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Hardball

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From left, Karl Sr. pitching batting practice; KB watching a game with his friend Bobby Moretti.  

Tri-State Arsenal’s 2009 season started off well. The team won 48 of their first 50 games, and KB, who pitches and also plays third base and shortstop, got off to a solid start. His name appeared on one of the national players-to-watch lists. “That was cool,” KB admits. He’s a little embarrassed. “I tried not to make a big deal about it.”

But things began to change in April, at a tournament in North Carolina. Arsenal led the highly ranked East Cobb Astros 5-3, with two outs in the last inning and two men on base. Arsenal’s shortstop was brought in to pitch. KB was switched from third base to short.

The next batter hit a sky-high pop-up. The Arsenal parents all but started high-fiving. KB watched the ball into his glove and began to squeeze it, the same way he had a thousand times before. Then he saw the ball rolling in the dirt. He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment. The tying runs scored. Parents cursed. Karl bit his lip. KB walked the ball back to the pitcher.

“Get out of here,” his teammate snapped.

The game ended in a tie when it hit the two-hour time limit, a standard tournament practice, but it didn’t lessen the disappointment. For the first time, KB began worrying about baseball rather than just playing it. He pitched several solid games, but as the season progressed, he started making uncharacteristic errors. In July, he began asking his father for ice after games, something he had never done before. With all the games he’d been playing for different teams, KB had racked up a lot of innings. “My arm feels funny,” KB said. The number of teenagers needing Tommy John surgery, a complex operation in which torn elbow ligaments are replaced with tendons, has increased from nearly zero a decade ago to hundreds last year. Doctors cite the additional innings kids are pitching as a primary cause. “It’s not a natural motion,” says Dr. Frank Jobe, who pioneered the surgery for major-leaguers in the seventies. “Kids’ bodies are still growing, and their mechanics are not what they should be. It’s just too much at that age.”

Despite being an orthopedic surgeon himself, Karl left much of the decision-making about throwing to his son. When he tried to yank KB from one of his grade-school games, KB shouted back, “I’ve got a no-hitter. I’m staying in.” Karl didn’t fight him.

By the time Tri-State Arsenal headed to Florida for the World Series, KB was at a crossroads of sorts. “I realize that there’s a lot of players just as good or better than me,” he told me with a sheepish smile. “It’s better to know that now. I’ve got to step it up. This is what I love to do.”

This year’s 13-and-under Elite World Series was held at the Wide World of Sports complex, adjacent to Disney World in Orlando. There were eight diamonds, 32 teams, and more than 400 players—perhaps some 80 percent of the country’s top 13-years-olds.

Karl had rented a condo for himself, KB, and the fathers and sons of two of his teammates, but the Blums arrived last and got the smallest room. “The Blummer got screwed,” Karl says, half-joking.

In another room there’s Morgan Gray, an Upper East Side kid with long curly hair, accompanied by his father, Mitchel. Morgan’s a wisecracker whose worldview has been shaped from repeated viewings of Seth Rogen movies. “I just got a text from a girl who’s doing yoga,” he whispered to KB out of his father’s earshot. “That’s hot.”

The wives are back home with other kids and jobs, so the place turns into a cross-generational Animal House. The furniture quickly vanishes under cases of Gatorade, Bud Light cans, board shorts, and dirty socks.

Sean Kelly and his dad, Mark, occupy the third bedroom. Sean’s a South Jersey kid with a crew cut and a boxer’s mug. He hasn’t played much and has adopted black humor as his coping mechanism. One day, his dad talked about going for a run. “You can’t run,” joked his son. “I should know. I’m the team’s designated pinch runner.”

The first two days of the tournament establish seeding. After that, it’s two games a day, double elimination. Arsenal won its first two games, and KB went a solid 2 for 6 at the plate. Today’s game is against the Terror, a Louisiana-based team considered one of the top five teams in the country.

KB walks on to the field and high-fives Bobby Moretti Jr., one of his best friends on the team. Bobby is as quiet as KB is friendly. He comes from Milford, Connecticut, where his father, Bob Sr., sells scrap tires to pay for his son’s games. Bobby Jr. helped pitch Shelton, Connecticut (his mother lives there, making him eligible), to the Little League World Series last year; he is Arsenal’s ace. The two boys’ fathers are also opposites. Karl is the glad-handing doctor; Bob Sr. is tightly wound, chews tobacco, and dresses in baseball jerseys and gym shorts. Bob Sr. was recently approached by a Seattle Mariners scout who asked about the correct spelling of his son’s name.


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