The game was tight, and shortstop A.J. Pollock fielded a ground ball in the last inning. There was an easy forceout at second base, but Pollock waited, and waited.
"He waited until the girl playing second base covered the bag," said Paul Cormier, whose son, Tyler, was playing in the game. "A lot of times, when those games are close, the non-special needs kids want to take over, because they're so naturally competitive. But he understood that the game wasn't about A.J. Pollock. He was a natural partner."
Pollock, who was the Gatorade player of the year with the RHAM High School baseball team, was playing softball that day in 2005 in Branford in a Unified Sports event — in which athletes with disabilities are partnered with athletes who don't have disabilities.
Tyler Cormier, one of Pollock's closest friends, was behind the plate.
It was one moment in an lasting friendship that began when they were in elementary school in Marlborough and carries on to this day, though Tyler Cormier died at age 21 in 2007. Pollock, who plays in the major leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks, still carries a wristband with Cormier's motto: "Don't forget to smile."
Tyler Cormier, who had Down syndrome, had become a manager of the RHAM basketball team. His ready smile was unforgettable and the relationships he built changed lives. Tyler won Special Olympics medals in hockey, basketball, speedskating, softball and swimming.
Tyler and A.J. were often partners in basketball.
"What Tyler did for RHAM definitely transcends athletics," said school principal Scott Leslie. "What athletics did for Tyler was allow him to connect with a wide range of people. Tyler connected with everyone, and that opened doors for a lot of other special needs students … and it does to this day."
When Pollock was promoted to the majors last season, Paul Cormier texted that he wished Tyler could have been there for Pollock's first big league at-bat. "Mr. Cormier," Pollock texted back, "Tyler is with me."
When the D'Backs played at Fenway Park in 2012, Pollock removed the wristband he had made in Tyler's memory, took a picture and sent it to Paul.
"Tyler was 'Mr. RHAM,'" Pollock said by phone from the D'Backs' clubhouse. "He was my introduction, and through him I got to know other unified athletes. With Unified Sports, it's not just about the athletic events. What people need to understand about people with special needs is, they just want to be treated like everyone else. It was just asking Tyler to come out and hang out with us, go see a movie, go get something to eat, those were the best times. None of it was planned; it doesn't have to be structured."
Paul Cormier said he still cries when he thinks about the day Tyler was wrestling in seventh grade in 1999, and he glanced at the door and saw the entire basketball team, which included Pollock, coming in.
"They were all there to support Tyler," said Paul Cormier, who was an assistant basketball coach at the high school. "Tyler taught lessons. He taught people how to love, how to smile. He was blessed to have the friends he had, and they were blessed to have Tyler."
Pollock got involved in the Special Olympics through his father, Allen, who was with on the board of directors.
"He would take part in the awards ceremonies; he'd be a runner," Allen Pollock said. "I'd take him at a young age and he would just disappear, go get involved with everything.
A.J. has remained a strong supporter and spokesman for Unified Sports.
"A.J. was so engaged in that program," said Leslie, the RHAM principle, "and to have someone like him, an athlete, a high-profile, popular kid, was just a godsend. It opened doors for a lot of other kids."
Pollock was keynote speaker in January at the program at the Unified Sports Leadership Summit at Wesleyan University. He was one of a group of RHAM athletes who brought Tyler Cormier, whom they had known since grammar school, into their group. It included Tyler Ware, Matt Grasso, Jesse Bilard, Andy Schultz, Bobby Hopkins, Bryce Gaulin and Jeff Bottaro.
"They were Tyler's pallbearers and I couldn't pay them a higher compliment than that," Paul Cormier said.
"From day one, they accepted Tyler for who he was inside," said Steve Emt, RHAM's basketball coach. "And from day one, Tyler never felt he was any different. Nothing was ever asked, nothing was ever forced. It was just [them] being great people, and taking care of somebody else. I know they were very influential in Tyler's life, and with Unified athletes and partners it's both ways."
Emt, who taught Tyler in junior high, asked him to be manager of the basketball team. Paul Cormier, who now lives in Vermont, became an assistant coach as the relationships grew. Tyler was named one of the captains in his senior year and scored two points on senior night. He was RHAM's prom king in 2005.
"Tyler would go to bed at 9 o'clock, and at 9:15, A.J. might call," Paul Cormier said. "He'd say, 'Mr. Cormier, can we pick up Tyler and take him out with us?' I'd wake Tyler up and we let him go. We trusted those kids. … Often, with a special needs child, when they're 3 they get invited to the birthday parties, but when they get older, that stops. It never stopped with Tyler."
The relationship involved some letting go, and trust, and that's a message Pollock tries to deliver to the parents — let the barriers come down naturally. He encourages people to get involved "for the right reasons."
"Sometimes people just don't take the time to really get to know people with special needs," Pollock said. "They're afraid; they don't really know what to say, how to act. … Sometimes, the parents of a Unified athlete can be very protective, afraid to let go, and that's understandable. They're worried about how their son or daughter will be treated, they worry that it may be a joke. Both sides have to take the risk. Tyler's parents trusted us, they let him go out with us. "
It helped that Tyler's parents, Anna and Paul, knew Pollock and the kids from around town. Pollock, who played three sports at RHAM, went on to play at Notre Dame and was drafted in the first round by Arizona. A few months after Tyler died from complications of pneumonia, Pollock was playing summer collegiate baseball with the Vermont Mountaineers and met Greg Hudson, who has cerebral palsy. They remain in touch as Pollock, who made the Diamondbacks out of spring training, works to establish himself as a major leaguer. He his playing semi-regularly for Arizona now, usually starting against left-handed pitchers.
"Tyler was the biggest Red Sox fan on the planet," Paul Cormier said. "But I know if he were here, he would be going on the Internet every night to see what [Pollock] was doing. And he would be angry if A.J. wasn't in the lineup. He would know all his stats — he loved stats. He would be a big D'Backs fan right now."
Tyler became ill in 2006 and died on Feb. 24, 2007. Pollock, a freshman at Notre Dame, returned to Connecticut for the funeral and was benched for missing a practice.
"That was tough, when Tyler passed away," said Pollock, who was one of eight pallbearers. "It was tough. … He was just one of a kind. The whole community was there. He just touched so many lives."
Through college, the minor leagues and now in the majors, Pollock said, his relationship with Tyler helped him break through any shyness or awkwardness and connect with people around him.
"It's easier for me to say, 'hey, do you want to hang out?' or, 'hey, do you want to grab something to eat after the game,'" Pollock said. "I do that a lot with people, it's easier for me to do that because of the way Tyler was with everybody."