JAMES CITY — Those who knew Kees van Leliveld best say that the missionary trip to the southern African country of Zimbabwe in 2012 was life-changing.
During the day he farmed fields at an orphanage or gathered rocks for a meditation garden he helped build on an adjacent hill. During the evening, playful young orphans mobbed him because of the tireless attention he lavished on them.
The mission touched him so deeply that his mom, Sandy, faced an uphill challenge in trying to get him to speak about it to youth at Williamsburg United Methodist Church, which sponsored the trip. That reluctance had nothing to do with shyness, because friends say van Leliveld never met a stranger.
"He didn't want it to become a discussion about riding an elephant or walking with lion cubs," Sandy said. "Those were great memories, but to him the mission was about serving the children, his relationship with them and doing God's work.
"When he came home he wore a T-shirt with the Swahili word 'Ubuntu' on it. It basically means 'I am because we are. I am the person I am because our lives connected.'"
Kees van Leliveld, who was killed at age 17 in a car wreck in January, connected with many of the family, friends and teammates who gathered in the outfield of Warhill High's baseball field Saturday.
The team dedicated a sign in his memory on the outfield fence bearing his initials, "K.V.," and the number, 9, van Leliveld would've worn on his uniform in the Lions' season-opener on Tuesday against Smithfield (weather pending).
"We want the family to know that Kees' memory will live on and that he lives on in our hearts," said Warhill coach Joe Henzel, who presented the van Leliveld family with a glass enclosed frame bearing Kees' baseball jerseys and photograph. "He shared our passion for baseball and will always be our brother."
The realization that van Leliveld would not play for the Lions this season did not hit close friend and teammate Lucas Rice until he saw older brother Cody van Leliveld drive Kees' navy blue truck to a recent Warhill scrimmage. van Leliveld loved the truck he called "Big Blue" so much that its name and the Chevrolet logo are emblazoned beneath his initials and jersey number on the Warhill outfield sign.
"He was very country, an outdoorsman," Rice said. "He loved anything that went along with trucks.
"We were at (vocational tech) together and he was the best in the class at diagnosing engines and fixing things up. If I was doing a straight oil change he'd look underneath the hood and say, 'If you want to put your truck to the test, we can do this or this to make it better.'"
Warhill teammate Robert Lipford said, "We loved mudding (driving their trucks through the mud). One time I got my four-wheeler stuck in the mud at the bottom of a hill behind my house and I called him and said, 'Bub, I really need you bad right now to come pull me out.'
"He said, 'All right, I'm (eating) at the Outback (Steakhouse), but I'll hurry up and come over there.' He gave up an Outback meal to help me out, and after he did we sat around and talked about trucks.
"He was a nice guy, always helpful."
van Leliveld's father, Teddy, said that if you called his son a "redneck" he would take it as a compliment. Sandy added that his nickname for many of his friends was "Bubba."
He liked shooting his Remington rifle and deer hunting, and he loved deep sea fishing with Teddy, Cody and his uncle, Jeff. van Leliveld annually attended both NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Richmond, and naturally a Chevy driver, Tony Stewart, was his man.
Lipford and Rice say that van Leliveld seemed to have everything going in the right direction for him, including a great relationship with his girlfriend of more than a year. Rice said that the smile he wore so often "would make your day."
Never a star in baseball, van Leliveld likely would have been the back-up catcher on this year's Warhill varsity. But he would've been a welcome addition in the Lions' dugout because of his strong work ethic and positive attitude. As such, he is already missed.
"I went into the dugout one time and it was kind of sad, because I felt like we needed our buddy there," Lipford said.
Lipford and Rice are probably unfamiliar with the term "Ubuntu." But clearly both are better for having connected with Kees van Leliveld, same as the orphans he served in Zimbabwe and those gathered at Warhill this past weekend.
"I didn't go out mudding or hunting before I knew Kees," Lipford said. "He showed me the good side about going out, having fun and socializing."
Rice said, "He shows you how to be a better person and you can become a better person because of that. Nobody is a perfect person, but he was right on that line.
"He showed me about stepping up. Everybody has that child in them, but he was a man: a man with no limits."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun