This Flying Squirrel has the shortest name but the biggest heart

RICHMOND, Va. -- Since they arrived in Richmond, Joe Tarnowski has been taking care of the Flying Squirrels clubhouse addressing just about every need a minor league ballplayer could have.

And since his first summer in Richmond, he's had help from I.J.

"I couldn't wait until he got here," Tarnowski admitted. "Today's his first day here, he's only been here an hour. How much you lose? About 10 pounds already?"

Born Israel James and with autism, IJ is the son of Tarnowski's best friend. I.J. has become the best friend of just about everyone he meets, from players to coaches to everyone in the front office.

"It's amazing to me how every single person, from every single walk of life connects with I.J. in an individual special way," said Todd "Parney" Parnell, the Flying Squirrels C.O.O.

"You need the fun," Tarnowski added. "He brings the fun into the clubhouse. Not just with the ballplayers and the staff, but with the front office."

I.J.'s presence is far from ceremonial. He has earned and been given more and more responsibility for the day to day operations inside the clubhouse ever since his first days on the job. He also helps shag flies during batting practice and is a noticeable addition to the bench during home games.

I.J. also provides a constant stream of perspective in the somewhat sheltered world of minor league baseball.

"He's so important to the team," said former Squirrels first baseman Chris Shaw. "Going to the field and seeing I.J. every day, it doesn't matter what kind of mood you're in, you see him and you're instantly in a good mood."

"We're so blessed to be able to do what we do," added former Squirrels pitcher Ty Blach. "To have people like that around us and see the impact we have on their lives and see the impact they have on ours."

The Squirrels have impacted I.J. just as much as he has them. He looks forward to his time at the Diamond as much as anyone else because in his world, the environment isn't always as positive.

"People can be very rough on me at school," I.J. said. "They can call me nasty names, they tease me in different ways than people do here. They can be a little hard."

"He was quiet, unconfident, scared of his own shadow," Parney added. "He had been bullied in school and at home, not in his house, but around home. He wasn't really happy."

But through hard work and an incredibly positive personality, I.J. has now built an entire network of friendship and support that stretches from San Francisco to Richmond. Players who haven't been here for years feel like they've never left I.J. because he stays in constant contact with so many of them.

"They've always had my back," I.J. says of Squirrels both past and present. "Whenever I'm at school and I need to talk to them about certain things, like my social life at school, they've all helped me deal with that sort of stuff."

"I.J. comes to the park with a big grin on his face every day," said former Squirrels pitcher Hunter Strickland. "The inspiration he brings to that clubhouse, the atmosphere that surrounds him. That guy is always positive."

"If I say something negative, he turns it into a positive," Tarnowski said. "We're in the store, at the restaurants. He makes my life better."

"He's taught us, in my opinion, way way more than we've ever taught him," Parney said.

"I can't possibly imagine the Richmond Flying Squirrels without ever having I.J. in our life."

I.J. is studying communications at Mitchell College in Connecticut. He is spending the month of July learning the business end of baseball with the Montgomery Biscuits in Alabama, but will return to the Diamond for the Squirrels' home series in August.

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