WINDING DOWN THE SEASON They say diamonds are forever, but these kids found out in baseball, it's the memories, not games, that last


And so it comes down to this: two outs in the bottom of the last inning, the score tied at 7-7, the ever-scrappy Braves in the field against the powerhouse of the league, the first-place Dodgers.

The bases are loaded.

The season hangs in the balance.

And the team's regular pitcher is vacationing with his family in Georgia, leaving an inexperienced and somewhat reluctant thrower on the mound.

There is nothing like this, you might think, sitting on the bench or bleachers, sensing the camaraderie of the parents aching for their sons to succeed. Nothing like the energy and attention and emotion focused on these boys playing a game with bats and balls.

Nothing like it -- and yet, the same scene is repeated in triplicate as you look around the playing fields behind Ridgely Middle School in Baltimore County. And repeated a thousandfold on baseball diamonds at schools and parks around the country.

These parents have been following their boys (and sometimes girls, although there are none on these two teams) from the almost frosty nights of early April when games were called before 8 p.m. because of darkness to the sticky warmth of these mid-June evenings when it seems the light will last forever.

They have jobs and other children and other obligations. But the twice-weekly games have been a focus for parents as much as for their sons this spring.

Baseball is America's passion, drawing millions to major league ballparks, seducing fans with its easy rhythms and boundless possibilities. Here behind Ridgely, there's a homier, closer to the heart, more involved kind of passion. It's a distractable passion, sometimes waylaid by toddlers stumbling onto the field, by dogs chewing on gloves.

The payoff here isn't in million-dollar contracts or World Series rings. It's in lessons of life: how to be part of a team, how to stretch your potential, how to win and lose gracefully.

It's the week after regular-season play, the quarter-finals of the // championship tournament. The Braves ended the season with seven wins, six losses and a tie -- not too bad, everyone agrees, for a team that early on had some innings when it seemed they would never get the other guys out.

After regular-season play the whole league participates in the single-elimination tournament.

In last week's first round, the Braves staged a heartening come-from-behind 12-6 victory against the Tigers. The whole team contributed to the offense, and the two pitchers, Travis Mulkay and John Maciolek, exhibited a consistency they'd been working toward all season.

But Monday night John was out of town and league rules forbid Travis from pitching more than five innings. For those five he pitched his best game of the season, striking out one Dodger after another.

Heading into the bottom of the sixth (games are seven innings), the Braves are winning 3-1. Their excitement is muted, though; they still have six outs to make with an unknown quantity, Matt Streyle, on the mound. Matt has shown some promise but has little game experience as a pitcher.

On this team of 11- and 12-year-olds, there are the big boys and the little boys, and rarely will one be mistaken for the other.

The 12-year-olds like Travis and John and Matt bear down harder, concentrate more intently, perform more consistently. The 11-year-olds sometimes have to be reminded to pay attention in the field. They need urging from the sidelines to run to first base on a dropped third strike, and are prone to stand at the plate and watch three strikes go by.

Yet in their own ways, both groups of boys have made progress since the beginning of the season. Back in April a dribbler in the infield was a sure hit. Now clean fielding plays are more the rule than the exception. Fly balls that fielders don't have to run too far for are caught at least half the time. Steals are no longer a sure thing.

It's not hard to envision these 11-year-olds carrying the team as

next season's big boys. And the 12-year-olds are clearly ready to move into another league.

But first they have to beat the Dodgers.

"OK, boys, this is it," Braves manager Denny Lessner tells his team at the bottom of the seventh. "Win or lose, you guys have played an outstanding game, you've had a good season. Now let's do it!"

Matt had his troubles in the sixth. He walked the bases loaded and then walked in a run. Two more runs scored on a long fly ball, and another two when a grounder skipped through the legs of Andrew Lessner at third -- runs that couldn't be undone, not even by all the flying dust the volatile third baseman raised slamming his glove into the ground.

Another run scored on a grounder to second base and, after the fifth walk of the inning, Mr. Lessner decided Matt had had enough. He handed the ball to Steve Tucker, another untried pitcher. "I don't know if he can pitch," Mr. Lessner muttered. "I think he can throw."

Steve threw two strikes and the Dodger at bat did him a favor by swinging at a ball a foot above his head for the third out. The score after six: 7-3.

In the top of the seventh the Braves come through with a miracle. In a rally sparked by a home run by Andrew and a bases-loaded bloop single by Matt, the score was tied.

And now Steve is back on the mound, needing three outs to take the game into extra innings. He gets two without a run scoring, but the bases are loaded.

"All right, Steve, take a deep breath, let it out and pitch to him," Mr. Lessner counsels.

A ball comes in high. The next is a strike. On the third pitch, the batter connects for a line drive base hit to center field and that's the season for the Braves.

There is kicked dust, there are stamped feet and yes, even from the big boys, there are tears. It's a tough loss to swallow.

But when you're 11 and 12 there are seasons to look forward to, not losses to look back on. As Andrew, who perhaps pushed himself harder than any other boy on the team, puts it the next day:

"That's the breaks."

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