The car ride home, which for most of the season had simply been a continuation of one Angel victory celebration after another, was suddenly quiet and somber, except for Kelsey, Todd’s seven-year-old sister. She was always excited, before, during and after Todd’s games – no matter how well (or how poorly) he played.
Kelsey had Down’s Syndrome. She didn’t really understand all that baseball stuff – the winning and the losing, the hitting and the striking out, the differences between fastballs and curve balls, put-outs and force-outs, ground-outs and fly-outs, singles and doubles, and the often fine line between an error and a spectacular play. She also didn’t understand the pressure that Todd and his Angel teammates put on themselves to perform, the disappointment they felt when things didn’t go their way, or the unparalleled joy that came with being a “hero” (if only for a moment).
Still, Kelsey loved baseball. She loved the smell of the freshly cut park grass on a Saturday morning, the warmth of the sun beating down on the pretty red clay, the colorful uniforms of the players, and the joy that she saw in the faces of other children at play. Most of all, Kelsey loved baseball because it meant spending time with her big brother, and she loved her brother very much – and Todd loved his little sister.
Theirs was a very special relationship, a bond that, unbeknownst to Kelsey, was formed even before she was born. Todd still vividly remembered that night. He recalled his mom and dad coming into his room several weeks prior to Kelsey’s birth and, with tears quietly streaming down their faces, patiently explaining in very simple, but unmistakable, terms, that the little sister whose arrival he had been so eagerly and enthusiastically awaiting was going to be different from other children in many ways. They told Todd she would look different and act different, that she likely would be a little bit slower in doing and learning things than other girls her age. But they also were quick to assure Todd and to remind him in the weeks that followed that when it came to the things that mattered most – the love they would have for her as a family and she for them – things would be no different at all. Somehow, even though he was very young, Todd understood what they were trying to say and, as he reached out to touch his mom’s belly, he began loving (and feeling a need to protect) his little sister and he never stopped.
But that afternoon, as the Douglases drove away from the park, even the radiance and innocence of Kelsey’s smile could not console Todd. In his mind, he had let his teammates down at a time when they needed him the most and, try as he might, he could not erase the emptiness that his last inning strike-out left behind or the hurt that he felt when he overheard the whispered criticisms of his teammates and friends in the dugout after the game. He just couldn’t bear the thought of another turn at bat, another strike-out, another unkind remark in the dugout or the hallways at school the next day.
Even though he knew it would break his heart, Todd had decided to give up baseball.