Back on the diamond
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 29, 2012 1:46 PM
Jake May, right, and Benito Avil look up at a fellow baseball player Tuesday at Eastern Wayne High School. May was recently diagnosed with cancer, but still attended his baseball team's opening game, where his team dedicated the season to him. Since his diagnosis, May has received a tremendous amount of support from his teammates and the community.
It's the bottom of the seventh inning and Eastern Wayne needs a rally.
Their home opener isn't unfolding the way they hoped it would.
The bats just won't wake up.
"Come on, boys," a man yells from his seat on the bleachers. "Let's get it going."
Ultimately, they never did.
Within a few moments, it was official.
The Warriors had fallen 4-1.
One young man took a deep breath and looked up at the sky.
Others hung their heads.
But when the Warriors lined up to congratulate the team that outplayed them Tuesday evening, they had something to celebrate -- a victory that can't be measured in strikeouts logged or runs scored.
No. 15 had been with them for every pitch.
Jake May had, again, beaten the odds stacked against him when a doctor told the 17-year-old he had leukemia.
It's nearly an hour before game time and Jake is just outside the dugout.
He's wearing a mask, but not the one he typically sports on the diamond.
The gear he longs to don protects him from foul tips and fastballs.
The one he showed up in keeps germs from infecting the immune system chemotherapy has taken its toll on since Jake began treatment several weeks ago.
"We were up at the hospital last week for the chemo and he got sick. We didn't think he was gonna get to come home for a while," the boy's father, Roger, said. "Well, when they told him he was gonna get to come home, his face just lit up. He knew he was gonna get to be here.
"Yeah, he'd be upset if he were still at Duke. This is where he wants to be. He loves these guys."
And they love him.
They proved it when, just a few days after his diagnosis, they organized a fundraiser for his family -- when they took to the interstate to ensure he wasn't alone in his room at Duke Hospital.
They wore it in the form of a patch on their sleeves Tuesday -- and proclaimed it when a pre-game announcement revealed that their season would be dedicated to their catcher.
"I can't say enough about these guys making him feel welcome -- that he's still a part of this team," Roger said. "Baseball is a fraternity -- probably one of the best fraternities you can be a part of. It's a brotherhood. And I just hope they know how much this means to Jake."
It started with blurry vision, a "throbbing" head and shortness of breath.
But when the young man's fever spiked to 104.7, his mother, Cindy, began to worry.
"The doctor said, 'I think it's a virus, but if I can't get a hold of this, I'm not going to try to be a hero,'" Cindy said last month. "He said, 'If it keeps up, I'm going to send you to Duke or Chapel Hill.'"
The family ended up in Durham.
And after a battery of tests, the 17-year-old who had, until that point, been focused on preparing for the upcoming baseball season, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The news was devastating.
But another surprise was on the horizon -- one Jake and his parents still have trouble putting into words.
The community was rallying behind the young man.
A movement, of sorts, was unfolding back in Wayne County.
"I get messages every day on Facebook that say, 'I don't know you, but I'm praying for you.' I wish I could respond to every one of them," Jake said a few weeks after the diagnosis. "It makes it easier to know that there are people out there praying 24/7. So I'm very thankful for them. I mean, there are people I don't even know praying every day. It means a lot."
And his team had vowed to do something special for their catcher -- to raise awareness about leukemia, to collect money, to win a championship this season on Jake's behalf.
"This is a great group of guys," Roger said. "They have a lot of character."
And Jake made a promise, too -- that when the Warriors opened their season, he would be in the dugout -- still providing the calming influence his teammates characterized as a game changer.
"I'll be there," he said. "That's my team."
The sun had set and the crowd had dissipated, but the Warriors were still on the field -- raking the mound and batter's box; tossing chunks of dirt off the infield.
Jake looked on all the while.
"It's tough because he really wants to be a part of this," Roger said. "But I told him, 'You've still got a lot of baseball ahead of you.' His goal is to try and make the Legion team next summer."
The boy's father doesn't doubt that he'll reach his goal.
Especially now that he's been back to the diamond.
"I think he's been down a little bit, but you know, being out here and seeing the green grass, it just changed his whole mindset," Roger said.
And being with his teammates -- his "brothers" -- gives him a kind of strength no medicine ever could.
"They've been wonderful for Jake. They've been there every step of the way," he said. "I just can't say enough about that."