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John Sikorra is living the dream at last

A blind player gets the moment he's waited for as two high school teams raise their game.

May 13, 2010|Bill Plaschke

"Now batting, number 15, John Sikorra."

Four years of dreaming into one sentence, uttered over a tiny loudspeaker, above a cramped baseball field, on a busy street where cars rushed past and a moment stood still.

It was a quick breath for the student who announced it, but a lasting prayer for the baseball player who would live it.

On this brilliant Thursday afternoon in West Hills, for the first time this season, senior John Sikorra left the Chaminade High dugout and walked haltingly toward home plate. His father was on his arm. A shining Easton bat and weathered Easton tee were at his side.

Sikorra is blind, but he knew the way. He had spent years dreaming of the way.

The horror of a rare, fatal, neurodegenerative disorder known as Batten disease had taken his sight as a child, and slowly taken many of his cognitive skills since, yet no demon could steal his love of baseball.

Sikorra spent his first three years at Chaminade hoping someone would ask him to join the team. He couldn't swing at a pitched ball, or catch a batted one, but years of listening to Vin Scully and his beloved Dodgers helped him understand the thwack of a bat and the pop of the leather.

He couldn't always communicate, but he could always high-five, and for three years he longed to have someone on the other end of that boyish slap, until last fall he met second-year baseball Coach Frank Mutz at a school retreat.

"I met a kid that loved and lived for baseball," Mutz recalled. "I thought to myself, this is the kind of kid I want on my team."

So Sikorra became an Eagle. He was given a uniform and a locker and joined the team in the dugout for the home games, his father or longtime aide Cody Miller sitting next to him providing play-by-play.

So inspirational was his huge smile, soon he was named captain. So real was his presence, the Eagles won their first 13 games at home when he was there and vaulted to No. 1 in the Southern Section Division 2 rankings.

"He's always smiling -- I mean, always smiling -- and that smile makes us stronger," said senior Ryan Kramer.

How excited was Sikorra? He couldn't really tell his teammates, so he showed them, three times suffering seizures during exciting moments, like when the Eagles scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh and final inning to defeat Corona Centennial.

"There is not supposed to be any connection between excitement and the seizures," said his father, Joe. "But I'm not so sure of that. John really, really loves to be here."

He loves it so much that after one seizure, he took a 45-minute nap on the bullpen mound and returned to the bench to finish the game.

"He never quits, he never stops fighting," said teammate Brando Tessar.

As his functioning has declined, his fight has increased, and his popularity at Chaminade has soared, the blond-haired kid being voted homecoming king and a member of the prom court. In these final days of his organized schooling -- he tells his parents that attending class is becoming too difficult -- there was really only one thing missing.

He was finally part of a team, but he needed a varsity letter to make it real. Yet to earn a varsity letter, he needed to participate in at least one official play.

So for the final regular-season home game against Alemany High, the Mission League championship game, Mutz offered to give up an out so Sikorra could bat.

"He deserved that letter as much anybody," Mutz said. "Giving up that out was the least we could do to get it for him."

Those who still believe in the goodness of high school sports can guess what happened next. Randy Thompson, the Alemany coach, refused the offer, saying that if Chaminade gave up an out, his team would also give up an out.

"Some things are bigger than baseball," said Thompson.

Finally, to make it simple, the coaches agreed that Sikorra would simply be the first hitter of the afternoon, batting with Chaminade in the field, then the regular game would begin.

"Now batting, number 15, John Sikorra."

As they approached home plate to a standing ovation, a father whispered to a son.

"Swing away, have fun, do your best," Joe said.

The ball was teed up, Joe stepped away, John stepped in and ... boom.

The kid pounded it, ripped it, hammered it, the solidly hit ball rolling toward third base, and off they ran, father and son, hand in hand, flying around the bases, dancing together from the dugout darkness through the early summer light.

"Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop," Joe repeated.

John didn't. His tongue sticking out of his mouth like Michael Jordan, he crossed home plate amid a tiny stadium overflowing with tears and shouts and love.

Chaminade later lost the actual game, 1-0, but not really.

"Today, both teams won in the game of life," said Lori, John's mother.

Late Thursday night, his fading memory again betraying him, John peppered his mother for a replay.

"How far did I hit it? How far did I run?" he continually asked her, two questions, one answer.

Clear to anyone who witnessed the one career at-bat of the great John Sikorra.

Forever and ever, amen.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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