby has always been an amazing big brother.” (Photo courtesy Ison family)
Sarah Ison marvels at her two sons: “Bobby has always been an amazing big brother.” (Photo courtesy Ison family)

When the brothers were younger, they’d spend hours watching movies together. But once Bobby was old enough to drive, he also began taking his brother out for a ride — even if for nothing else than to take him through the drive thru and order sodas.

“When we drive around, he smiles and points everywhere,” Ison said. “I’ll say, ‘Jared, should we go? Right or left?’ And whichever way he points, we go that way for awhile.”

Sure, there have been times when Ison allows himself to wonder what it would be like to have had a little brother with whom he could have taught to play baseball.

“But I wouldn’t change my life for anything for the world,” Ison aid. “He has made me who I am today. He’s been such a blessing in my life, and I thank God for him every day.”

Now as a pro athlete, it’s tough to be away from Jared and his family. But Ison’s dream is to make enough money in baseball so his family can afford to hire a full-time occupational therapist that can be at Jared’s side around the clock.

“He’ll be able to go to school until he’s 21 years old,” Ison said. “He has an assistant who helps him as he stays in one class all day long. They teach the little things — put this block here, move that square there. Nothing too advanced — he’s in the moderate to severe handicap class.”

While Jared learns and thrives in the structured atmosphere, Sarah Ison works part time cutting hair out of her townhouse and as a coordinator where Jared has his daily occupational therapy. Dad Bob Ison drives a truck for FedEx.

“(Jared) doesn’t do well with change,” Ison said. “When my dad got a new house, (Jared) didn’t understand why he was going, why he was there. He just didn’t want to be there. It takes him awhile to understand why we have to do certain things. But once he understands it, he’s OK. Now he gets he’s going to dad’s house.”

For Bobby and Jared Ison, the only word that exists between them is the “L” word — love.

“My brother helped me mature as a person,” Ison said. “I had to grow up at a young age because I wanted to help my parents out. I love going to Jared’s classes and being with all those special needs kids. I just have a heart for them.”

Top: Bobby Ison is finding his way at the plate in the Class A Midwest League. (Tim Phillis/Lake County Captains)

Stephanie Storm Lariccia

Stephanie Storm Lariccia is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.