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The Champ

Kevin Eadie, 11, a batboy for the Peninsula Pilots since 2002, suffers from Niemann-Pick Type C, a fatal disease that affects speech, balance and cognitive abilities.
Kevin Eadie, 11, a batboy for the Peninsula Pilots since 2002, suffers from Niemann-Pick Type C, a fatal disease that affects speech, balance and cognitive abilities. (By Lisa Billings For The Washington Post)

"I took you!" he says, taunting. "I won! I won! I won!"

It's early August, and Kevin's in the sun room at his house in Williamsburg, happily showing off. Kevin is a ham for any kind of camera and a total ham for anyone he considers a new friend.

"You have pretty hair," he'll say, and Brenda, laughing, will tell him once again he should be a politician.

As always, Kevin has woken up in a great mood, happy, ready, eager to go. Last night was tougher. As a treat, Brenda let Kevin take the bus with the Pilots to his only road game of the season. Dylan came along, too, and Mom, and they watched "School of Rock" on the 90-minute bus ride to Edenton. It was raining. Kevin, alone, remained optimistic: They would play, he said. He was sure of it.

Then Matt Matulia, the team's star hitter, stuck his head into the visitors' dugout, where Kevin was waiting, eagerly, with his mom, and delivered the bad news: a rainout.

Kevin's face crumpled, Matulia says, and the boy who almost never cries -- not when his legs fail him and he falls, headfirst, down the steps of the dugout; not when a player asks him, unthinkingly, if he wishes he could play baseball -- began to weep.

* * *

In the waiting room at Children's Hospital in Richmond, Kevin stares, slack-jawed, at the cartoons on television. He looks tired. His eyes are glassy. After his seizure in June, he spent two days undergoing tests. Today is the follow-up appointment.

The news, when it comes from the doctor, is surprising: Kevin never gets to any significant, restful stage of sleep at night. This is affecting his daytime activities and could have been one of the triggers to the seizure. The recommendation is Valium. Brenda is hesitant about drugs -- she's wary of anything that might exacerbate any of Kevin's symptoms. As she and the doctor go back and forth about side effects, Kevin suddenly starts to act out. He makes loud noises, waves his arms around, repeatedly interrupts their conversation.

Brenda tolerates it for a while, then brings out the ultimate threat: "Do you want to go to the game tonight?" Tonight is the Pilots' final home game. He quiets down.

Afterward, in the hallway, Brenda is pensive. "I think maybe he uses humor in a difficult situation," she says suddenly. She is not sure how much Kevin understands about his condition. No one is, not even his doctors.

He doesn't like to talk about it. And he almost never complains. In a letter he wrote at school last Thanksgiving, he declared himself thankful for being "alive and well." Returning players say they have a hard time watching Kevin's decline -- until they talk to him and realize it doesn't seem to bother Kevin.

"He doesn't think he got a raw deal," says pitcher Rich Litwin with some measure of amazement. "If he feels that way, how do you complain about anything?"

In the car, driving from Richmond to the ballpark, Brenda says she is thinking of taking a leave of absence from work. Restarting Kevin's physical therapy. Getting more pro-active about his treatment and the fundraising to help research a cure. She doesn't say it then, but she's also thinking of returning to Hawaii, where she and Kevin spent last summer.

For whatever reason -- the weather, the air, the ocean, the volcanic ash, the collective sense of ease -- Brenda is convinced that Kevin blossoms, physically, in Hawaii, his favorite vacation spot. So last year, right after Kevin was fitted for a wheelchair as a precautionary measure, Brenda took the whole summer off and they went to Hawaii. He did intensive physical therapy. That's where she found the doctor who is experimenting with the Botox shots.

"It did make a difference, I could see it," she says. It is hard, sometimes, being the pillar of hope.

* * *

The last out of the last game of the 2005 Peninsula Pilots baseball season comes with a double play for a 3-1 Pilots victory. The players gather on the field for an ad hoc end-of-the-season ceremony; the kids press up against the fence gate, impatient for their chance to run.

On the field, Kevin pushes his walker behind Morgan as he goes from player to player, giving hugs, saying goodbyes. Leaning against the wall behind the plate, watching, Brenda lets out a sigh.

"Oh, he loves that man."

Maybe this will be Kevin's last night as batboy. Maybe not. Morgan admits he worries that by next year Kevin might be in a wheelchair. It might be too risky, too dangerous to have him on the field with the players.

"If we have to, we'll park him at the door and we'll let him sell tickets," Morgan says. "As long as we have a place to play and a team, he'll have a job."

It's a harder image for Brenda to consider.

"Oh," she says, and she pauses for a moment. "I try not to think about that."

A few minutes later, the gate is opened, and for one last time this summer, kids stream out to home plate, line up, and off they go, around the bases, once, twice, three times: a little girl, no more than 4, in a white blouse and cutoff bluejeans. Two tall boys in crew cuts and Yankees caps, who knock over others as they go tearing around third base. The big kid in the turquoise T-shirt whose footsteps thunder. By the dozens, they loop around, tagging each of the bases, youthful legs pumping effortlessly in a timeless rite of summer.

At home plate, Brenda gently takes the walker away from Kevin, hands it to a friend. She pulls him up straight, and toward her, her right arm supporting his weight. He looks surprised, but he knows what she's planning. His left arm encircles her waist. Together, they begin to run.

It's more of a lope, really, one lopsided step after another, barely faster than a walk. The boys in the Yankees caps whiz past them; so does the little girl in the cutoff shorts. They touch first, and Brenda props Kevin up a little tighter. They round second, and as they come into third, Brenda's face is a mixture of joy and determination. "Let's make it home!" she says, and though she is supporting almost all of his weight now, both their feet -- hers bare, his in his black cleats -- pick up the pace in the orange-brown clay. Ten more steps, nine, eight . . . and then they are crossing the plate.

"Nice job! Nice job!" Brenda says, pulling off Kevin's cap and kissing his cheek.

The crowd swallows them up -- players are signing autographs, posing for pictures. Kids beg for a bat, or at least a ball.

After a few moments, a few hugs, Morgan helps Kevin get his walker, head to the car. As always, he tucks him into the back seat, fastens his seat belt.

"Did you have a good summer?" There is a slight twinge in Morgan's voice.

"Yeah," Kevin answers, grinning.

"I love you, buddy." Morgan is leaning in close now, their heads almost touching.

"I know," Kevin says, the smile wider.

He starts to chortle on the drive home in the dark, making silly noises, begging for a late-night trip to Wal-Mart. He is hyper, energized. Happy.

"I was so proud of you tonight," Brenda says, turning to look at Kevin in the darkened back seat. "You did a good job. You did such a good job running the bases."

Kevin starts singing along to the radio.

Brenda's eyes are shining. Her mood is buoyant.

"I knew he could make it," she says. "I knew it."

* * *

Six days later, Brenda and Kevin Eadie boarded a plane to Hawaii.

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