It's the top of the first inning and 10-year-old Marcus Sanders digs his black baseball cleats into the left-handed batter's box at John Billings Field in Beech Island.
The blue-eyed, brown-haired kid batting for the Beech Island GreenJackets stares at his mechanical opposition, waiting for a fastball. Marcus cannot hear the opposing team, the Shop 'N Go Marlins, yell "Hey, batter batter, suh-wing batter." He cannot hear the ball come off his aluminum bat as he slams the pitch past the left fielder. He cannot hear his dad Marty screaming for him to "Run faster!"
Marcus is hearing-impaired.
As a result of a life-threatening childhood disease, he has 50 percent hearing loss in both ears. Marcus wears two hearing aids that loop around his ears. When he goes to bat he takes them out and gives them to team assistant LuAnn Baker, because his batting helmet knocks them out.
On this night, Marcus is sort of devastated, because it's pitching machine night. He plays first base instead of taking his beloved pitching mound where he threw a one-hitter on May 9. His overpowering style has led to a 3-0 record with 25 strikeouts in 17 innings. He prefers the pitching mound over first base for one main reason.
"I like to get batters out," he said.
In this game, he gets runners out, stretching his husky frame time after time as he receives throws from his infielders.
When Marcus was 16 months old, his mom Andrea became concerned about his health.
"I thought he had chicken pox" Mrs. Sanders said. "He was running a very high fever. We took him to the emergency room and the guy said `We're going to check for this. It's probably not what it is, but we'll look for the worst and work our way back."'
Doctors didn't have to work their way back. A lab test revealed that Marcus had bacterial meningitis, the same kind of disease that last month claimed the life of Evan Bozof, a 20-year-old pitcher for Georgia Southwestern.
"We were devastated," Mrs. Sanders said. "But we were lucky because they caught it real early."
Marcus spent nine days in University Hospital recovering from meningitis. When he returned home his condition improved, but he reverted to crawling. Doctors also forewarned the Sanders of a possible hearing loss.
"Probably at about three years old we kept noticing that we'd talk to him but he couldn't hear us. We went to several doctors who said that he could hear. They finally had to put him to sleep and do an audio procedure. They found out it was really a lot worse than they thought it was," Mrs. Sanders said.
Two hearing aids later, Marcus' hearing improved.
"The last doctor who put him to sleep and tested him said that was amazing that he had adjusted like he did," Mrs. Sanders said.
Marcus still has some adjusting to do. Next year, he will attend fifth grade at Millbrook Elementary in Aiken and mainstream from his special hearing program to participate in some regular classes with the other students. Since his enrollment at Millbrook two years ago, he's been on the A/B honor roll every nine weeks.
"I wish his older brother would do that," his dad said.
Fourteen-year-old Monty, however, is busier with other things like playing baseball for his Pony League team. This shared love of baseball leads to year-round backyard tosses between the brothers.
In the top of the second inning, Marcus stands back in. After missing the first pitch, he crunches the second one up the middle to the center field fence for his second triple in two at-bats.
Marcus has played Beech Island Recreation baseball for five years. After a two-year stint in the tee-ball league, he moved up to the Minor League where he's playing his final season before moving up to the Major League division next year.
"It's a challenge trying to communicate with someone who can't hear you. If you want to tell him to move into one position or to move over you have to use hand signals. You've got to get his attention to where you know he's looking at you," GreenJackets coach David Cole said.
And if he's looking at you he can understand you, because he reads lips. He has only just started to learn sign language because his teacher wants his oral communication to blossom. Marcus will have an interpreter help him when he progresses in his schooling.
For now, though, it's the top of the third inning and Marcus is doing his best Babe Ruth impersonation.
"Daddy, I'm gonna hit it way out there," he says, pointing toward left-center field before his third at-bat. He rips the pitch over the center fielder's head for his third triple of the game.
Marcus is about to make his second consecutive trip to the postseason All-Star team. He will be one of 13 players, not including alternates, from four teams who will represent Beech Island in a round-robin tournament against teams from New Ellenton and Jackson on June 20. From there the All-Star team plays a 10-team, double-elimination tournament in Belvedere on June 27.
When baseball is over, Marcus will enjoy the rest of his summer by going fishing, swimming and maybe even playing a little air-guitar if the music is loud enough.
"He doesn't act like he has a problem," Mrs. Sanders said. "He just wants to be treated like everybody else."
With his team trailing by two in the fourth, Marcus stands in for his fourth, and final, at-bat. He grounds an 0-2 pitch to first for an out.
Marcus, like his hero Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, is not perfect. He doesn't keep up with baseball stats and doesn't know who Atlanta pinch hitter Curtis Pride, the fifth deaf player in baseball history, is. But his hustle and his love of the game makes up for his imperfections.
"He's got a heart as big as a basketball," Mrs. Sanders said. "Everybody loves him, and he hugs and loves everybody."
As the sun nestles below the tree line bordering the field, the Marlins rally in their last at-bat, plating four in the bottom of the sixth to rally past Marcus' GreenJackets, 18-17. Marcus, however, comes off the field smiling. He knows it's just another game, a pitching machine game at that, and that there will be more games to come.
After meningitis, everything is child's play.
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