Saturday, May 15, 2004

First T-ball game


Every player begins a career - no matter whether it's destined to end after three months or three decades - in the same place, with the same excitement, the same uncertainty

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marquez Jones
Marquez Jones (far right), 7, cheers along with the rest of his team and assistant coach Jerome Chancellor (top left) and head coach Robert Hillard after they won their first game at the Mount Auburn Coummunity Center.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
PHOTO GALLERY
See more photos of the T-ball team and their first game.
Less than an hour before game time, the team gathers around assistant coach Jerome Chancellor at Hirsch Recreation Center in Avondale.

"Ready to play some ball today?" he says with the drill-sergeant voice they've come to know.

"Yes sir!" 14 boys and one girl shout in unison.

This group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds couldn't be more ready. Three rainouts have delayed their first T-ball game of the season by almost two weeks. For most, it's their first year of organized baseball.

"Shirt tails in. Tuck 'em in," Chancellor says. He's a no-nonsense guy, a former minor leaguer in the Atlanta Braves organization. Not coincidentally, this Knothole team is called the Avondale Braves.

"How's everybody feel today?" Chancellor asks.

"Yes, sir!" the team shouts.

A quizzical look from the coach. He tries again.

MOMENTS OF LIFE

This part of an occasional series that documents moments that connect us. This year, the series focuses on firsts that are life's milestones. We welcome your suggestions. Contact John Johnston at 768-8516; e-mail: jjohnston@enquirer.com.

THE STORIES

First trip to the dentist
First flight
First baby
First comedy gig
First T-ball game
First college graduate

"How's everybody feel today?"

"Good!" the team says.

They look good, too, in their new uniforms: blue caps with red bills; blue pants rolled up at the knee to reveal red socks; and blue tops, with "Braves" in red script, just above a tomahawk.

Coach Robert Hillard arrives, wearing a smile. He is 47, a Cincinnati Bell sales consultant. This is his second year coaching baseball.

"Listen to your coaches today," he says.

Nobody's more pumped than coach Chancellor.

"Everybody in the middle!" he shouts. "Who are we?"

"Braves!" everybody yells.

Well, almost everybody. One boy shouts "Warriors!" - the name of the football team Hillard and Chancellor helped coach last fall.

"This ain't football," Chancellor says, cracking a smile.

At the first T-ball game of the year, not everyone knows the team nickname. Not everyone remembers how to run the bases. And not everyone can name his favorite pro baseball player.

"The famous one. I like him," says Kejohn Beatty, who is 6.

The famous and the forgotten, they all start this way, playing ball on a sun-splashed field in front of friends and family. Today is almost perfect. Only one thing is missing.

The other team.

They are 21/2 miles away at a Cincinnati Recreation Commission field in Mount Auburn, wondering when the Braves will arrive.

A miscommunication. So the Braves scamper toward their parents' cars.

At Mount Auburn, they are greeted by the mouthwatering smell of hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken cooking on a grill. Charcoal smoke wafts over the field.

Coach Chancellor won't let the team lose focus.

"Who are we?"

"Braves!"

"Who?"

"Braves!!"

"Who?"

"Braves!!!"

Six-year-old Corey Lewis has a question for the coach: Will the players be paid?

"Yeah, you'll get paid about 20 years from now if you make it to the majors," coach Chancellor says.

As the Mount Auburn Expos take the field, coach Hillard makes sure his Braves know the batting order. He works his way down the bench, stopping briefly in front of each player: "You bat behind him. You bat behind him. You bat behind him..."

In T-ball, coaches can pitch to players, or players can hit from a tee. Coach Hillard pitches to all his players. His 6-year-old son, Genesis, is leadoff batter.

The Braves' bench begins a chant: "Let's go, Genesis, let's go. Ooh. Ooh."

He fouls off the first pitch. The second he drives into left field. Parents and relatives whoop it up as he scampers around the bases. A home run.

It's a fine start to a very good inning for the Braves. Ten players go to bat, and most of them get hits. Then 10 Expos bat in the bottom of the inning.

In fact, the rules say each team sends 10 players to the plate every inning. Which can make for a long wait if you are 6 years old and sitting on the bench and there is an almost irresistible distraction right below your feet: loose dirt.

In the second inning, a few Braves begin kicking it around with their shoes.

Then, Rayshawn Maye and Hjavier Pitts, both 6, push it into a pile with their hands. Kejohn Beatty scoops some into his mitt.

They are oblivious to the fact that Marquez Jones has just struck out. "You'll get 'em next time," coach Hillard says. "Don't even worry about it."

Meanwhile, a few parents sneak a drink of soda pop to their kids on the bench, while 5-year-old Diashey Medeiros, the team's only girl, takes bites of a White Castle hamburger provided by her mom, Tameka Medeiros.

Tameka is watching closely when Diashey goes into the game in the bottom of the second inning and fields a ball to the left of the pitcher's mound. Instead of throwing it, she runs to first base. The hitter is safe.

Her mother worries aloud that she's playing an unfamiliar position. "She'll be all right. She'll learn to play everything," coach Chancellor, the girl's uncle, says.

Brandy Brock gets to celebrate in the top of the third inning when her boy, Dominic "Scooty" Johnson, belts a home run. Brock literally jumps for joy, video camera in hand, and screams "That's my son!" as he touches the bases.

In a calmer moment, she says, "He normally doesn't hit the ball."

It's all over after three innings. The score? It's not the most important thing.

"Anybody sore?" coach Chancellor asks his team.

"No, sir!"

"Anybody hurt?"

"No, sir!"

"Who are we?"

"Braves!"

And hungry Braves at that, headed, finally, to the grill for hot dogs.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com



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