Somerville, Mass, June 28, 2008 --
The rules are simple enough for the kids playing in the stickball tournament this morning in Kelly Park: There are to be three people to a team. There are four innings per game. Two outs per inning. You walk on three balls. You strike out on two strikes. The second strike can be a foul ball.
Any ground ball not stopped or caught is a single. If you hit the ball over the double court line without it being caught or stopped, you have hit a double. If you smack the ball hard off the fence, you have a triple. And if you hit the ball entirely over the fence, of course, you have hit a home run. If you hit a deep foul ball over the fence, it is unclear whether it is to be counted as a foul ball or home run. In that case, the final decision is left to the whim of a grown up or the good will of the opposing team.
If you are eleven years old, and get a chance to bat, there are apparently traditions to uphold: You must wear an oversized Red Sox jersey with the name Papelbom on the back. (That is the Sox's closer for those not literate in such things. In an earlier time, one would have had the name Garciaparra on their jersey.) You dramatically roll your head from side to side to get the hair out of the eyes. Then you check the stick to make sure you are hitting at the ball from the ride end. (This is very important; however you hope that nobody sees you doing this.) Then you dig hard into the pavement with your converse high tops, lean way way back on your heels, and then smack at the ball -- eyes closed allowed -- with all of your eleven year old might. Whether you hit the ball or not, all is right with the world.
You hope you hit the ball of course. But if you don't, you still get to have your face painted, hang with the older kids, have a hot dog with anything you want it on it -- and then if you are really, really lucky you get to sit on your big brother's shoulder to watch the dedication of the square to an older boy in the neighborhood.
The corner of Cragie and Summer is to be renamed in dedication for another little boy who once played stick ball in this park. There are two honor guards, one of which will fire off live rounds, interrupting the morning quiet and send singing birds scattering. A representative of the mayor will say a few words.
This is the unveiling for a new street sign dedicating Spc. Nicholas Peters Square.
Nick served of duty in Iraq and came home in one piece while so many of his friends were not so fortunate. He survived the war but not the peace. Stationed at Ft. Hood, in Texas, someone in a bar did not like the fact that he was wearing a Red Sox jersey and killed him.
Days after his killing, his baseball coach would say: "I can still see a 6 year old Nick skating at the rink and at 8 years old hitting a baseball." Nick's little niece, her mother, Shanna, told me the morning of the stickball tournament, still sees Nick all the time. She declares to her mom: "Uncle is laughing at you!" One day while coloring, she nonchalantly orders: "Uncle! Color within the lines!"
Who is to tell her that she is wrong to believe that her uncle is still with her?
The stickball tournament in not just in honor of Nick, but also his friend, David Martini, who played stickball and baseball and hockey with Nick, and who too has died too young. All together, four other boys who played stickball with Nicholas Peters in Kelly Park have died too young deaths -- victims of senseless violence, suicide, or drug overdoses.
When I return home from Somerville to Washington D.C., I find out that my friend Brian has been shot on the street because apparently the two kids robbing him did not think he was willing to hand over his cell phone fast enough. Even though he is shot three times, he is alright -- albeit with one less spleen.
Unable to sleep, I go online and watch over and over again Bobby Kennedy's speech on the menace of violence in America which he gave on April 5, 1968: "The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old famous and unknown. They are most important of all human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one can be certain who suffer next from senseless act of violence. And yet it goes on and on and on...
"Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily... Whenever we tear a the fabric of he lives which some other man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children -- whenever we do this -- the nation is degraded."
The next morning I have to go visit Brian in the hospital to see with my own eyes that he is all right. He smiles, banters with friends, nods off, and we are all reassured.
But what amazes everyone is that despite being shot three times, Brian somehow either walked or ran an entire block and one half to put some distance between himself and the shooter before the police could arrive. It makes no sense and perfect sense. He wanted to get to a safe place.
My thoughts return to that eleven year old kid playing in the stickball tournament. You want him to be safe. You think maybe you should have a heart to heart and tell him that when he gets older all that he has to do is not wear that Red Sox jersey certain places. If only it were that simple.
To watch a Youtube video of Robert Kennedy's speech as well as read a longer version of this column, click here.
Murray Waas can be reached via his Facebook page.