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For the love of the game

The Rock Hill All-Star team comes in from the field and talks with coaches before batting during a recent tournament in Chester.
The Rock Hill All-Star team comes in from the field and talks with coaches before batting during a recent tournament in Chester.

Editor's Note: Every year at this time, youth league All-Star baseball teams compete for postseason glory. The Herald followed one Rock Hill team this year.

CHESTER -- The kids in the black uniforms with the rust letters that said Rock Hill walked off a Chester baseball diamond Monday night.

The right field scoreboard showed, "Chester 9, Rock Hill 5."

A groundout to Chester's second baseman ended the game and the team's Dixie Youth All-Star tournament. But judging which team won required looking at the scoreboard.

The Rock Hill boys, members of the Rock Hill Dixie Youth Majors American team, weren't crying or hanging their heads. Minutes after the post-game handshakes, they were tackling each other and creating a joyous dog-pile as parents tried to organize them for a team picture.

Despite the ending of their summer baseball, everyone laughed -- even head coach John David Waugh, a competitive 18-year-old who never played on an All-Star team but leapt at the opportunity to coach one.

Like the kids and parents, Waugh chuckled at the players goofing off, because playing postseason baseball is a luxury.

Parents say watching their children play the tournament, regardless of how long it lasts, is worth driving to extra late-night games and practices while subsisting on concession stand hot dogs and candy bars.

For Waugh, the tournament keeps him involved with baseball. And baseball is a link to his brother.

Nearly a year ago, 15-year-old Alex Waugh, a local baseball standout and Northwestern High School student, was killed in a car accident.

A baseball connection

Spring baseball begins in late March with a cluster of kids divided into three leagues, including the Dixie Youth Majors for 11- and 12-year-olds.

At the end of the regular season, the most talented players are asked to form All-Star teams. In Rock Hill, two All-Star units are chosen for Dixie Youth Majors. The teams are called American and National, just like the leagues of Major League Baseball.

On the second practice for the Dixie Youth Majors American team, kids field grounders in the slightly damp infield.

Parents point out the coach, saying he looks like the one of the kids.

They're right.

Wearing white shorts, a navy shirt and a ball cap, the slightly built Waugh knocks balls around the diamond. Recent rains have moistened the dirt, and the ball doesn't bounce as high. One unprepared lanky kid lets the ball roll between his legs.

"Hey, you've got to keep that glove down," Waugh tells his squad. The kids listen. He's obviously in his element.

"Honestly, I think it's because it reminds him of his brother," said Anna Whisennant, Waugh's 15-year-old cousin from Columbia who's watching from the bleachers. "He doesn't want to play, but he wants to be a part of it."

Whisennant said the brothers were very close, and Alex probably would be helping John David coach if he were alive.

"They were best friends," she said.

On Aug. 18, Alex was riding to school in a Chevy Tahoe when the woman who was driving approached standstill traffic she couldn't avoid, authorities said.

The woman swerved off the road, and the passenger's side of the SUV collided with a tree. Alex died at the scene.

"That kid lived and breathed for baseball," John David Waugh said of his brother. "He was a much better player than I was."

Waugh and his younger brother shared a love of baseball. Alex was an Atlanta Braves fan, while John David pulled for the New York Mets. They talked baseball, with John David chiding his younger brother about pulling for a division rival. The two also played catch.

"It was extremely hard," John David said of his brother's death. "It's not something that you get over. It's something that you try to get through. A day doesn't go by when I don't think about him."

Taking the field isn't difficult, Waugh said, noting that he keeps his focus on the kids.

During a regular-season game, Waugh took his coaching spot near third base. Then he drew a No. 8 in the sand.

That was the number Alex wore. It's also the number that Waugh refused to let any of his players wear out of respect for his brother.

Baseball remains a part of who he is and who his brother was.

"Extremely important," Waugh said. "Not only do I enjoy it, I do feel like it is a connection between me and him. ... I enjoy every minute I spend out there with the kids, coaching them and just trying to help them get better. And I think I do. Especially for the Bad Apples."

The Bad Apples

Bad Apples was the name of the Dixie Youth squad Waugh coached during the regular season.

Teams are picked in a draft, where players try out in front of the coaches. But because Waugh inquired about coaching a day after the Dixie Youth Majors tryout, he was forced to pick his team blind.

Waugh's team also lacked a sponsor, so the players and coaches got to decide what they'd be called.

The name 'Bad Apples' emerged from a pair of basketball shorts that an assistant coach wore to practice. The shorts bore the apple emblem of WWE wrestler Carlito.

Although his mother wasn't a fan of the name, the kids were thrilled and their parents didn't mind.

"I wanted to be different," Waugh said. "It's more fun to play for the Bad Apples."

Some parents were concerned about the young manager. Many Dixie Youth coaches are fathers with children on the team. Still, they respected his effort.

"I think it's pretty admirable that an 18-year-old kid wants to coach 12-year-old boys for nothing," said Bruce Hodge, whose son, Stuart, played for both the Apples and the All-Stars.

The players also didn't mind their youthful skipper.

"Even though he was young, he was a pretty cool coach," said Daniel Boland, a lanky pitcher for the Apples and the All-Stars. "He would actually help you remember stuff."

Despite their coach's dedication, the Apples spent their season lurking around the bottom of the barrel. Although they showed moments of brilliance, Waugh said the team mustered a "3-and-how-many-other-games-we-played" record.

But Waugh enjoyed managing the team. He relished watching the kids who came to him not knowing how to properly throw a ball and leave with a fundamental knowledge of the game.

"I love everything about the game of baseball," he said. "To me, there is no other game. I mean, football is a bunch of people ... out there with pads on, and they're hitting each other because they're mad because they didn't make the baseball team."

All-Stars

When the regular season ended, Waugh got a call from Russell Smith, Rock Hill's baseball coordinator. He asked if Waugh would coach an All-Star team.

"I jumped on it," Waugh said. "As soon as he got the words All-Star out of his mouth and said that he was looking for a coach, I said, 'I'm your guy. ... I will do it.'"

The teams travel to smaller competitions where they play other local teams in a round-robin style event. This year, Waugh's team entered the bracket in Chester where they would play the hometown kids and Union.

The All-Star experience also is magical because the kids feel important, said Waugh's assistant coach, Ted Huechtker (pronounced Hector).

"(All-Stars) kind of sets them apart from the other kids," he said. "But not only that, you play each other so much during the regular season. Now, you're going to play somebody else that's not in Rock Hill."

As the boys get older, the competition sharpens. In the tougher world of high school and college baseball, playing time and scholarships become as much a focus as the game itself. But a Dixie Youth field is a place that's just baseball, with a dozen kids, gloves and bats.

"This is kind of the last innocent age," Huechtker said. "It's still all about fun."

The tournament

Huechtker's team started out well last Sunday night with superb pitching and timely hitting against Union, a team coming off a win over Chester the day before.

A key part of the win was Boland, a 5-foot-9 pitcher with a nasty slider for someone who's still in middle school. Sporting locks that stick out of the back of his cap, he looks like a young, right-handed Randy Johnson on the mound.

"Way to go, D," his mother, Jennifer, yelled after a strikeout. In a quieter tone, she said: "By the second game, I won't have a voice. That's part of being a baseball mom."

After three innings, Rock Hill is up 5-1. Union's batters have been limited by both Boland and Jeremy Hyatt, a stout kid with a well-placed fastball.

"Nerve-wracking," is how his dad, Kevin Hyatt, describes watching his son pitch.

Although his son didn't play on Waugh's regular-season team, Hyatt is impressed by the coach.

"He's probably one of the best coaches because he relates to the kids better," he said. "They look at him as a team leader instead of a coach."

Tall, hard-throwing Charley Herron comes in for the final two innings. Herron closes out the game for Rock Hill, preserving the 6-2 win.

After the game, Lisa Edkins calls her husband, Rick, who has been in Union watching their younger son, Conner, play on his All-Star team.

Having played 20 years of softball, Edkins hates not seeing her kids' games.

"Kills me," she said. "I never miss a game. I'm the freak who never misses a practice."

Herron starts the next game against Chester and quickly gets rattled. Waugh replaces him with Hyatt, but the problems continue and Rock Hill is down 7-0 when they come to bat for the first time.

They gradually crawl back into the game and get a huge boost in the bottom of the third inning when Hyatt jacks a pitch over the center field fence.

With the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth, Boland rips a double down the right field line, putting Rock Hill on top, 10-9. Chester ties the game in the top of the fifth, but Rock Hill puts up two more runs in their half of the inning.

Three outs from eliminating Chester from the tournament, Rock Hill falls apart. Errors, mental lapses and a big hit for Chester lead to four runs in the top of the sixth and final inning. Exhausted, Rock Hill can't muster another comeback and falls 14-12.

End of a season

Because this is a double-elimination round, Rock Hill must play Chester the following night. However, like the night before, the team quickly falls behind.

The score is 9-3 after four innings.

"I'm not ready for it to end," said Edkins, knowing her son's All-Star season could soon be over. This tournament was special for Cody, who missed being an All-Star last year when he was hit by a car and broke his ankle.

Despite holding Chester scoreless for the final few innings and getting another huge homer from Hyatt, the team again fell to Chester.

The kids shook hands and returned to the dugout. They didn't seem upset, although their parents looked forlorn.

"Probably harder on us than them," Lisa Edkins said.

But then came the photo and the dogpile and Edkins, along with everyone else, smiled.

Parents also thanked Waugh.

"Appreciate all the time you spent with the kids this year," one guy said.

The coach smiled and said he enjoyed every moment.

The crowd packs up lawn chairs and prepares for the 30-minute drive back to Rock Hill. One mother laments having to cook dinners again. A dad talks about coaching fall baseball.

Someone asks Cody Edkins who won the game.

"We won," he said grinning, "in our hearts."

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