It isn’t easy for Bobby Ison to be spending the season in Eastlake, Ohio – and not for the usual reasons, either. Ison doesn’t find Eastlake difficult because of the weather and he doesn’t harbor ill feelings toward Cleveland. No, Eastlake is hard for Ison because it’s so far from home.
But Ison doesn’t have typical homesickness for Goose Creek, South Carolina. It’s not that he misses the comforts of his own bed or his mom’s homemade dinners. The ache in Ison’s heart comes from being separated from his family – most notably, being separated from his brother.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was three years old,” Ison says as we begin talking about his baseball career in South Carolina. “I wanted to play close to home in college so my brother could see me play for all three years. That was an unbelievable experience.” He pauses and turns away.
“Sorry. I’m a little choked up.”
Ison is 21-years old. His brother, Jared, is 18 and was diagnosed at an early age with Angelman Syndrome, a neurological condition that left him without the ability to talk and perform basic functions that most human beings can. There is no pity or resentment from Ison toward his younger brother – there is only pride and care.
“My brother will never be able to play sports,” Ison says. “I took that to heart at a young age. I tried to play outside with him whenever I could. It’s been very eye-opening.”
His strong, special relationship with his brother led Ison to attend Charleston Southern University in South Carolina once he graduated from high school. While there, he set a single-season record at CSU with 84 base hits his sophomore year, only to surpass that record his junior year when he had 91 base hits. He ranks third in CSU in hits with 247 and led the team to the most home wins in school history in his junior year, as well as led the program to its first 30-win season in 14 years. He finished his junior season as the toughest player in the country to strike out, as he struck out only six times in 230 at-bats and 249 total plate appearances.
It was enough to catch the attention of a number of major league organizations as the 2014 draft season rolled around. Ison was in touch with the Indians, the Rays, the Angels, the Rangers, and the Red Sox before the Indians drafted him in the 21st round last year. Ison spent his first season with the Tribe in Arizona, where he hit .240 in 32 games. He made the jump to Lake County this season, where he is currently hitting .231 in 30 games with 24 hits and one double and triple each.
Unfortunately, Ison’s brother will not be able to make the trip to Cleveland to watch his brother play this season. He can’t sit on a plane, and the drive is too long for his brother.
“I FaceTime with my mother and he’s there,” Ison says with a smile. “So we do get to see each other a bit.”
Though it’s still months away, Ison will see his brother again when he returns home to Goose Creek at the end of the season. He will also be reunited with his parents who, though divorced, Ison says are still best friends. His grandparents on both sides are also waiting for him in South Carolina, as is his fiancée, Baylee.
“Tell you about her?” Ison looks down at the ground and scuffs his toe, smiling shyly when asked to talk about Baylee, whom Ison will wed next fall.
The two are high school sweethearts – “Off and on, like every couple is at that time” – who got more serious as college and life after high school became their reality. After being drafted and playing in Arizona, Ison says he took Baylee to Disney World and proposed in front of the castle.
With Ison’s upbeat, optimistic demeanor, it’s difficult to see how any setback could bring him down. However, Ison had his strength tested in middle school, when a bout of Bell’s Palsy left Ison with something much worse – a run with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rapid-onset weakness of the limbs that is typically triggered by an infection that provokes immune-mediated nerve dysfunction.
“Doctors have said different things about what brought it on,” Ison says. “I got Bell’s Palsy in my face and my body tried to fight it off. It thought it was coming from my feet, so it just triggered. It was a numbing sensation from my feet to my waist.”
Ison says he was lucky that the doctors caught his condition early.
“It’s extremely rare,” Ison says. “My friend’s dad also got it. When you get it and you’re young, your immune system is stronger. My friend’s dad was in the hospital for three months and is still in a wheelchair to this day. I’m very blessed that things are good.”
Though things are good now, Ison acknowledges that it was frustrating to be restricted to a wheelchair for three months while dealing with the temporary paralysis.
He was in middle school, a kid who wanted to do nothing but run around and play the game he loved so much.
“I literally tried to run every single day, but I couldn’t feel my legs. My coaches were getting mad at me; I was in the outfield trying to run but it just looked like this,” Ison says, as he mimes slow-motion running in the Captains’ clubhouse.
“I stayed positive,” Ison says. “I had a great group of teammates who helped with everything. I knew I had to take a step back and let the game and let the disease take its course. I came out strong – I got to play in the last two games of the season.”
The glass is always half-full for Ison. He doesn’t get bogged down if the team plays poorly and celebrates every victory as if it were a Game 7 win. Following the Captains’ 6-0 victory over the Great Lakes Loons on May 8, Ison could be seen on the field jumping with excitement during the team’s end-of-game celebratory handshaking.
“I’m different,” Ison says. “I’m going to act like an idiot on the field. [My walk-up music] says, ‘You see me acting a fool, that’s just what I do.’ That’s just me in a nutshell.”
But if he’s a goofy, self-described “idiot” on the field, Ison is clearly anything but when it comes to those he loves. And though the season’s long and Ison knows it will be a while until he sees his brother again, the distance does nothing to keep his brother out of his heart.
“If I’m having a bad day or a bad game, I just think about my brother,” Ison says. “And then everything’s all right. I just know that he’s smiling.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer