Sometimes, between innings, when an umpire needs a few fresh baseballs, a smile lights up the batboy's pale blue eyes and he heads out to the plate. He steadies himself with his walker, careful in the sometimes treacherous grass. A dozen deliberate steps and back.
It's not the rare disorder slowly crippling his body and stealing his mind that defines 11-year-old Kevin Eadie. It's these summer nights. This field, this team, this game. As he leans up against the fence in front of the dugout, watching every pitch, checking the scoreboard after every half-inning, he's another member of the Peninsula Pilots.
It doesn't matter that his voice is a bit garbled as he calls out to the mound.
"Pitcher, pitcher, pitcher," he taunts.
"Are you scared?"
Kevin seemed normal as a baby, save for an enlarged liver doctors couldn't explain. Three years and many, many tests later, a sliver of Kevin's skin studied at the National Institutes of Health revealed the reason. His parents, Bob and Brenda Eadie, got the diagnosis Jan. 27, 1997. The date is seared in memory.
Kevin hit what Brenda calls the "not-wanted lottery." Niemann-Pick Type C is a rare and fatal neurological disease that gradually robs children of their ability to walk, speak, eat and think. To get it, both parents have to be carriers of the gene -- only 1 in 200 people are -- and even then, there is only a 25 percent chance a child will be born with the condition.
Bob and Brenda Eadie's only son is one of those children.
With Niemann-Pick Type C, the body has difficulty metabolizing proteins, which leads to a buildup of cholesterol that gradually destroys the brain. The process is different in each person -- some children die swiftly, others live into their twenties. Generally, according to Marc Patterson, a pediatric neurologist and Columbia University professor, the earlier a child begins to show outward symptoms of physical decline, the faster the disease claims him.
The slow, steady assault on Kevin's body first started showing outward effects about two years after the diagnosis.
In kindergarten, he had more falls and tumbles than the average 5-year-old.
In first grade, his teacher taught him how to run his hand along the wall in the school's hallways to help him keep his balance.
In second grade, his fine motor skills deteriorated, slowly making it more and more difficult to write.
In third grade, he needed a full-time aide and did his work, with her help, on a computer.
In fourth grade, his ability to walk began to decline notably.
And on the last day of fifth grade, he had his first seizure.
Along the way, Kevin also lost something else. Kevin got his first T-ball set when he was 2. When he was old enough, he joined the local league with his friends. Baseball was his passion. He loved going to Norfolk Tides games with his father. He told his parents he wanted to be a major league player when he grew up.
By 8, though, he no longer had the coordination to play organized ball. It was a terrible blow.
But then, in a most unexpected twist, baseball's magic found its way back into this little boy's life.
People deal with horrific circumstances in dramatically different ways. Each has his or her own coping mechanism; outsiders often can't understand them. But what if it were your child? Your baby? Is it best to accept the inevitable? Or is that giving up? Is fighting what the scientific community calls a hopeless cause righteous, or is it denial?
When the doctor told Brenda and Bob Eadie that the recommended "treatment" was merely to "go home and enjoy what time you have with your child," she rebelled. Brenda spent every free hour researching the disease, writing letters to celebrities begging them to promote the disease, trying to raise money for the National Niemann-Pick Foundation. She converted the family to vegetarianism, hoping that would help hold down Kevin's cholesterol. She angled for months to have Kevin included in a drug trial, only to see him start to waste away, stricken with horrible bouts of diarrhea. She turned to alternative and holistic healers -- at one point flying Kevin to Hawaii for a series of Botox shots in hopes they would reduce the dystonia that causes his feet to curve inward, his wrists to curl.
She traffics in hope. At some point, they have to find a cure. Why not in time for her son?
"I've always felt that somehow Kevin was going to get into that window where we're able to save his life, because Kevin is a special guy," Brenda, 47, says. "I have to believe that."
Bob, 53, heard that there was no cure for his son's condition and began what he calls a "long-term grieving process." The five-year marriage had already been strained; within four months of Kevin's diagnosis his parents were separated. Brenda moved with Kevin from their home in Vermont to the Virginia peninsula where she had grown up. Bob visited, took Kevin fishing, to Busch Gardens, to Norfolk Tides games. Eventually, he, too, moved south, to Williamsburg. He sees Kevin two weekends a month. He anticipates a day when Kevin needs long-term, round-the-clock care. He calls himself a realist. He knows that his son is going to die.
"I don't blame Brenda or any mom for trying to reach out and do anything you can to try and help these children," Bob says. "Because there isn't a cure . . . I feel she's kind of reaching out for what she wants to see. She's grasping at straws and wishing for something to happen that won't."
As for Kevin -- who does not really understand what is happening to him, and likely never will, given that his cognitive function declines as well -- it's harder to assess how he copes with the situation. He rarely, if ever, talks about his physical condition. His parents know only this: Kevin's path through this crisis led him here, to the dugout at War Memorial Stadium in Hampton.
Kevin steps away from his walker and stands in a line with the players as the national anthem begins. It's a sticky night in the middle of July, the team from the Outer Banks in town. Just for a moment, he wobbles, and a hand quickly reaches out, clutches a fistful of his white jersey and keeps him from falling.
"Okay, buddy?" the man says.
Four years ago, a Hampton local named Henry Morgan bought the Peninsula Pilots, a Coastal Carolina League team made up of college ballplayers looking to improve their games -- and maybe impress a scout -- during the summer. It's the kind of league where fans win pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners just for attending, where foul balls occasionally dent car hoods in the parking lot and the local kids get to run the bases after every game.
Three years ago, Brenda walked into the Pilots' offices because she'd heard that the team would let her sell tickets to the game and donate some of the profits to charity. Kevin, then 8, came with her.
Morgan fell for Kevin from the start. He listened to Brenda's plea, joshed a little with Kevin, talked baseball. And Kevin became his batboy. Morgan will tell you he has two kids and four grandkids -- and Kevin. At the park, he is often Kevin's shadow. In the off-season, they get together, go to local college baseball games, talk on the phone. Kevin will call, ask about the roster: How is Joey Roenker doing? How is Jimmy Toms doing? What teams are we going to play next year? Who is coming back?
"He grabbed onto my heart with both hands and he hasn't let go," Morgan says.
It used to be that the local kids took turns at being the Pilots' batboy or batgirl. The first year, Kevin had help from an older kid, but by the second season he was doing it on his own. Brenda has a video of him from those days, his limbs so much looser than they are now, his legs easily loping to the plate.
"You should have seen him then," Jewell Reid, Brenda's sister, says wistfully as she watches Kevin now.
On this July night, as always, Dylan Moody, 10, is next to Kevin by the dugout. He calls her his "apprentice." "She helps me when I need help," Kevin explained earlier, while clowning around in the bleachers before the game. Then he patted her on the head like a puppy. She gave him a silly smirk back.
When he speaks, Kevin's voice is slow, halting, slightly slurred. He often has trouble getting out the words that have formed in his head. That doesn't deter him. He'll tell you all about himself, how he loves night shopping trips to Wal-Mart and foosball and doing homework (okay, he admits, that one wasn't true). He brags about how many songs he can sing. This time, he isn't teasing.
"Welcome to the Hotel California," he chortles. It's the sixth inning, and the music is coming over the loudspeakers, and as he sings along, Kevin gives his hips a little wiggle.
From their box behind the dugout -- at War Memorial Stadium, a "box" consists of a patch of concrete with some lawn chairs and a plastic table -- Brenda watches, along with Reid and her husband, Larry, and family friend Pat Okrasinski ("Aunt Pat," Kevin calls her). They are Kevin's other team, and Brenda's support system. Brenda's a flight attendant for United who flies out of Dulles (Bob is a pilot), and her family -- along with nannies -- covers for her when she has to be away. This summer, though, Brenda took every vacation day she had to make sure he didn't miss a Pilots game.
"Get a hit!" Kevin says as outfielder Mike Mitchell walks by, and he pats him on the helmet on his way to the on-deck circle. Roenker, the pitcher, stops for a thumb-wrestling match, which Kevin wins, as always. "You cheat!" he teases. Kevin giggles, then, out of the blue, throws his arms wide and embraces the player in an unexpected hug. Roenker looks caught off-guard, but only for a split second. He hugs back. Fiercely.
Kevin sits down on the seat attached to his walker. Sometimes he gets a little tired, but he always makes it to the end, even on the night the game went 16 innings. Brenda unwraps a vegetarian hot dog and starts adding the ketchup, the relish, the mustard. Just the way he likes it. "He must be so hungry by now," she says. She reaches through the gate, hands the hot dog to her son.
Sometimes, it takes some effort for Kevin to swallow -- another symptom of the disease. But Kevin wolfs it down.
"My guys are sooo mad now!" Kevin says, trying to make a mean face. A foosball game is on, and he's down, 6-5. Using the levers on the table to maintain his balance, he leans in, waiting for the next ball to drop. Blue scores again. 7-5.
"My guys are soooo angry now!" he says.
But he stages a comeback, scores four straight points, then goes in for the kill when the game's eventually tied at 9. Victory! He does a little dance and, like the older players he adores, tries to talk a little smack.
"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.