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Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Updated: September 10, 9:35 PM ET
The 9/11 legacy of a Little League girl

By Marty Dobrow
Special to ESPNBoston.com

"I want America to be as good as she imagined it."
-- President Barack Obama on Christina-Taylor Green, Jan. 12, 2011

Amid the rolling green hills of Cooperstown, N.Y., 22 diamonds are glittering with children at play. The tunnels of fog from Tuesday night have burned off, opening to a sun-sparkled Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 17, a perfect day for baseball.

One-hundred-four teams from all over the country are here for Week 11 of the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament. They are teams with names like the Maine Black Flies and the So Cal Dirtbagz. The kids are 11 and 12 years old.

It is a tournament dripping with Americana. The Stars and Stripes -- and 50 state flags -- flapping in the summer breeze. A huge fireworks display. Every outfield fence draped in bunting. Baseball 'round the clock. Here at Dreams Park, it is Opening Day, Game 7, and the Fourth of July all at once.

This is Christina-Taylor Green's kind of place. "She was always very patriotic," says her mother, Roxanna, on the phone from Tucson, Ariz. "She wanted to wear red, white and blue on her birthday."

A few years ago, when Christina's friends were signing up for youth sports, Roxanna asked her daughter if she wanted to play softball. "No," she said firmly. "I'm a baseball player."

As the granddaughter of former big league manager Dallas Green and the daughter of Dodgers scout John Green, she came by her love of the game honestly. In time, she became a solid second baseman in the Canyon del Oro Little League. She talked about her goal of being the first woman to play in the major leagues.

So she would have been especially pleased to see what is happening on Field 19, where a playoff game is about to begin. On the first-base side in blue uniforms, the Lakeville Lions, an all-star team from Minnesota, warms up -- boys with names like Trevor and Ryan and Chad. On the third-base side, in red, are the Sparks. They all wear eye black. One sips Gatorade. Many have ponytails draped down their backs.

They are players like Trinity Gonzales, a tiny catcher from California with all kinds of moxie, and a rocket-armed center fielder from Marietta, Ga., named Grace White.

The all-female team -- the only one that competes among 1,300-plus squads that come to Dreams Park each summer -- gathers for some pregame words from Justine Siegal, the spark behind the Sparks. They all know about Siegal. That she is a pioneer. That she coached college baseball. That she was the first woman to coach in the minor leagues. That she threw batting practice this spring to six major league teams. That she has an organization called Baseball for All.

The girls tell her about all the rain and fog earlier in the week that necessitated yesterday's tripleheader. The final game did not end until well after 1 a.m. "Sounds good," says Siegal, with a smile. "I like adversity."


FIRST INNING

Things do not start out well for the Sparks. The leadoff hitter for the Lions beats out an infield hit. Soon there are two runs across. Then Ryan Poehling, a powerful left-handed hitter, launches a drive to deep center field. Grace White goes back to the wall and watches it sail out of the park. The jubilant boys from Minnesota all bolt to the plate for a festival of high-fives. It's 4-0 already.

A head shorter than almost all of the boys, Trinity Gonzales stands her ground at the plate amid the celebration, her face a palette of disgust and resolve.

Trinity Gonzales
Trinity Gonzales of Twentynine Palms, Calif., is the catcher for the Sparks.

In the bottom of the inning, the first two Sparks make infield outs and up steps Grace. She is a wiry 5-foot-6, with a wide stance. Her warmup swing ends with the bat thumping off her left shoulder blade, just next to the mane of chestnut hair and the number 7. In the third-base stands, her father, George White -- who runs a Chick-fil-A franchise in Marietta -- trains his video camera on his daughter.

Grace has been playing the game since she was 4. Last year, playing for local and travel teams, she played 105 games, almost always as the only girl on the field. This week for her has been a revelation. "It's really cool," she says, "just to see other girls who play baseball. They're really good. I'm not the only one."

The count goes to 2-0. George puts down the video camera, wanting to watch with his own eyes. Trinity, standing in the dugout, face pressed to the screen, calls out, "Come on, Gray-see!"

Grace crushes the next pitch to deep center field. The center fielder heads back to the wall and looks up. Grace smiles as she rounds third, but not as widely as the Lakeville third baseman, glove pressed to his chin as if to keep it from falling to the infield dirt.

And not nearly as widely as George White, who is jogging out behind the outfield fence. "I realized I had to get the ball," he later said. "It was sitting there like a single snowflake on this big green berm."

It's a 4-1 ballgame and the world has changed, at least a little.


Roxanna Green did not expect that her daughter would be born on Sept. 11. After all, the doctors had induced her labor at 6 a.m. on Monday the 10th. Surely, it wouldn't take 18 hours for the baby to arrive.

Billions of dramas played out that Monday in America. It was back to work in small towns and big cities. Back to kindergarten and grad school. Airports bustling with business travel, joyful reunions, tearful farewells. Six MLB games. The first maple trees beginning to blaze with color in the hills surrounding Cooperstown Dreams Park.

In Newark, Del., slow, unreal hospital time spooled out, the long morning finally yielding to noon, the afternoon then dragging on forever. Contraction. Dilation. Counting the breaths. The stethoscope again and again to listen to the heart. At some point, sunset. Ice chips. Exhaustion. Contraction. Dilation. Pain. A waning moon. Twinkling stars. Monday night spilling into Tuesday morning, Sept. 11.

Finally, at 1:50 a.m., drum roll please, Christina-Taylor Green.

A baby's first cry.

Dawn.

The first plane tearing into the north tower.

Down in Marietta, Ga., George White stopped in at the Greenway, which featured his favorite deal of coffee and a biscuit for a dollar. The usually tranquil scene was filled with commotion. People were huddled in front of the television, hands over their mouths. George watched in disbelief as a plane slammed into the other tower. He felt sick to his stomach. He had three kids at home. Gracie was just 2 years old.

Ray Gonzales was working at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. "I couldn't believe what was happening," he remembers. "I was shocked. ... It was just heartbreaking." Little Trinity was scarcely a year old.

Justine Siegal was living at the time in Toronto, just a few miles from the CN Tower, which in 1975 had overtaken the World Trade Center as the tallest building in the world. Who knew what the next target was? Justine raced in to preschool to pick up her 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine: "I just wanted her near me."

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the attacks of Sept. 11. According to Roxanna Green, the association of this day of destruction with her daughter's birth was, at first, mortifying. "Oh my gosh, I didn't want her birthday to be that," she said. "It's horrendous."

In time, though, she found another perspective -- largely because Christina herself came to embrace it. "She thought it was a holiday in a way, like she represented hope," Roxanna says. "She always wanted to see the positive in things. She just thought, 'Well, that's my birthday, so I'm going to grow up and do special things ... and make our country a better place."


SECOND INNING

"How you do, Pipsqueak!" shouts out Sparks assistant coach Mariah Brunelle.

Reacting to a pitch far outside and in the dirt, Trinity Gonzales had shifted over quickly on her knees, let the ball bounce off her chest protector, then pounced on it. The blocking was unnecessary, given that there were no runners on base. But the fundamentals were airtight -- and not the least bit surprising if you ever watched Trinity on a ballfield back home in Twentynine Palms.

"I work every day with my dad," she says. "And my brother pitches to me sometimes. I had trouble blocking at first, but we went out every day and just blocked for two hours."

Her brother is Donovan Gonzales, who was drafted by the Florida Marlins out of high school but turned down the offer in favor of a scholarship to pitch at UC Riverside.

Their dad, Ray Gonzales, was a catcher in high school in Tombstone, Ariz. Five years ago he signed up to coach youth baseball. The first day of practice he faced a dilemma.

"None of the boys had a cup," he said, "and I needed a catcher."

For Trinity, it was love at first sight. She's been catching ever since. Back in California, she is the only girl on both her Little League team and a 12-and-under travel team called the Twentynine Palms Magic, for whom she batted .598 this past season.

Trinity connected with the Sparks after Ray Gonzales saw an article about Justine Siegal pitching batting practice to big leaguers. He followed the link to "Baseball for All," and now here is his daughter, all 4-foot-8 and 60 pounds of her, playing against the boys. (She is unconcerned about her diminutive stature. After all, Donovan was just 5-1 as a freshman in high school, and now he's a strapping 6-2.)

According to Ray Gonzales, his daughter is completely consumed with the game. "She doesn't want to stop," he says. "Everything she does is about baseball."

In class last year, she put together a book for an English project. The title was "A Girl's Love for a Boy's Sport."


Cooperstown Dreams Park is the brainchild of Lou Presutti. A youthful 71-year-old with penetrating light green eyes and silver stubble beneath his omnipresent baseball hat, he is known here simply as "Coach." He scoffs at the notion that this game is no longer our national pastime.

The proof, he says, is right here in Cooperstown. Dreams Park is in its 16th summer of operation. Even in what Americans have come to call "this economy" in 2011, the tournament is at full enrollment with a long waiting list. Each week for 13 weeks there are 104 teams that seem to show up right out of cornfields or a Norman Rockwell painting. Each player and coach pays almost $1,000, meaning that Dreams Park accounts for a significant percentage of the nation's car washes, raffles and cow plop derbies. Players arrive with family members to take in the Hall of Fame a few miles down the road, to sleep in cabins decorated with pictures of Lou Gehrig and Josh Gibson, to eat hot dogs and ice cream. And they come to play ball.

"This place," says Presutti unapologetically, "was built for America's game -- which is baseball."

It's a no-nonsense kind of place. Kids are required to have their red or blue uniform shirts tucked in to white pants, which must be worn as knickers. If you're caught violating this code (which almost never happens), you're subject to a two-game suspension. Presutti says simply, "They will respect the uniform."

Coach was born in 1940, a year between the founding of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the attack on Pearl Harbor. His earliest memories are shaped by World War II. He vividly recalls the five blue stars on the window of his grandmother's corner grocery in Belmont, N.Y., a place with cold cuts and a block of cheese on the counter. One of those stars was for Presutti's dad, his namesake, part of "the greatest generation" -- a term that flows freely off Coach's tongue.

Decades later, Coach stood between his father and 5-year-old son in front of Babe Ruth's jersey at the Hall. Three generations of Louis Presuttis stood in reverential silence. Then Coach heard his dad say, "Wouldn't it be great if every kid in America could have the opportunity to play baseball in Cooperstown?"

Ultimately Presutti decided to build it -- and boy did they come. Dreams Park became in short order a crown jewel of youth baseball. Presutti speaks with a fatherly pride about some of the alums from Dreams Park, people like major league pitchers David Price and Matt Garza, and last year's No. 1 draft pick, Bryce Harper. But also about a guy named Frank Gross, who hit a two-run home run at Dreams Park one July day in 1998. In the summer of 2011 he was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

The next week at Dreams Park was dedicated to Army Specialist Frank Gross. The flags were lowered to half-staff. There was a rifle salute. The uniform was respected.

While Presutti insists that the biggest benefit of a week at Dreams Park is not so much baseball as "cultural exchange," it's clear that his definition of cultural exchange has its limits. Some Canadian teams gain entry, but otherwise no international teams are allowed. Sitting in a golf cart surveying the 150-acre complex, he says, "It's all red, white and blue. It's about the American flag, what it stands for, what this country stands for."


THIRD INNING

With two outs in the top of the third and a runner on second, a Lakeville Lion rips a single up the middle. The runner charges hard toward third base, cuts the inside of the bag, but then puts on the brakes when the third base coach holds up two palms and shouts, "No-no-no!"

Gracie White
Gracie White, a center fielder and pitcher for the Sparks, has been playing baseball since she was 4.

The coach has already seen enough to respect Grace White's arm. Sure enough, Grace had charged the ball hard, gloved it and unloaded an absolute seed to Trinity Gonzales at the plate. After Grace gloves a liner to center to end the inning, the score remains 4-1. Assistant coach Brunelle greets Grace at the dugout and asks, "Why don't they send the runner?"

Grace shrugs and says softly, "Because I'm just that good."

This is the ninth year of the Sparks, the first time they are not being managed by Justine Siegal. There just wasn't a way to do this. She could have made it work if her life were just the usual busyness of being a single mom, finishing up her PhD at Springfield College, running a weeklong baseball camp for girls, and traveling to Taiwan to work at the World Children's Baseball Fair. But when she took her new job in Boston this summer directing partnerships for Northeastern University's Sport in Society Program, the scale tipped.

She is only able to get out here for this one day to see the Sparks in action, a letting go that has felt like a tiny heartbreak. "It's supposed to grow beyond me," she said on the way out to Cooperstown that morning, her voice cracking just a bit. "That's the point."

She knew the team would be in good hands with Brunelle as assistant coach and John Kovach running the show. A gangly, soft-spoken man from Indiana with a folksy touch, Kovach is completely on board with the cause of Baseball for All. He's been coming to Dreams Park for years as Siegal's assistant. All three of his daughters play baseball. One of them, Irina, is a former Spark.

In the bottom of the third, Trinity Gonzales comes to the plate for the first time. She chokes up on the bat. The fielders take several steps in. Trinity lashes a fly ball to deep left, which the outfielder has to retreat to catch.

Says Kovach, "Another biscuit for breakfast and that ball is out."


Given the fact that Coach is such a guy's guy, one might assume he was resistant to Siegal's proposal to bring an all-girls team to Dreams Park. According to both of them, though, the acceptance was immediate.

Something about "liberty and justice for all" made this lifelong Yankees supporter a big fan of Jackie Robinson -- and also a huge fan of Justine Siegal. "Justine just came out of the sky someplace," says Presutti. "Her passion is second to none. I know that Justine is able to see things that other people can't see."

That vision was crafted in Cleveland, where some of her happiest childhood memories were created at the old Municipal Stadium with her grandfather, Alvin Siegal (still an Indians season-ticket holder at 88). They liked to get there early to watch batting practice.

In Little League, the only girl on her team was a star pitcher and shortstop. But then, at 13, the door closed. There was no more baseball available to her. The game for girls, she was told, was softball.

She couldn't believe it. She had nothing against softball. She respected the talents of softball players. But softball was not the national pastime. She wasn't interested in moving closer to the plate and pitching underhand. Baseball was the game she loved -- and now she was being told she couldn't play.

More closed doors followed. As a freshman in high school, she wasn't allowed to try out for the baseball team. (She took off for boarding school in New Hampshire, where she pitched and played the infield.) She chose Beloit College in Wisconsin in part because of its no-cut policy in baseball. "Then," she says ruefully, "I became the first cut" (ostensibly because of a lack of uniforms).

College was a time of exploration for her. She joined ROTC, but then began studying the writings of Gandhi, becoming as interested in MLK as she was in MLB. She transferred to St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She walked around campus with a Cleveland Indians banner in her backpack, listening to leadership tapes by Colin Powell. She often tossed a baseball against the gym wall.

Before graduation, she got married and gave birth to Jasmine, in 1998. She had no idea what Jasmine's life would become, but she quietly vowed to do everything she could to make sure her daughter would know maximum opportunity, that she wouldn't be held back by others telling her, "You can't."

That same year, Siegal launched the organization that would come to define her, Baseball for All. "Baseball," she decided, "is my platform for civil rights."

At first the organization consisted of nothing more than a small women's league in Ohio. In time she began to take groups of girls to tournaments in countries where women's baseball had some traction: Canada and Japan and Australia. And then, thanks to the green light from Presutti, she came to Cooperstown.

She recruited players largely off the Internet, something that could be a sobering exercise. "Unfortunately, if you Google-search 'girl baseball,' it usually has to do with someone getting beaten by a baseball bat," she says. "Or an abduction by someone wearing a baseball hat."

But there were diamonds in that deep rough, too, girls who loved the game and played it well. Most were familiar with the loneliness and isolation of being the only girl on the field. Suddenly, they had support.

Still, Siegal knew this was going to be a formidable challenge. Dreams Park features some superb baseball with travel and select teams and All-Star squads from around the country. The first few years were humbling. "We got creamed," she recalled.

One of the scores was 42-0.


FOURTH INNING

Grace White comes in to pitch. From her over-the-top motion, the ball explodes into the catcher's glove.

The battery is now Grace and Trinity.

The third base coach for the Lions, who had been instructing his players to "move up in the box" for the first three innings, now calls out, "All the way to the back line," and "Choke up!"

The Lions do tack on a run to make it 5-1, but the Sparks prevent further damage on a nifty fielding play by second baseman Landyn White. She ranges up the middle to glove a grounder, then whips the ball across her body to nail the runner by a step.

In the dugout, Justine Siegal congratulates Landyn. Siegal notes the lime-green gum she's chewing beneath her braces, as well as her bright pink fingernails. "You're all neon," she says.

"I like to stand out," says Landyn.

After a leadoff walk to Jaime Klemas, Grace White rips a single to put runners on first and second with no one out. The Sparks are all standing in the dugout, faces pressed to the screen. But the rally fizzles, and we go to the fifth inning.


Clouds had rolled in late in the afternoon on July 3, 2006, a day before the nation's 230th birthday, year four of the Sparks. Coach had heard on his radio that the Sparks were ahead of a team from New Hampshire. He and his wife, Linda, buzzed over on his golf cart to Field 22. The rain began to fall.

During the delay, some of the boys on the other team stood on the dugout bench and shook their butts at the Sparks. Justine Siegal merely turned to her players and said, "Do not respond!"

The skies cleared. The boys came back to tie the score. In the bottom of the sixth they had a runner on third with one out when a batter lifted a fly ball to right fielder Geena Bonilla. The runner tagged up. Geena caught the ball and unloaded a strike to the plate. It was close.

"You're out!"

In extra innings, the Sparks prevailed, 6-5.

"The place went crazy," recalled Presutti.

Siegal concedes that it was a big moment ("I might have shed a few tears"), but insists that having a girls baseball team beat a boys baseball team is not really the goal. It's not even about having a woman break through to play in the major leagues one day, should that happen ("I've got my money on a lefty knuckleballer," she says. "I see no reason why a woman can't do what [Tim] Wakefield does.")

The key here is about creating opportunities, letting people do what they love. "If we tell girls they can't play baseball," Siegal would come to ask, "what else will they believe they can't do?"

Still, there was no denying the power of breaking barriers. When she went to Springfield College to begin a PhD in sport and exercise psychology in 2006, she convinced head coach Mark Simeone to take her on as an assistant, a role she filled for three years. "It was a first for me," said Simeone. "But she was impressive. It was clear she was a baseball person ... I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for what she's done, and the journey she has taken. It could not have been easy."

Justine Siegal
Justine Siegal throws batting practice to the Cleveland Indians during spring training in Goodyear, Ariz. Siegal became the first woman to pitch BP at a major league camp.

In 2009, she got a job coaching first base for the Brockton Rox, an independent minor league team in the Can-Am League. While professional ball had seen a female player before (Ila Borders, who pitched for four seasons, mostly in the Northern League, in 1997-2000), Siegal was the first female coach. The players, she said, were almost all receptive. But some of the coaching staff was brutal.

She knew that, like Jackie Robinson in 1947, it would not help her to respond. "I was able to put into practice all of my studies of Gandhi and Dr. King," she said. "I was able to just be kind when other people were mean."

Mostly, though, she enjoyed working with girls who loved the game as she did. She started bringing a group to a baseball academy in the Berkshires run by former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. ("She's legit," says Duquette. "You've got to hand it to her. This is her hero's quest. I like her. I believe in her. I believe in her cause.")

Each summer she continued her pilgrimage to Cooperstown with the Sparks, always bringing Jasmine with her. Jasmine didn't play the game, but she loved the scene, and her pride in her mother was obvious. She often slept with a baseball card of her mom under her pillow.

There was more competitive play, more victories, more support. In the 2010 season, the Sparks finished 39th of 104 teams. They were led by a pitcher from Plant City, Fla., named Chelsea Baker, who had gone undefeated in her Little League career, twice hurling perfect games. She threw hard and she also threw a wicked knuckleball taught to her by the late Joe Niekro, the father of one of her former teammates.

In one game with Chelsea on the mound, hundreds of boys from other teams sat in the stands to watch the Sparks demolish a team from New York, 19-0. During the game, there was a big chant from the crowd. Justine Siegal could hardly believe her ears.

"Baseball-for-All! Baseball-for-All!"


FIFTH INNING

Beyond the first-base dugout, the fans from Lakeville are cheering on their Lions. They are a polite group of moms and dads, siblings and grandparents. Almost all are wearing black shirts from a recent outing into Cooperstown. The shirts advertise the "Red Neck Bar B Que where your meat is smoked and your pork is pulled."

It's a playoff game, and they have no interest in seeing the Lions' week of baseball end with a loss to the Sparks -- or anyone else. Spirits soar as the Lions push across a couple of runs to make it 7-1.

On the third-base side sit a hodgepodge of parents of the Sparks. One wears a Johnny Damon jersey. Others wear pink "Baseball for All" shirts listing the team's roster. One mother works on a needlepoint design of a kitten. They come to life as Sarah Bruno and Olivia Wilder open the home fifth with back-to-back singles. "Now is the time, girls," calls out one father. "Now is the time!"

In a sense, he's right.

In 2011, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 698 girls who played high school baseball. In California, two girls squared off against each other as starting pitchers in a varsity game one day.

There is now a U.S. national team in women's baseball that competes in the World Cup.

And just down the road, on the second floor of the Hall of Fame, a few feet away from Lou Gehrig's hat from 1939 and the bat Ted Williams used to hit his 500th home run in 1960, is the Little League jersey worn by Chelsea Baker in 2010.

But in a more immediate sense, alas, it is not time. With one out, Trinity Gonzales rips a sinking liner to right center. The right fielder, C.J. Sowards, gets a great read on it and makes a backhand lunge for the ball. It looks for a moment as if he has made the catch, but the trapped ball is merely smothered. With no sight lines, Olivia Wilder is frozen between bases, but then starts sprinting for second. Sowards springs to his feet and fires the ball to the stretching shortstop, creating a force play just ahead of Olivia's slide.

At any level, it's a great baseball play.


Last December, Justine Siegal attended baseball's winter meetings. A 5-7 woman with sandy blonde hair, she comes across, at first, rather meekly. Her manner is soft-spoken, guarded, almost lethargic. But in a baseball context she comes alive. The passion burns through. She pushed through her own resistance to approach members of the baseball establishment -- people like A's general manager Billy Beane and Rays manager Joe Maddon -- with an audacious proposal.

She wanted to pitch batting practice.

Soon she was training hard, running and throwing every day.

A few weeks later, she recoiled at the news of the shootings in Tucson. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been severely wounded when she was shot in the head by a would-be assassin while meeting with constituents in front of the Safeway supermarket. Six people were killed.

The youngest was a 9-year-old third-grader who had just been elected to her student council. She was a Little League ballplayer from a baseball family. Among her ambitions was the goal of becoming the first female big leaguer.

And she had been born on 9/11.

The bookends of this all-too-brief American life were almost too piercing to believe.

On Jan. 12, Siegal's 36th birthday, she heard President Obama's eulogy:

"... Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future ... I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it ... "

In February, Justine Siegal and 13-year-old Jasmine flew to Arizona for spring training. Their first stop was with the team Justine had grown up rooting for. She affixed a CTG patch to the left sleeve of her Indians jersey in support of the Christina-Taylor Green foundation, picked up a major league baseball, and with the cameras rolling, went to work.

"Phenomenal. She did great," Indians catcher Paul Phillips told The Boston Globe. "She fit right in. Had you not seen her ponytails, you would've not thought anything of it."

"This is so cool," Jasmine Siegal told The New York Times. "She's showing that no matter what, you can achieve your goals."

The media were gone the next day, on to other stories. One of the first things Justine Siegal did was to send a text to Lou Presutti, thanking him and his wife for all of their support. He texted back, saying she was one of his heroes. ("I didn't even know he knew how to text," she said.)

Green Family
John, Roxanna and Dallas Green stand with managers Bruce Bochy and Ron Washington during the national anthem before the start of the All-Star Game at Chase Field on July 12 in Phoenix.

Then mother and daughter drove through the desert to Tucson.

Roxanna Green wasn't really taking visitors then. The pain was still so searing. She just wanted to be alone. But there was something about the contact from Justine Siegal that felt different.

"I thought it was important," says Roxanna. "I thought my daughter would want me to meet her."

They spoke for an hour and a half. "There was an instant connection," says Roxanna. "It was brief, but it was really powerful."

Jasmine talked about her passion for art, something Christina had shared. She hung out with Christina's 11-year-old brother, Dallas, who introduced her to his pet geckos. Roxanna and Justine talked about mothers and daughters, about girls playing baseball.

Justine signed a ball for Dallas. It sits, even now, next to Christina's urn.

"It changed my life completely," said Justine, speaking publicly for the first time about the visit. "It's so humbling. I can't believe I'm a part of their story. I don't have words for it."

She would go on to pitch BP for five more teams in spring training: the A's in Arizona, and then the Cardinals, Rays, Mets and Astros in Florida. There were all sorts of sweet and weird moments. Her 88-year-old grandfather, Alvin, showed up at the Cardinals' facility, and she signed a baseball to him, which said, "Follow your dreams." In front of the water cooler at the Rays' camp, Manny Ramirez approached her with the words, "Hey, darling."

With every pitch, she wore the patch. Whenever she got nervous or uncomfortable, she resorted to a one-word mantra to calm herself down.

"Christina."


SIXTH INNING

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Major League Baseball added a tradition. The seventh-inning stretch, long accompanied by a hearty round of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," now often features instead "God Bless America."

Here in the postcard-perfect village of Cooperstown, where games go only six innings, all is quiet, at least in the third-base dugout at Field 19. Next to black Easton and Mizuno bat bags, Justine Siegal stands with ballplayers named Jaime and Lacey and Samantha. They are understandably tired, feeling the toll of the three games yesterday, the collapse into beds in Cabin 25A at 2 a.m.

And now in the single-elimination playoffs, the Sparks are down 7-1 with one out in the bottom of the sixth. Grace White jogs to the plate. She uses her bat to smack some dirt out of her cleats, then holds her right hand up to the umpire to get time. She settles into her stance and stares out at the pitcher.

George White focuses his lens on the action.

A single voice comes from the dugout, a mixture of cicada, model airplane, and spunky 11-year-old.

"Let's go, Gray-see," calls out Trinity Gonzales. "Come on, sevv-inn."

"Let's go, Gray-see! Come on, sevv-inn!"

She hits the ball hard to shortstop and runs full speed for first. The throw beats her by two steps. She jogs back to the dugout.

There are two outs in the last inning and nobody on.

Grace stands next to Trinity and adds to the chorus with a spirited twang.

"Come on, two. Get it started now, kid! Get it started!"

Marty Dobrow contributes a monthly feature to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).