In a city crippled by grief, the healing power of a perfect pitch


“You don’t want to use the word ‘fun,’ but you want to see the kids happy again.”

Two baseball players follow a ceremony in honor of the victims of the Rob Elementary School shooting on June 16, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Callaghan O’Hare/The New York Times

UVALDE, Texas – Young people in their crisp Little League uniforms ran up and down the field in gleeful anticipation. The smell of nacho cheese and sizzling chicken fajitas permeated the bleachers in the air of a hot summer night.

Uvalde, Texas, has had a month of mourning: 21 funerals in 17 days in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. This past weekend’s Little League All-Star Championship, an event Uvalde proudly planned to host, looked like the next casualty; Of the 19 children killed, six were on the team. Nobody felt like competing, let alone cheering.

But then he thought again. Maybe baseball was just what they needed.

“You don’t want to use the word ‘fun,’ but you want to see the kids happy again,” said Cody Gardner, whose 9-year-old son was eager to play jazz ball. “Baseball has always brought us closer together. There is still overwhelming sadness and a little bit of normalcy.”

On Thursday, they stopped at an opening ceremony in downtown Uvalde Sports Complex to honor the dead, handing out a jersey and a baseball to each of the six families who lost a player. The president of Uvalde Little League, JJ Suarez, walked in a line of two dozen relatives, hugging each of them in turn.

There was silence for the first 21 seconds. Then, the loud voice of the announcer, Wade Carpenter, echoed across the field.

“We Uvalde are strong. Let’s play ball!” They said.

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Hugs are exchanged after the Uvalde Little League team’s victory on June 17, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Callaghan O’Hare/The New York Times

And with that, players throw baseball four diamonds, pitch balls, run bases and, for a few hours, put aside their misery in the arms of America’s favorite pastime.

Leticia Rodriguez, 61, flashed a sweet smile, watching the kids and their parents form a long line to taste the fajitas cooking next to the concession stand.

“There isn’t much to do in such a small town. We’ve only got baseball,” said Rodriguez, whose 18 grandchildren Uvalde played in Little League. “We had to come back for the kids. we had to.”

The summer tournament almost did not happen. Although Uvalde was selected this spring to host the regional tournament, the May 24 shooting prompted Uvalde Little League, which sponsors more than 620 children aged 4 to 15, with hosting privileges in another city. To consider handing over.

But Matthew Hughes, a league board member whose daughter plays for, said nearly everyone he spoke to, including the parents of players on the fallen team, agreed to move on.

“I reached out to some counselors in town and asked them, ‘What do you think?’ He said part of the healing process is to get people back to a level of consistency, a level of regularity as quickly as possible,” Hughes said. “In my mind, we are putting this tournament together for all of them.”

Last week, Suarez, who has been a part of the league for two decades, helped put up portraits of six fallen players on the wall of the dugout, each posing with bats in Little League uniforms that will last forever 10 years. belonged to: Javier López, Tess Mata, Elijah Torres, Alexandria Rubio, Jose Flores Jr. and Makena Elrod. When Suarez reached the last, he found himself with tears rolling down his face.

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A player holds a ball named after Jose Flores, one of the victims of the Rob Elementary School shooting on June 16, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Callaghan O’Hare/The New York Times

“It’s hard to process,” he said.

Some parents wrestled with whether it was the right decision to move on. “It sounds like you’re being selfish, you know?” Erica Bueno, whose 9-year-old son, Joaquin, made it to the All-Star team. “Getting back to normal after this city is in so much pain.” He paused, then said, “You feel bad for trying to be happy.”

Two days before the tournament, Bueno watched with a mixture of joy and concern as Joaquin tried to catch a ball during a practice game. That said, the guy playing on the same team as Javier seemed to be in good spirits, but then it was hard to figure out what boys his age were thinking.

When they attended Xavier’s funeral service a few days earlier, she said, Joaquin had a hard time with his feelings, especially after seeing his friend in an open coffin, surrounded by flowers and Little League mementos. Afterwards.

“He asked, ‘Mom, why would anyone do something like that? he said. “I tried to explain that there is evil in this world and that some people make wrong choices. It is difficult for them to understand what death means.”

His older daughter, Isabella Bueno, 12, who also plays in Little League, had an even harder time accepting what had happened. He is close friends with Makena’s older sister, and it was not uncommon to tag along with the younger girl when they got together.

“They were all part of the same group of friends,” Bueno said. “They were all really close.”

Until the days following the murders, Isabella remained “locked” and would not leave her room, her mother said. Seeing her teammates again has improved Isabella’s mood or at least distracted her from the pain, Bueno said.

Another Little League player, 13-year-old Kayla Sanchez, said the return to the field was painful but necessary. Wearing a maroon Uvalde Little League T-shirt, she took a minute to study the portraits of her late friends. Kayla was also close to Makena, who posed in a batting pose for her portrait. Kayla said that she cannot erase Makena’s sweet smile from her mind.

“She would always run up to me and hug me,” Kayla said softly. “I’ll just make him happy.”

Kayla’s mom, Cheryl Sanchez, who is also a member of the league’s board, was with her to make sure she was up for it. “We believe that the best healing process is to allow children to be with each other,” Sanchez said.

Suárez lost a friend: Joe García, whom he had known since high school, suffered a fatal heart attack two days after his wife Irma García and another teacher, Eva Miracles, were killed in the massacre. Joe met Irma in high school, and they were inseparable ever since, Suarez recalled. The high school friendship passed on to the next generation: Suárez’s two children are friends with four of García’s children, who are now orphans.

“He died of a broken heart,” Suarez said of his friend. “He too is a victim of this tragedy.”

During Thursday’s opening ceremony, the Little League International organization named the 2022 Carl E. Stotz Little League Community Award and a $5,000 grant to Uvalde Little League in recognition of the group’s deep community contributions.

Then the Uvalde Junior League, for ages 12 to 14, fielded teams from Jordanton, Texas. In a tight match that lasted until midnight, Uvalde won 10-5.

On Sunday, in one of the tournament’s most anticipated games, Suarez’s 10- to 12-year-old softball team took on their rivals from Devine, Texas.

At first the mood was solemn, with another period of silence for the dead. But then the Uvalde players erupted into a familiar chant: “Wherever we go, people want to know who we are,” they shouted. “We are Uvalde, mighty, mighty Uvalde!”

The team proved invincible, scoring 23 for Devine’s 3 by the top of the third innings. By the end of the game, they celebrated a 25–6 victory. “Excellent effort from all of you,” Suarez told the girls. “You all gave 100%.”

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A baseball player throws a ball after a ceremony honoring the victims of the Rob Elementary School shooting on June 16, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Callaghan O’Hare/The New York Times

During the game and practice sessions throughout the week, most of the time was spent remembering. Suarez’s daughter, 13-year-old Vila Suarez, remembered her friend Eliana, who was named an honorary All-Star, during Sunday’s game. Villa said that Aliana always had a smile on her face: “She was always a team player. After every game, win or lose, she would say, ‘Good game.'”

One last run from Aliana kept running through his mind, Villa said, like a video in slow motion. It had been over a month, and Eliana was playing on the opposing team.

Villa remembered seeing Eliana standing there, waiting for the ball, bat in hand. Then, get in touch. “That was an amazing hit,” Villa said.

Elijah dashes to base first, then to second. The next batter got a hit, and Elijah “saw an opportunity,” Villa recalled, and headed home. One of Villa’s teammates caught the ball and headed for Elijah, but it slipped into home plate. “It was a close call,” recalled Will. “But he was said to be safe.”

Aliana looked up to smile, Villa said. The crowd erupted with cheers and applause. Villa was momentarily caught and realized that she was clapping for Eliana as well.

This article originally appeared in new York Times,

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