Lil' Heart Sluggers co-founder attending Fantasy Camp

Lil' Heart Sluggers co-founder attending Fantasy Camp

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Jaxon Matthew Russell was born on Sept. 26, 2012, all seemed normal to his parents, Shannon and Miranda, but in a matter of hours that would change.

"We didn't know anything was wrong with him," Shannon recalled Wednesday after participating in the D-backs' 10th annual Fantasy Camp. "He was born, everything seemed fine and then four hours after he was born his legs turned blue and we knew something was wrong."

Jaxon had a congenital heart defect, which would require surgery. The night before the surgery, his parents spent the night with him in the hospital. It was then that they remembered something they had seen online about putting a baby's handprint on a baseball.

So that night they got a baseball and an ink pad, put Jaxon's handprint on the ball and put it in a plastic case.

"The 10 minutes we were doing that was the one time we weren't thinking about the surgery," Shannon said. "And it's a prized possession that we'll treasure forever."

Once they got Jaxon home, they realized just how special that baseball was to them and how much it had brought them joy during a frightening time. Aware that one in every 100 babies born will have a congenital heart defect, the Russells wanted to find a way to share their experience with others.

So they started Lil' Heart Sluggers, which provides a baseball, a case, an ink pad, a mini Louisville Slugger bat and a Lil' Silver Slugger Award certificate to parents whose children are born with a congenital heart defect.

Close to 300 have been sent to places as far away as Australia, and they have an arrangement with Louisville Slugger to provide the bats at cost.

"I never thought in the beginning that it would be like this," Shannon said. "Now it's just like, 'Wow.'"

Recently Lil' Heart Sluggers was approved as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and the Russells are focused on raising funds to meet the demand. They have a waiting list of 80 right now.

Shannon has been a D-backs fan since their inception, in large part because former Arizona third baseman Matt Williams was his favorite player growing up.

In 2002, Shannon met then-D-backs manager Bob Brenly when the team was nearby in Cincinnati, and it was an experience that helped change his life.

"The biggest thing is I talked to him about walking on to a college program, and he gave me a coach pep talk about following your dreams," Shannon said. "He talked to me for like 10 or 15 minutes."

Shannon ended up taking Brenly's advice and at age 20 tried out for the Alice Lloyd College baseball team. He made the squad.

Getting to attend D-backs Fantasy Camp and rub elbows with players who he admires is a dream come true for Shannon. But an even bigger thrill came when Jaxon, who is in town with Shannon this week, spoke his first sentence.

"I've been wanting to do this Fantasy Camp forever," Shannon said. "I've looked at the photo galleries on every year. It's been a dream."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.