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Game ball.

THERE WAS NO NEED for a camera, for the image never will leave my mind--how could it? Along the third base line at the North Street Field--score sheets, lineup cards, and clipboards in hand--stood the Yankee braintrust: their stubble-faced manager and his four veteran coaches. Behind them, players buzzed around the bat rack, hoping that this would be the inning they finally broke through. In the first base dugout, meanwhile, stood the Indians skipper and, just 48 hours removed from the hospital, my eight-year-old son, designated by "Coach Joe" as co-manager for this, the Little League championship game. Minutes before, Alex had received a warm welcome-back from his teammates and a big league hug from his mentor. Little wonder. With his easygoing, friendly manner toward peers, undivided attention given to coaching instruction, and determined, studious approach to all of his athletic endeavors--soccer, hockey, basketball, swimming, and baseball--Alex is the prototype player and teammate (and now I envisioned him as the next Tony LaRussa.) Forgive a father's effusiveness; it's just that only a few days earlier, I was wondering if I'd ever see him in a baseball uniform again.

He had started mentioning that his legs ached some weeks before; his mother and I figured it was growing pains. When his complaints persisted and his play on the diamond deteriorated--usually he's a crackerjack first baseman, a pretty decent hitter, and a so-so lefty reliever--we still put it off to growing pains, and maybe his flat feet. (Still clueless as to what was unfolding, I lectured him more than once about his--to me, totally out of character--seeming indifference on the playing field. If not to his rooting-too-hard dad, I scolded, then to his teammates, he owed 100%.) One Friday morning, Alex woke up sick to his stomach, but could only crawl to the bathroom because of the pain in his legs. Later, when he tried to get up from his nap, several of his joints were severely swollen and discolored--and he had a rash.

A trip to the doctor's office was followed quickly by a visit to the emergency room. A couple of hours later, Alex was admitted--to an isolation room. They didn't know what he had, but they were going to make sure no one else got it. Although our son hadn't eaten in three days, he continued to get sick. He looked so pale and weak, and now we really were starting to worry. The testing had gone on and on, but still no answers.

Then word came--he had a rare vascular disease known as Henoch Schonlein Purpura, or HSP. The hospital internist said he sees maybe two or three cases a year. There is no known cause; it's not contagious; it resolves itself--perhaps in a few weeks, or a few months, maybe longer. Recurrence is not uncommon. Permanent kidney damage is possible, depending on the disease's severity. However, relief (in the form of steroids) for the symptoms was available. After a few doses of "juice," Alex was like a new kid: hungry, happy, and itching to go home. I chided him that if he was going to take steroids like Barry Bonds, he'd have to hit home runs like him, too. No, countered the doctor, Alex's baseball season was over, including his shot at making the summer travel team. Instead, he would spend his vacation coming in for weekly testing to chart his kidney function and recovery.

Around Christmastime, we received one of those holiday missives in which people recap their year and family activities. In it, a couple of old friends related how their youngest son had contracted HSP. What were the odds? Only he did not fare as well as Alex. He sustained pretty significant kidney damage and was quite ill for months. In a subsequent phone call, the father, still shaken, related how his son Looked to be out of the woods. For a while, though, it was touch and go. "I stayed up nights watching him sleep because I was so afraid we were going to lose him," he told me.

With a six-run lead and their star pitcher looking untouchable, the Little League Indians started theft celebratory chatter a couple of innings early. Alex would have none of it. No game is ever over until the final out; anything can happen; stay focused, he cautioned his charges. I was so proud of him I thought I would burst. Happily, there was to be no Yankee rally and the Indians were crowned champions of the local baseball world. Amidst the cheers and joyous backslapping that followed, the classy Coach Joe called for the game ball, inscribed it with the date and final score, then presented it to his new co-manager.

I look at that beautiful, dirt-covered spheroid every day, always mindful not to forget what we have been blessed with and incredibly grateful that it wasn't taken away.

Wayne M. Barrett is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS SCENE
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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