Season of Miracles

Season of Miracles

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Season of Miracles

As they listened to a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” twelve young ballplayers anxiously awaited the opening game of junior baseball in North Charleston, South Carolina. Feelings ran high among the seven-and eight-year-olds, members of the Steve Evans Reds.

One of the Reds, Jason Ellis “E. J.” Fludd, eight, hovered near third-base coach Sandra Evans. “Aunt Sandy,” E. J. asked searchingly, “is Coach Stevie up there watching us?”

Sandy, thirty-two, answered softly. “Yes, E. J. I think Steve’s spirit is right here with us.”

“Play ball!” the umpire shouted. Sandy, tears welling, watched her team dash onto the field. This season is for you, Steve, she thought, as her mind drifted back to a year earlier.

“Sandy, we have a dinner guest,” Steve Evans called out as he strolled in the front door. Just home from baseball practice, Steve had with him a shy, black youngster the players all called E. J.

Steve always had a soft spot for kids. An easygoing thirty-four-year-old with reddish hair and a lanky frame, he had volunteered to coach the team. In the early spring of 1991, he’d rush home from his job as an insulation installer to get to the practice field.

Patient and encouraging, Steve proved an ideal coach for the restless, diverse group of youngsters—some white, some black, others Asian. “Several come from troubled backgrounds,” he told Sandy. “I’m coaching to help them feel better about themselves.”

One boy, E. J., laughed harder—and played harder— than all the others. He lived with his mother, who worked long hours as a cook at the Charleston Air Force Base. Having little contact with his father, E. J. was lonely much of the time. After every practice, he would give Steve a bear hug and say, “Thanks, Coach Stevie.”

At dinner that first evening, E. J. won over the entire family. Soon he was coming regularly for dinner, often staying overnight. Sandy became “Aunt Sandy.” Steve would include E. J. in family softball games with his son Timmy, twelve, daughter Stephanie, ten, and four nephews—Thomas, Steven and David Evans, and James Garvin. The four nephews played with E. J. on the team.

The only bad news that year was at the ballpark—where Steve’s team lost game after game. E. J. would slump in dejection at every defeat, or when he made an error.

During one losing game, Steve put an arm around the boy. “Hold your head up, E. J.,” he said. “You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

Steve then pulled out an Atlanta Braves baseball card. “See this?” he asked. “One day your picture will be on one of these.”

E. J.’s eyes lit up. “You mean I could play for the Braves someday?”

“Sure, as long as you keep working hard and don’t give up. You shouldn’t ever give up on anything.”

Then, on June 17, 1991, an uncle of Steve’s told Sandy there had been an explosion at a chemical plant, where Steve was working that day. After a dozen fruitless phone calls to the area hospitals, Sandy heard the crushing news from Steve’s employer. Steve had been killed when a chemical reactor exploded. Sandy slumped to the floor, all feeling draining out of her.

Sandy was seventeen, just out of high school, when she married Steve in 1976. They’d both grown up in modest neighborhoods. Once, while they were dating, the washing machine owned by Sandy’s family broke down, and there was no money to buy a new one. Steve found a beat-up washer, fixed it, then gave it to Sandy’s family. The thoughtfulness left Sandy stunned.

After Steve and Sandy were married, money remained tight—but they still had fun. Steve loved driving Sandy and the children to Florida’s Disney World, or spending a day “tubing” on nearby lakes and rivers.

Now Sandy sat in the funeral home, numb with grief. Looking up, she saw Steve’s team, in their uniforms, file slowly in. A few minutes later, Sandy noticed E. J., tears pouring down his cheeks, as he sat with his mother.

“He hasn’t stopped crying since Steve died,” E. J.’s mother said. Sandy opened her arms wide, and E. J. climbed into her lap. As he wept, Sandy held his trembling body close, trying to give him the comfort she couldn’t give herself.

After Steve’s funeral, the team played its remaining games in a daze. They lost them all.

In the following months, Sandy’s sister, Louann Ackerman, grew increasingly worried. Sandy was sinking deeper and deeper into her private grief. When her sister stopped eating and lost forty pounds, Louann felt panic. “This may be her way of ending it all,” she said to her husband, Ira.

Then early in 1992, Louann had an idea. “In Steve’s memory,” she told Sandy, “I want to sponsor this year’s team for you.”

“Funny,” Sandy said. “I’d been thinking I might sponsor the team myself as a way to honor Steve. He loved those kids.” Sandy and Louann renamed the team the Steve Evans Reds, for Steve’s red hair. When Sandy told E. J., he said, “I promise you Aunt Sandy, we’re gonna win all our games for Coach Stevie.” Steve’s friend, Ron Gadsden, agreed to become coach and continue as manager.

On a warm March afternoon, the Reds gathered for their first practice. Forming the nucleus of the team were E. J., Sandy’s four nephews and Ron Gadsden’s son, Ryan. Because some of the previous season’s players were over the age limit, new ones were added. Younger and smaller than the ones they replaced, some of the new boys had no idea how to catch or hit. This is going to be a rough season, Louann thought.

Coach Gadsden drilled the new kids on how to hold a bat and swing. E. J. coached them on the man that the team was named for. “Coach Stevie took a lot of time with us,” E. J. explained, his voice cracking. “He was always nice, and he made us laugh.” Then E. J. told the team, “We’ve got to win this year for Coach Stevie.” Slowly, the message sank in, as the Reds approached their opening day on April 11.

In the first inning of the season’s first game, the Charleston Apartments Giants took a quick two-run lead before the Reds came to bat. E. J. hit a home run to lead a four-run counter-attack. By the bottom half of the final inning, the score was tied 8-8. Then Thomas Evans hit a home run. To everyone’s surprise, the Reds had won.

When the Reds won again, Louann noticed changes in her sister. During the games Sandy, leaden and unemotional after Steve’s death, started clapping and shouting. By the time the Reds won their third game, she had begun eating again.

“With this team,” Sandy told Louann, “I feel that Steve’s not gone completely. There’s a piece of him still here with all of us.”

The team was also changing. The youngsters began saying, “We can’t be beat!” Sandy, worried that E. J. and her nephews were feeling too much pressure to win for Steve, called them aside. “Remember,” she said, “it’s just a game.”

“You don’t understand, Aunt Sandy,” E. J. said earnestly. “We have to win for Coach Stevie!”

Sandy turned away, fighting back tears. If we ever lose, she thought, these kids’ll be shattered.

As the season entered May, the Reds kept on rolling. They took one game 16-7 and another 17-6.

Sandy drew strength from E. J. Just look at this little boy, she thought. He’s hurting so much, yet he’s still so loving and joyful. Slowly, Sandy began looking forward to the games and practices with a gladness she once feared she’d never feel again. Now when a game ended, she took the team for pizzas. She even found herself laughing out loud.

“It’s a miracle we’re winning,” Louann told her husband after another Reds victory. “But the real miracle is seeing E. J. help Sandy to heal. I’m getting my sister back.”

Near the end of the season, the undefeated Reds stood at the top of the league. To win the championship they had to beat the Giants—the team the Reds had defeated by only one run on opening day. That game stood as the Giants’ only loss.

The day of the final game, May 23, the temperature soared into the nineties. The Giants took an early lead in the first inning with four runs. The Reds fought back, and by the end of the second inning, the two teams were tied 4–4. Then the Giants went on a hitting spree and moved ahead 10-4. This was the first time all season that the Reds had been so far behind. “Come on, we can still win,” E. J. shouted to his teammates.

However, the tension became too much for Thomas Evans, and he suddenly burst into tears. Sandy raced out and pulled him close. “It’s okay,” she whispered.

“We’re gonna lose, Aunt Sandy!” Thomas said.

“Don’t worry about losing,” she assured him. “We’ve done our best, so it’s all right.”

Although the Reds reduced the Giants’ lead, they couldn’t catch up. The Giants went ahead 12-9 with one inning to go.

The Reds trotted off the field for their last time at bat. Suddenly, Thomas Evans knelt near the pitcher’s mound, drawing in the red dirt with his finger, then walked silently toward the dugout. On the mound he’d written his uncle’s name.

“I wanted Uncle Steve to know we were thinking about him,” Thomas told Sandy. Word of what the boy had done spread quickly through the Reds’ dugout. Moments later, however, reality set in. The Reds had two runners on base— but there were now two outs. The dugout went silent.

The Reds’ last hope was David Evans, the smallest player on the team. As he walked toward the plate, Louann prayed silently. Dear Lord, please, help these kids. And Sandy.

David, not much taller than his bat, made up for his small size with a scrappy attitude. On the first pitch, he swung awkwardly and missed. Then he fouled off another pitch. It’s finally over, Sandy thought sadly to herself.

With the next pitch, David made contact, but the ball headed in the worst possible direction—straight toward first base and the best player on the Giants’ team. Coach Gadsden, figuring the game was over, began walking toward the Reds’ dugout.

The Giants’ first baseman reached down to scoop up the ball—but it squirted past him.

David raced to second base as one run scored. This cut the Giants’ lead to two, and there were runners on second and third. Thomas Evans, next at bat, sent the ball flying for a clean hit. Sandy waved two runners home. With the game now tied, the Reds and their fans traded high-fives.

The next batter, Ryan Gadsden, got another hit, and by the time E. J. got to the plate, there were three runners on base. On the second pitch, E. J. connected perfectly, and the ball sailed deep into right-center field—a grand slam.

His teammates mobbed him. Sandy jumped up and down in the coach’s box.

The Reds now led for the first time in the game, and more hits followed. When the third out finally came, the Reds had pushed across eleven runs in all. “I’ve seen it, but I can’t believe it,” Louann yelled when Sandy returned to the dugout.

Disheartened and exhausted, the Giants went down without scoring. The Reds had won the league championship, 20–12. That night, E. J. went to sleep clutching his player trophy for the championship.

Eight days later, Sandy stood at Steve’s graveside with E. J. and her four nephews. The date—May 31—would have been Steve’s twenty-sixth birthday.

Sandy knelt and, on her husband’s grave, placed a photograph of the Reds holding their team trophy. The picture was signed by all the players and coaches. “The team won the championship for you, Steve,” Sandy said softly. “And we know you helped them do it.”

She held a small figurine dressed in a baseball uniform with “Number 1 Coach” written on it. She placed the figurine on the grave. I’ll always remember you, Coach Stevie, E. J. thought.

Then they all joined hands and prayed. A few moments later, they walked silently away.

After their undefeated regular season, the Steve Evans Reds entered the town’s annual junior baseball tournament. “We’ll win the tournament for Coach Stevie, too,” E. J. told Sandy. And so they did. They won the final championship game 19–3, ending their 1992 season with a perfect 16–0 record.

John Pekkanen

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