Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Bat boy

(Published June 2011)

Weekdays in June, Charlie Peters puts on his green and yellow uniform and catches a ride to the little diamond on Grover Street.

He’s 13. Shy with blond hair. Still waiting on that growth spurt. He plays left field or second base. Sometimes he pitches.

Tuesday, Charlie skipped Little League.

Something came up. Old friends in town. You know how it is.

He put on his garnet and gray and caught a ride to the massive diamond on Cuming Street. He reported for duty.

Eight years ago, on one of those June days when little boys run through sprinklers, Charlie was lying in a Children’s Hospital bed, hooked to tubes.

Out of the blue, about a dozen college kids stopped by his room to say hi. They stayed more than a half hour. They played make-believe baseball in the lobby — they didn’t have a ball. Charlie took his home run cut, then rounded the bases.

The college kids were from South Carolina. They were baseball players. In town for the College World Series. Trying to capture an athlete’s dream: a national championship.

Charlie had bigger challenges.

In April 2003, he started having tummy trouble. Doctors didn’t know what it was, but his tummy kept growing and growing until it looked like a bowling ball. Finally, the diagnosis:

Burkitt’s lymphoma.

The tumor was doubling in size every 24 hours. Cancer had spread to his abdomen, his liver, his blood. If he makes it through the next 48 hours, the doctor told Charlie’s parents, he has a chance.

Charlie fought it off.

When South Carolina players came to his hospital room, he was a few hours from discharge. Coach Ray Tanner asked if he’d like to come to Rosenblatt Stadium the next day and be the Gamecocks’ honorary bat boy.

Charlie made a poster for the South Carolina dugout and wrote a message on it: “Never give up.”
The game was long, and bald Charlie was weak.

“He could barely stand the heat,” said Charlie’s mom, Jenny. “He kept wanting to sneak back up and sit on my lap for a little bit and then go back down.”

Soon Charlie was back in the hospital. The doctor said his chances weren’t good.

It went on like that most of the year. Finally, in November 2003, Charlie was free of cancer.

The Gamecocks went back to Columbia and hung Charlie’s poster in the training room — “Never give up.” They returned to Omaha in 2004, and Charlie gave them the beanie baby he clung to in the hospital. His good-luck charm.

A few years passed. Charlie went from elementary to middle school. In 2010, South Carolina qualified again for the College World Series. Charlie missed the first game. And the Gamecocks lost.

Coach Tanner called and said, “Where’s my Charlie!”

Next game, Charlie showed up with another poster. It showed a picture of him as a sick 5-year-old. And a picture of him as a healthy 12-year-old. His handwritten message: “I never gave up.”

South Carolina won six straight games and took home the national title.

Coach credited Charlie as an inspiration. He was on the field during the championship celebration. The T-shirt he wore each of the six wins? He framed it.

South Carolina baseball was a force again this spring, top five in the country. Two weeks ago, the Gamecocks clinched the super regional. Charlie ran up and down his street, shouting.

Coach Tanner provided CWS tickets for Charlie’s family.

They sat behind the dugout Sunday night. After the win, Charlie sent Mrs. Tanner a text message asking about Tuesday’s game. Could he go into the South Carolina dugout before the next game?

Karen Tanner did one better. Tuesday morning, Charlie got an invitation to be bat boy.

He entered his bedroom — a “South Carolina emporium,” according to his mom — and put on his Gamecock colors. He showed up at TD Ameritrade Park and waited through a rain delay.

At the conclusion of a South Carolina at-bat, Charlie sprinted from the dugout to home plate, careful not to run into the umpire.

He grabbed the bat, jogged it back to the rack, then returned to his post and waited with the Gamecocks’ regular bat boy — they alternated batters.

South Carolina continued its hot streak, beating Virginia 7-1. That was good baseball, Charlie said. As for the bat boy?

“I don’t think I messed up.”

Suddenly the Gamecocks look like they’ll be in Omaha for a while. They don’t play until Friday.

Today they’ll practice. They’ll rest. Maybe catch a CWS game on TV. But first, they’ll take a trip to Children’s Hospital.

And Charlie Peters is going with them.

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