When Emily Burke got her changeup over for a strike, she had this little dance she did, emblematic of nothing more than expressing the joy of living and making sure you felt that joy, too.
That's the one thing Sarah Alperson, the catcher for the Liberty softball team, wants you to take from the comet-like life Emily Burke lived before she died in a car accident last weekend near her home.
"We could have been down 20 or so, but it [the dance] cracked me up," Alperson said yesterday after the Lions' first game since Emily, a 15-year-old sophomore, and a family friend, Rudolfo "Rudy" Calderon, a 14-year-old Westminster freshman, were killed in the accident.
"She accepted everyone for who they were," Alperson said. "If you didn't know her, she would just come up and talk to you. She was so easy to talk to."
The Lions were scheduled to play a game Monday, but the rain saw to it that the team would have a couple of more days to heal. Indeed, not everyone was so sure that yesterday was the right time to come back, but the sun, as if on cue, peeked its head out right around the time Liberty was to take the field.
The players -- varsity and junior varsity -- and their coaches gathered around the pitching circle at 4:30 p.m., the scheduled time for the first pitch in the game against Winters Mill. As they assembled around the circle, the players and coaches each picked up a softball that had been placed on points around the white line.
Then, the Lions, in a public place, with their parents, classmates and opponents watching, took a private moment to remember Emily. Only a few words leaked out beyond their circle. One player said, "Now, that's not going to happen because Emily is with us at every position.
The ceremony went on for a few more minutes before each player raised her right index finger skyward and yelled, "Emily, Emily, Emily." The crowd applauded. The bouquet and the extra ball at the pitching slab were taken off by JV coach Ralph Chiaramonti, then pitcher Chelsea Kucera, whom Emily had replaced as starter, went to work at precisely 4:37.
The senior delivered a four-pitch strikeout against Winters Mill's leadoff hitter and set down the side after a one-out walk. For that moment, with the sun finally out of hiding after three days, you really started to feel that Burke, or at least her spirit, truly was everywhere, and this would be a time of joy after so much unbearable sadness.
That feeling grew in the bottom of the first when the Lions put runners on first and second with one out. Then, they ran themselves into an inning-ending double play. From there, Kucera had trouble staying in the strike zone, and when she had to come to the hitters, they teed off, hitting three homers in a six-run second that set the tone. Kucera was able to drive in the first Liberty run in the fourth, but the damage had been done, and the Lions lost, 20-7.
When the game ended, about 6:45, the team beckoned fans and teammates, including members of the baseball team who had wandered over from their game, onto the field. Each person was handed a balloon in the school colors of blue and gold to release to the sky. Then, as three of her teammates read a poem in her honor, Emily Burke was saluted with the playing of her favorite song, "Stop and Stare," from OneRepublic.
The lyrics, "Stop and stare/You start to wonder why you're here not there/And you'd give anything to get what's fair/But fair ain't really what you need" punctuated the chill as the sun came out from the clouds one last time.
Liberty coach Chris Szocik, 20 days into the job, noticed the sun's sporadic presence over the diamond during the game. He figured Emily had something to do with that.
Szocik had really known Burke only since the beginning of season, but then, how long do you really have to know someone to know they will change your life?
"She was the type of person that you fell in love with right away," Szocik said. "She had everything going for her -- a real fighter and a real inspiration. The girls are tough and Emily was the piece to keep them together. And the girls won't forget that. They've learned a lot from her."