Of all the players in the Pioneer League, James Littlejohn was a child apart. He was one of the game's best athletes this season, a 13-year-old kid who once slugged a ground ball to the shortstop, accidentally ran 10 yards astray of the first base chalk line, tripped and fell on his stomach, dusted himself off, but still got up and reached base in time before his opponent could put him out.
In the Pioneer League, where the bases and balls emit sound for the players to target and where everyone is blind, that remarkable feat has become a legend. But there was something else about James Littlejohn that set him apart in the league's season of hits and homers.
He was one of the few who once could see.
He lost his sight just last year after a long fight with congenital cataracts and for quite some time, seeing how depressed he was, his family worried.
Gradually, though, he rebounded with the help of two soulmates: His best friend, 11-year-old Jason Stradone, a boy blind since birth who showed him how to laugh and joke again, and his sister, 9-year-old Kim, a little girl who combs his hair and helps him dress in the morning and is slowly but surely losing her vision through the same disease.
In the Pioneer League, where blindness is the norm and efforts to cope with it are raised to an art, the tale of Jason Stradone and James and Kim Littlejohn stands as something of a masterpiece. "To see them together," says Sylvia Stradone, Jason's mother, "well, sometimes I do a double-take and get the wonderful feeling there's nothing to worry about in the world."
When his sister asks what it is like being blind, James answers, "Dark mostly, but sometimes I see spots." In moments when she is most uneasy he tells her the darkness really isn't so awful and not to be afraid. In turn, she guides him around their Gaithersburg neighborhood on errands to the store and visits to friends.
With his friend Jason, he straps gloves on his hands and boxes. They pedal bikes and scramble atop monkey bars. They sit before the television set and listen to horror movies late at night. And with their arms around each other's shoulders, they guide one another through their homes, neighborhoods and childhood with an uncanny sense of place. Today, more than a year after he lost his sight, James Littlejohn is able to say that blindness is not so much a catastrophe or curse as an accepted fact of his life. "I'm just like everybody else in the world," he says with a trace of pride. "It's just I can't see."
On Field Two at Olney Manor Park, home of the Pioneer League, trouble is a stranger. There it is always a season of celebration in a place where the worldly troubles of being blind are forgotten for a while.
But off the field, life can be something else. The players and their families can relate an endless list of tales that show how vulnerable a blind person's life can be in a society in which everyone else has an added sense. They can tell you about the blind man who fell onto the tracks of Metro, or the fellow who hitchhiked across the country in the futile search for a job. Controversies such as the one over whether blind people should be able to serve on juries are nothing new to them.
To be blind and find happiness truly requires a touch of the artist, a dash of creativity -- an ability, in short, to discover and preserve a place for oneself. Sometimes finding that place takes brain work. Sometimes it takes one's fists. But often it just takes heart.
Among the parents of the Pioneer players a realization such as that one comes only after they endure a jumble of emotions that often range between terror and anxiety, confusion and guilt, anger and recrimination.
"At first, I raged at God," said Marlene Smith, mother of 11-year-old Brian Smith, who, at birth, suffered cancer of the eyes, both of which were removed by the time he was a year and a half old. "I really thought God let me down. I mean, why my son? Then came a period of guilt -- real, deep guilt. I think the woman feels that more strongly because she's the one who carries the child for nine months. I thought, did dying my hair have something to do with it? Or having a drink? Or years of birth control?
"All these weird feelings started coming," she said, "until I reached a point where I said, boy, thank God he's alive."
For the players, coping is a more fundamental thing. Rosemarie Rupard, a 14-year-old girl blind, like Smith, because of cancer, uses her ears like finely tuned recording instruments to distinguish the songs of bluebirds, cardinals and robins. Barry Campbell, a 20-year-old who is legally blind but able to distinguish some light from shadow, plays video games and savors his favorite sights as much as any master photographer. "Sunset, flying back from Florida to Washington, the reds and oranges and blue," he says, clicking off just a few. "Meteor shower at Assateague. Summertime, and the girls on the Eastern Shore."
For Brian Smith, a boy who had to endure the pain of being outfitted with artificial plastic eyes, coping started in the cradle. He has never been able to see, and thus doesn't know what light or darkness is. But with an IQ of 137, and an inquisitive, logical mind, he is able to understand, in the abstract, the nature of light and vision.
"Light," he says, "is just a particle of energy. When it hits something you are able to get an impression of it with your eyes. It's just one part of the electromagnetic spectrum and that includes everything from x-rays, radio, television, microwaves, and so on."
This is a child who copes with blindness by using his mind. Unable to find a periodic chart of the chemical elements in braille, he once constructed one with cardboard and scissors. And among the first words his parents taught him as a child were, "bilateral retinoblastoma," so that when strangers asked, as they often do, why he is the way he is, Brian Smith can answer them with a certain dignity.
Stradone, the brown-haired 11-year-old blind because of retinal atrophy, learned to adapt at the same time he learned to crawl. "When a child can't see he has no reason to crawl," Sylvia Stradone said. "We had to create a reason, and that was his sense of touch." With the help of counselors from the Montgomery County schools' Vision Services Program, she devised a patchwork quilt, made up of different textures and fabrics. "Jason would feel for one patch and crawl toward it, then another, and another, and eventually he learned to crawl."
He used his remaining senses to explore and understand. Trips to grocery shops and department stores became extended expeditions to other worlds. On his hands and knees, he feels the various textures of walls and floors. He grasps tomatoes, oranges or cucumbers, and smells candy and popcorn. And if you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he'll answer "a garbage man," for the sounds they make in the morning are so robust.
He learned to ride and turn a tricycle by dragging one foot along the grass border of a sidewalk, steering the vehicle when the grass changed direction. He learned to ride a bicycle, enduring incalculable scrapes, only after a kid younger than he, challenged him.
But it was in school, where he is one of 210 visually impaired children mainstreamed into Montgomery County's public system, that Jason Stradone truly discovered the artist's touch. "For years he'd come off the playground crying," Sylvia Stradone says. "Kids would taunt him and make fun, calling him "blind boy" and "retarded." She would say to him, "Jason, you've got to fight it, don't let them get the better of you. You are here to instruct them, to show them."
"Then," she said, "I'd cry hysterically after sending him off there again. They'd actually punch him and beat him. He really couldn't defend himself until he found a way, on his own, to get back. He would grab an arm or a leg and hold on and just use his teeth. He bit.
"One of the proudest moments of my life was one night when a parent came over and said, 'look what your child did to my son.' There were these two superficial marks on the child's arm. Well, I was flabbergasted. I couldn't help smiling. I said, 'How do you expect him to defend himself?' You see, Jason handled it."
Jason is clearly happiest, though, in the company of James Littlejohn, his boxing mate and summer comrade. He knows James is black, he said, and he knows he is something called "white," but he doesn't really know what skin color or racism mean. "I know his hair feels different and he talks a little different," Jason says. "But, no, I don't know what black and white is."
Littlejohn lost his sight after a series of unsuccessful operations last year in which surgeons attempted to implant crystals on his retinas to strengthen them. His mother, Barbara Battle, seeing him slumped in corners by himself, was so concerned about the depression and his health that she took him to a chiropractor to see about straightening his spine.
He came back, though, with the help of Stradone, who phoned him many times while he was in the hospital, and his 9-year-old sister Kim, for whom, he says, "I gotta be a big brother."
At night when he is asleep, Littlejohn said, he often sees himself in his dreams leaping for touchdowns and shooting hoops, only to awake in the morning to darkness. But he has learned to cope. Stradone helped teach him braille and he wrote short stories like "The Magic Dog" and "The Talking Plant." He put together fanciful space epics on a tape recorder, replete with household special effects.
And when it came time to contend with strangers who insisted on making him feel as if he were humanly different, he found a way -- like Stradone on the playground -- to find and preserve a place for himself. One August afternoon, guided by an instructor with the schools' vision program, he learned how to take the bus and subway from his Gaithersburg house to the Northeast Washington home of his father, who is also blind.
It was a rite of passage for Littlejohn, who amid the bustle of commuters scurrying to work, discovered how to discern the different echoes voices and traffic make in confined and open spaces. He found out how to purchase a Metro card in the Silver Spring station, and how to tap his cane along the platform tiles for the correct place to stand.
The expedition took two and one-half hours to complete, hours full of noises and smells. "This is the door, right?" he asked, as the subway car door opened, and his instructor answered "Yes," both of them remembering the story of a blind man who once accidentally stepped between cars of the subway, thinking the space was an open door. Finally, after slowly making his way along litter-strewn sidewalks to his father's house, they arrived to find his father wasn't home.
Moments later, on Benning Road, while trying to decide whether to stop for lunch or head back to Gaithersburg, a woman in a red hat, bearing a leatherbound Bible, walked up to Littlejohn. "You know God loves you, don't you son? He cares for everyone in the world, especially the retarded." Turning to a visitor who accompanied Littlejohn that day, she quickly insisted, "It's all right. I know how to work with kids like him. I teach at a school for the retarded."
Littlejohn, however, was apparently in no mood to suffer the unsought sympathy of strangers. With his hands resting atop his cane, and with as much patience and dignity as he could muster, he sighed heavily. "Maam," he replied, before turning and walking away, "I ain't retarded."
Among all the players, no story of coping is quite as unusual as that of Michael Redding, a diminutive 16-year-old who is blind, nearly deaf and suffers from kidney failure. As if that weren't enough, on the night of May 26, two D.C. police officers from the Child Abuse and Neglect Department showed up unannounced on the Redding's doorstep. They told Michael's bewildered parents that they were responding to a report that a child's life was in jeopardy there.