Big man, Little Man

I first met Jerry Diskin at "Big Howe" Park, one of Seattle's athletic fields on top of Queen Anne Hill. It seems a fitting place to meet a man who passionately loved baseball and was such a staunch supporter of his community's Little League program.

On this particular day it was soccer that brought us together. His 5-year-old son Evan had just signed up to play soccer on my son's team. The first thing I noticed about Jerry was his generous belly followed by an even more generous smile. But my lasting impression was of a man who delighted in his son's playful antics, as we watched our 5-year-old boys scamper after the ball.

As soon as Evan got close enough, he threw himself onto the soccer ball, smothering it with his body. "I got it!" he shouted triumphantly from the ground. Jerry chuckled heartily: "You're supposed to kick the ball, son. Not tackle it."

In a neighborhood tightly knit through recreational sports, it was only a matter of time before our boys wound up playing on the same baseball team. In the late winter of 2001, Jerry volunteered to be the head coach for an AAA team and invited my husband to be his assistant coach. But just as the practice season was about to begin, Jerry was unexpectedly "called away on business," meaning my husband would have to step in as head coach.

Being the understanding coach's wife that I am, I groused. "What kind of business would justify Jerry backing out of his Little League commitment?"

"Remember that terrorist who came down from Canada into Port Angeles with enough bottles of nitroglycerin to blow up the L.A. Airport?" Hal asked. "Jerry's a U.S. attorney - and he's a lead prosecutor on that case."

I had no idea. Begrudgingly I had to admit that some team efforts really are more important than Little League.

Over the years of cheering teams alongside Jerry, I learned a few other things about his family. I noticed that Evan's fierce competitive drive was matched by his determination to be the team clown. One minute he would be totally on his game; the next, he might be rolling in the outfield grass, cracking jokes and driving his coaches crazy. I also observed that every time Evan went up to bat, he liked to pause in front of the chain-link fence and look to his parents. As soon as he caught their eye, he'd flash a sly grin and offer up a Griffey Junior-esque practice swing.

Everyone noticed that his mother Michelle made the best postgame snack in the league - homemade chocolate chip cookies that tasted like heaven. I also observed that Michelle had a habit of calling her son "Little Man," as in shouting out, "Get a hit, Little Man!" or "Ready position, Little Man." One day when some of us moms were teasing Michelle about this endearment, she covered her mouth and laughed. "I just can't help myself," she confided.

Jerry made it to almost all of Evan's baseball games. Frequently he'd drive straight from work, showing up in an elegant suit that billowed in the spring wind. Jerry also had an unusual endearment: he'd call all the boys "son" whenever he was encouraging them. Instead of insanely shouting to players from the stands or sidelines as the rest of us parents did, Jerry often waited until the player got off the field. Then, in a quiet moment, he'd simply pat the boy on the back. "Well done, son," he'd say. "Well done."

This year Jerry once again was called away from the practice season. This time it was because he was recuperating from surgery on a cancerous brain tumor. By the time the playing season came around, Jerry had recovered enough to sit in his portable chair and watch Evan's games. On leave from work, Jerry wore the casual clothes of a baseball fan. Since he'd lost so much weight, it was now his sagging jeans that billowed in the cold spring wind.

One day toward the end of the season, just before playoffs, Jerry told me he was going back for more surgery. As we sat in the sunlight, he talked about how he was offered almost a year's worth of leave, and how he looked forward to making it to all his children's games. I complimented Evan's game this season, noting that he seemed more mature, more focused, and was hitting the ball really well. But Jerry was quick to interrupt me and make a crack about Evan's goofiness. I knew he took great pride in Evan, but he was never one to revel in parental boasting.

A little over a week after his second surgery, we got a shocking e-mail telling us that Jerry had passed away. I thought of the last time I saw Jerry - how much he was looking forward to the year and the years ahead. It seemed hard to believe that a man with that much hope, a father with that much love for his children and an attorney with that much influence could be gone.

Two days after Jerry's death, I was stunned to see Evan and his mother show up at Big Howe Park for the team's first playoff game. Michelle looked beautiful as always, but also as if she had aged in the past week. I praised her and Evan for coming, but she told me that Jerry would have wanted it this way. "I told Evan that his dad would be watching him tonight," she said, her face stoic, while mine grew teary.

Evan was the lead-off batter to face Ron's Cobbler Shop. He walked up to the wire-mesh fence, looked at his mother, gave her a small smile and his signature swing. As he approached the plate, I noticed that he, too, looked older. On the first pitch, that 11-year-old boy sent a line drive into the outfield for a base hit. It started a rally that put Metropolitan Market ahead 2-0 at the top of the first inning. At the bottom half of the fifth inning, his team now ahead 4-0, things suddenly began to unravel. As will happen in Little League, a series of walks, errors and stolen bases led to a 4-3 game. With two outs and the bases loaded, Pat McClure, the head coach, summoned Evan in from right field and handed him the ball. Evan took the mound.

Calm, focused and looking all that little man, Evan walked the first batter that he faced, forcing in the tying run. I immediately began to second-guess the coaching staff: was this too much pressure to put on a young boy whose father had died two days ago? But Evan did not falter. Refocusing on the next batter, Evan struck him out, sending the game into the sixth inning tied 4-4.

Evan's team came to bat and quickly scored the go-ahead run, with Evan contributing another hit to the exciting rally. Evan returned to the mound in the bottom half of the sixth inning, facing the opposing team's biggest home-run hitter. The pressure was in the air. Could Evan and his team hold their one-run lead? The batter hit a high, infield pop-up that Evan stepped forward to nab. Next came a grounder that was thrown to first. The third batter grounded the ball back to Evan, who quickly threw to first for the final out.

Job done, Evan automatically headed to the dugout, but he never made it past first base. His team swarmed him, tackling him to the ground, vigorously patting him on the head and on the back. The smile on that boy's face will stay with me forever.

To all the volunteers behind Queen Anne Little League, I want to say thank you for giving our community a chance to witness such as poignant moment in a family's life. To the coaches of Metropolitan Market, I want to say thank you for giving Evan the chance to be a hero when he needed it the most. And to Evan, I want to say, "Well done, son. Well done."

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