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Milestones

A Swing and a Miss

Little League baseball hasn't been kind to Kevin York--no hits, plenty of errors. But he's giving the game, and himself, one more chance.

April 22, 2001|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin York, 8, steps into the batter's box and plants his feet. It's opening day, Sunday--a day of faith, hope and hot dogs slathered in cheap mustard. He taps home plate with the tip of his bat, then cranks it around a couple times, as if winding taut springs inside his shoulders. Slowly he draws it back, his gaze steady as he awaits the pitch.

His dad, Dennis, 53, is in a booth behind the backstop keeping score. His mom, Karen, 39, is in the stands with his little brother, Kyle, 3. They are seated with other parents, many of whom are wearing caps, jackets and T-shirts in support of their team, the Indians.

A knot of emotions rides high in Kevin's chest, near the base of his throat. There is excitement, determination, nervousness, anticipation. And there, in the center of it all, is fear.

He cannot leave behind the memory of two years ago, when he stood at the plate and was whacked in the noggin by a pitch. The ball glanced off his helmet, leaving him stunned. It was probably the sound, the shock of impact more than pain that was traumatic; but even now, as the pitcher winds up, a part of Kevin is prepared to hit the dirt.

The first pitch is a foot outside. Kevin watches it go by. Ball one. So far, so good. He doesn't step out of the box, doesn't take his eyes off the pitcher. There were times in the past when he stood there with no intention of swinging the bat. He strategized that the most probable means of reaching first was to draw a walk.

Other times, he stood at the plate and swung wildly at anything the pitcher served up. Whiff, whiff and whiff. Outta there. It never gets easier.

"Striking out makes me sad," he says. It wouldn't be so bad if it happened on rare occasion or even much of the time, but that is not the case, he says. "It happens to me all the time."

This is Kevin's third year in the Temple City Little League program, and he has never had a hit. There have been a few foul balls, and once he grounded out to second. Other than that, nothing. Zilch. Nada.

But on March 11, opening day, everything seems possible, and if hope can live in Wrigley and Fenway, then, certainly, it can reside in the heart of Kevin York. This is the year, he says. This is the year.

Kevin's relationship with baseball is a complicated one. He finds himself wedged between opposing forces of love and hate, maintaining a tentative, shifting balance between staying and leaving.

It's a game with many faces. On one hand, baseball is characterized by sweet nostalgia and romantic notions. Those with no love for Longfellow or Whitman are moved to tears by the poetry of the game, its hot summer nights and heavenly fields, its heartbreak and heroes.

There's another side of baseball, however, that flat-out doesn't care. It is ruthlessly dispassionate and has to do with cold, hard numbers--ratios, percentages, averages. This is the part that has been brutal to Kevin, punching him in the gut with each out, causing pain and grief, making him feel, at times, worthless. What gentle game would do that to a child?

But each spring Kevin forgives baseball, knowing that one hit could change everything, erase years of zeros and anger and tears.

So, at 5 feet even, he stands tall at the plate. There is only slight bend at his waist and knees. His stance is upright, like that of the matador.

The second pitch comes in high. High pitches are Kevin's weakness. He can't lay off of them. He swings hard and his bat cuts through the air a good 8 inches below the ball. One ball, one strike. Then, one ball, two strikes. Then, those dreaded words.

"Batter's out."

Even when the umpire doesn't say them, there is that haunting pause after the ball smacks into the crease of the catcher's mitt, when even in silence the realization explodes like gunfire in Kevin's mind. "Batter's out."

After a while, the words might just as well be "Batter's stupid," "Batter's ugly," "Batter's never going to get a hit. Ever."

Kevin backs away from the plate. In some ways, it is best to be the last out of the inning. That way you can ditch your helmet and bat quickly, grab your cap and glove and head out to the field, where no one can see your eyes.

'I Think This Is Going to Be My Year'

When Karen York asked Kevin if he wanted to sign up for Little League this year, she fully expected he would decline or, at least, waver. His response, however, was prompt and certain.

"I think this is going to be my year," he said.

From the time he was born, Kevin has faced adversity. Born with a cleft palate, he had surgery as a baby and was left with limited hearing in his right ear. Kids have made fun of him in the cruelest ways throughout his life. "Dumbo," they called him. He fears that a hearing aid would place him at greater risk of being ridiculed. Who needs that?

He has, in the past, been the class clown, easily distracted and, at times, disruptive. This year, however, he is more focused, his parents say. It has made a difference in school and on the field.

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