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MIKE DOWNEY

Nothing Is Little About Their Hearts

August 29, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

Mom, Dad, read this story. You'll love it. It is as good as mommy-daddy stories get. You can put yourself in the story. You can put your own child in it. You can even play the kid's part yourself, if you like. Throw a ball. Run through grass. Roll in the dirt. Play a game. Replay a dream.

This is the story of children, ages 11 and 12. They are from the age of innocence. These days, our storytellers don't always bring us happy news about children. But this is something good for a change. This one is straight from the parenthood manual. This one is for the whole family.

It takes place at a baseball game. There is a bright sun in the sky. There are boys on the field. There are parents in the stands. Among them is Jill Bratton, a mother clutching an infant. She has an older boy, whose name is Jeremy Hess, who is not on the field with the other boys. He is sitting inside the dugout, wishing that he, too, could play.

It could be a Saturday afternoon anywhere in the world. In this case it is a weekend in the hinterland of Williamsport, Pa., population 33,401, which is a town famous for one thing. Every summer around this time, the Little League World Series is played here. And boys--and girls--from all over the world come here to play.

On this day, playing for the championship is a team of boys from a city with a boy's name, David, Da-veed, a village off the southwest Panamanian coast. Yes, boys also play baseball beside the Golfo de Chiriqui, same as they do along the California coast.

The second team comes from Long Beach, where winning the Little League championship of the world is more than a fantasy. It is a reality. This very championship was won by Long Beach in 1992. Trouble is, it was won on a technicality. The actual winning team, from the Philippines, had played boys in their mid-teens, boys who practically were men.

Every boy in the Long Beach lineup wants to win this time by scoring the most runs. Alex DeFazio, Sean Burroughs, Brady Werner, Timmy Lewis, Kevin Miller, his twin brother Chris, Brent Kirkland, Billy Gwinn, Nate Moeiny. Everybody on the bench understands this, too. That includes a manager, Larry Lewis, and a coach, Jeff Burroughs, whose sons are on the field. And it includes Jeremy Hess, who is not.

Should the team lose to Panama, it will shake hands and try again next time, with new players. That would be the mature thing to do. Yet it isn't easy to be mature, not with the example set by grown men who play ball. Suspensions galore had been handed down in the majors the day before, including some for a 48-year-old manager who attacked a player and some for a pitcher who sucker-punched an opponent whose arms were restrained.

Men will be boys; boys will be men. On the mound for Panama is a weed-thin, well-brought-up boy named Alex Beitia, who throws a soft curve in the first inning that strikes a Long Beach batter, 86-pound Brady Werner, the opposing pitcher, on the arm. Brady runs to first base. So does Alex, who sticks out his hand and says--in Spanish or English, it doesn't matter--that he is sorry.

If only someone could guarantee us that every game ever played by adults was as good as this game. From the very beginning there is a charm to it. For example, there is a 12-year-old girl, Maria Sansone, hired as a temp broadcaster by ABC-TV, who does interviews before and during the game.

"What did you eat for breakfast?" she inquires of Long Beach's star player, Sean Burroughs, who has hit many homers and missed few breakfasts.

"Three big bowls of cereal," Sean says.

The six innings that follow give everyone butterflies. Lewis, the Long Beach manager, sends his players onto the field with this: "Six innings of good, hard play, good fun, and we'll have a lifetime of memories!" His coach, Burroughs, still has good memories of 5,536 major league at-bats. But today he is a parent.

So are Jim and Sissy Werner, whose son pitches a great game. So is Sandy Lewis, whose husband manages while their son plays left field. So is Debbie Burroughs, who clings to a lucky blue-haired troll doll like Linus to a blanket as her son plays shortstop with the skill of an adult.

They will remember everything from this day. Billy Gwinn, getting advice on catching from Gary Carter before the game. Alex DeFazio, blocking a grounder like a pro. Anwar Morales, pinch-running with the potential winning run. Brent Kirkland, fouling one back into Jim Palmer's palms. Shaelen Burroughs, giving an exclusive to ABC's 12-year-old Diane Sawyer of tomorrow how her brother sure can be "annoying sometimes." Everything.

Especially, the sixth inning of a six-inning game. The score is 2-2. Tim Lewis singles and goes to second on a wild pitch. Kevin Miller tries to bunt him along, but Lewis is out at third. Charlie Hayes pinch-runs. Chris Miller singles to left. Brent Kirkland singles to center. Judy Gwinn watches anxiously as her son, Billy, who has caught a great game, goes down swinging with a good rip at a 3-and-2 pitch.

Bases full, two out. For the championship. No parent alive can't appreciate what happens next. There sits Jill Bratton, enjoying the game, edge of her seat, arms full of baby, when who should be asked to pinch-hit but No. 6, Jeremy Hess, her son; a situation from some fable, from some movie.

First pitch, he swings and misses. Cut to Mom, going: "Ohhh!" Second pitch, and the doink of an aluminum bat is music to a mother's ears. There goes the baseball, back, back, all the way to the wall. To home plate runs Charlie Hayes. And around first base, arms in the air, pumping like Kirk Gibson's, boy of the hour, runs Jeremy, whose mom is now crying and laughing all at once.

Forever and ever, for sons, for daughters, for fathers, for mothers, there are few moments such as this.

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