It was a scorching summer day, and the worn wooden bleachers at the ballpark were hot and splintery. I took a seat on the front row among the sparse but devoted fans who had shown up for the baseball game.
I watched as my son, Ryan, wound up and pitched the ball. I heard the crisp slap of leather against leather as the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. “Strike!” yelled the umpire. I saw a flicker of a smile quickly cross Ryan’s face before he regained his look of deep concentration. This was serious business to my twelve-year-old son. As the “new kid in town,” he just couldn’t miss this chance to gain some respect.
A fly buzzed around my head. I waved it away as the ball slapped into the catcher’s mitt again. “Strike two!” Ryan’s teammates cheered him on. This could be their second out, and they were anxious to get up to bat again.
“Strike three!” yelled the umpire. Ryan’s team was jubilant.
Then Joey came out of the dugout. Joey had been born with Down’s syndrome. He picked up the bat and walked over to home plate. I watched Ryan carefully as Joey loosened up with a couple of practice swings. I was the only person besides Ryan who understood the dilemma Ryan faced as Joey stood there to bat.
As I sat there, I vividly remembered the day we had met Joey. I had agreed to baby-sit him on the days his mother was at work. On the first day, Joey walked in, marched straight over to Ryan, and held out his hand. With confidence and poise, he said, “Hi, I’m Joey. What’s your name?”
After he introduced himself to Ryan, he talked to each of my other children. His easy nature and friendly personality soon put us at ease.
Later, when I was doing dishes, Joey walked into the kitchen and stood in front of a chore chart with the names of my children on it. He read off each name without any help. It seemed to me that through the help of his family, Joey had achieved a great deal in his thirteen years.
We quickly discovered that Joey was an avid baseball player. In fact, he brought his glove and hat that very first day. From then on, Ryan and Joey played baseball every day. Ryan worked with Joey and showed him how to hold the bat and how to swing properly. They practiced for hours to perfect Joey’s ability to hit the ball. If Ryan threw the ball slowly enough, Joey could hit it almost every time.
Then one day, Joey announced that his baseball team would be playing Ryan’s team the very next game. Ryan pulled out his schedule, and sure enough, Joey was right. He told Ryan over and over again that he could hardly wait because he had never had a hit in a game before, and he knew he could hit the ball if Ryan was the pitcher.
Ryan had come to me quietly later that day and wondered what he should do. He wanted Joey to succeed by finally getting a hit in a game. But he also felt an obligation to his team to pitch his best. Ryan knew Joey could never hit one of his fast pitches. I told Ryan that it was a difficult decision, one he would have to make on his own.
Now that moment of decision had arrived. Ryan stood on the pitcher’s mound facing Joey. He turned and looked at his teammates. They knew that Joey was an easy out—in fact, the third out. Ryan looked at his coach, who nodded back his encouragement. Hesitatingly, Ryan took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he gazed intently at Joey. He took the ball in hand, wound up, and then gently lobbed the ball, carefully and slowly, just as they had practiced for weeks. Joey swung—and then, crack! It was a hit!
Joey was so shocked he just stood there looking at the ball. All of a sudden everyone, including the boys on the opposite team, started yelling, “Run, Joey!” For a few moments, a boy’s dream of hitting a ball became more important than an easy out.
Joey finally came out of shock and ran. By the time he safely made it to first base, the whole ballpark was cheering. The first baseman was jumping up and down with excitement. Several boys ran over and gave Joey a congratulatory pat on the back. The smile on his face could only be matched by the smile on Ryan’s face. The respect that Ryan sought had come in a very unexpected way. He had learned that there was more than one way to win.