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Bill Plaschke

All's Not Fair

Love and war come together on the Twentynine Palms baseball team, which has co-captains coping with absence of shipped-out fathers

March 23, 2003|Bill Plaschke

It is a warm afternoon, a freezing afternoon, a spring wind blowing through the desert in daggers.

The Twentynine Palms High home opener is a day of baseball mismatches: shorts and mittens, hot dogs with hot chocolate, team caps on ski caps.

Boys without fathers.

Eric Fernandez, the starting pitcher and Wildcat co-captain, peers into home plate for the sign that will not come.

The catcher is there, but Chief Warrant Officer Mark Fernandez is not, his usual seat behind the backstop empty while he marches toward Baghdad.

"Sometimes you get mad," Eric said. "He was always my coach. He came to every game. He was always here."

Jacob Lee, the first baseman and co-captain, kicks the gravel around first base while listening for a voice he will not hear.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
High school baseball -- A quote in a Sports photo caption that accompanied Bill Plaschke's column on the Twentynine Palms High baseball team Sunday was incorrectly attributed to pitcher Eric Fernandez. The quote was from first baseman Jacob Lee.

Fans cheer, but Sgt. Major Charles Lee cannot, his familiar chirp engaged on the other side of the world, in a different sort of desert, coaching combat.

"You know how, even when everybody is shouting during the game, you could always hear your dad?" Lee said. "That was me and him. I always knew he was there."

These days it is just the two of them, Lee and Fernandez, the leaders of a team that last year won two of 20 games, now forced to be leaders in homes broken by war.

They are only two, but they are hundreds, symbolic of the many children in this military town who have watched one or both parents disappear into the war with Iraq.

Some cope. Some do not. All are searching for something left behind, something to hold, something to help them understand.

Lee and Fernandez have found this anchor in father-son bonds nearly as old as war itself. It is the game their fathers taught them that will help them endure. It is baseball.

Said Lee: "I know it sounds corny, but it's not. My dad taught me this game, and I'll never forget him for that, and this is how I show it."

Said Fernandez: "This was his game. This was our game."

As part of a package sent to Charles Lee, his family threw in sunflower seeds.

It is hoped that chewing them in the desert will remind him of how he chewed them at Jacob's games.

In a letter sent to Mark Fernandez, his family threw in photos of Eric in his baseball uniform.

This is one way, maybe the only way, that he can be convinced that everything back home is normal.

"Baseball is our way of letting Charles know that everything is all right," said Patti Lee, Jacob's mother.

Even when it's not.

Soon, the fathers will be receiving news of that wind-swirled home opener.

One dad will hear how, alone at first base, Jacob Lee struggled to dig balls out of the gravel infield.

The other dad will hear how, alone on the mound, with the wind blowing in his face, Eric Fernandez was hit hard.

They will both probably hear how Twentynine Palms lost to San Bernardino Aquinas, 26-10, the Wildcats' first defeat in three games.

What they might not hear is how their boys handled it.

Lee shouted at himself at first base but later told jokes as everyone eventually smiled through the hopelessness.

Fernandez trudged off the mound with his head down but later was stalking the dugout and leading the cheers.

Said Fernandez: "I found that to be quite surprising. Usually, I'm so hard on myself, it takes my dad to pull me back up. This time, I did it myself."

Said Lee: "My dad would never let me quit. Well, I'm not quitting."

It was a day of mismatches indeed, innocence shaded in wisdom, kids playing catch with a memory, prisoners who will not surrender.

*

While leading his team during a stretching drill recently, Jacob Lee was struck by a thought.

"Hey, everybody!" he shouted. "My father's last letter was written on the back of an MRE [meals ready to eat] package!"

There was an awkward silence, as if teammates were expecting Lee to offer some uncomfortable introspection.

Instead, he smiled.

"You know what my dad wrote in the letter? Send more stationary!"

The players howled, the sound of relief, one of their leaders showing them again that wars don't have to involve bunkers.

For the two Twentynine Palms captains, the team has become the refuge, their job has become the distraction.

"We have to lead our families, we have to lead our high school team, it's sort of all come together at once," Lee said. "It's been hard, but you keep thinking that it's going to make you stronger."

Such strength is not so readily apparent in two so young.

Lee, 18, a senior, has shaggy hair and sprouting whiskers and granny glasses that cover playful eyes.

Fernandez, 16, a junior, is dark and serious with the smooth face of a child.

This being baseball, neither looks particularly like an athlete. Being only two of many military children in this desolate outpost, neither has felt like a hero.

They are the only two on the 14-player team whose fathers have been deployed. Yet they are the only two who never act as if it matters.

"We never talk about it; we kind of wait for them to say something," teammate Charles Jones said. "But they never do. They're too busy picking the rest of us up."

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