March 10, 2014

Maroons sign team's youngest player as part of Team Impact initiative

Kristopher Brown, a shy 12-year old boy from the South Side, sits in a room full of cameras, coaches, and the University of Chicago baseball team. He sits by himself, photo-ready with the UChicago Athletics backdrop a few feet behind him. In front of him is a table with two stacks of paper and a pen. With his chin on the table’s top, Kris’s eyes glance from one stack to the next and his lips hide a smile.

It is Saturday, March 1st, and I am in the Ratner Athletic Center for the signing of the youngest baseball player in University of Chicago history, and arguably its most special signing—one that will allow Kris to attend games and practices throughout the season. However, today is about more than Kris’s letter of intent.

The team is also celebrating Kris’s twelfth birthday and his 12 incredible years of life. Years in which Kris’s love for sports has grown U.S. Cellular Field-big. And years in which Kris has battled against Sickle Cell Anemia and bouts of homelessness. In 2010, Kris faced his meanest hardball. He fought through a stroke that left the left side of his body paralyzed for two months. But today, with the cameras watching and the papers in front of him, Kris moves like a ballplayer.

Under the table, Kris’s skinny feet swipe the floor like an infielder’s cleats on clay, and above the table, his eyes stay vigilant like a cleanup hitter waiting for his pitch. Despite ongoing transfusions that Kris gets on the regular, his mom says he always smiles.

Two future Maroon teammates, Pat McManus, a second-year pitcher, and Dylan Massey, a fourth-year infielder, walk up to Kris and whisper something in his ear. Sitting in the media section of the room, I know it’s baseball talk, wise words from the team veterans to the incoming rookie. Kris lifts his head and the first smile slips.

ABC 7 is setting up a microphone in preparation for the signing, as is Maroon TV, but Kris doesn’t seem mesmerized by the cameras; he patiently sits like a big leaguer who has had years of practice. The camera crews are in the front row next to two of Kris’s friends, C.J. and Christian, also in middle school. The three talk in low voices.

The back of the room slowly fills like the cheap seats at Wrigley. One by one, members of the baseball team walk through the doors and shuffle into the crowd. They stand behind the tables and chairs reserved for media.

The room sits quietly for a few minutes, the buzz in the back the only distinguishable sound. Then, all of a sudden, something makes Kris laugh. No words were spoken; the smile was unprovoked. It’s the sort of pure gesture that reflects innocent joy at a ballpark. A laugh sparked by a thought, one that says more than any press conference could.

When Kris catches himself laughing, his shy nature takes over. He puts his chin back down on the table to temper his excitement. His laughing stops and he hides his smile, but his lips still curl to the right side of his mouth.

Kris’s mom, Robin, wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Love” embroidered on a heart, and his sister, Samia, about half Kris’s age and wearing zebra pants, walk into the room. They kiss Kris and take their seat next to him behind the table, facing the media and the team. Dylan and Pat join them.

Even the murmuring simmers down when University of Chicago head baseball coach Brian Baldea takes his place at the front of the room to officially begin the signing ceremony. Wearing his University of Chicago baseball jacket and his baseball cap, he begins.

“I’m thrilled today to announce the signing of Kristopher Brown to the University of Chicago baseball team.”

Baldea speaks admirably of Kris and what he will bring to the team. He closes his speech by announcing that, “after Kristopher signs, we will open up to questions.”

At this, Kris picks up the pen and spins it around his fingers, like a baseball player swings his bat before he steps up to the plate. He signs with concentration, his first contract. Robin watches attentively, Kris’s same smile now peaking out from beneath her lips.

When the signing is finished, Pat and Dylan reveal the official Maroon baseball jersey and cap that were hiding at the corner of the table. Kris puts them on, the jersey fitting a little too loosely and the cap not quite snug. For a moment Kris is hidden in maroon, but when he looks up and reveals his face, Kris’s shy smile has broken into a full-fledged laugh that envelopes the room. The entire crowd laughs with Kris, a room full of brightness. It is the first sign of a newly formed team, Maroon baseball and Kris, Robin and Samia, together.

Next, come the questions:

Fourth-year outfielder Connor Bartelman: “What position do you want to play this year?”

Kris: “Catcher.”

Fourth-year outfielder, and Chicago native, Brett Huff: “Are you a Sox fan or a Cubs fan?”

Kris: “Both.”

Fourth-year outfielder Ricky Troncelliti: “Kris, who is your favorite player?”

Kris, looking at Ricky: “You.”

The room erupts. Kris is a natural. Even his baby sister joins in on the fun, asking, with her hands covering her eyes, what I understood as, “How many pieces do you have to have to have too many toys?” Like a room full of big brothers and older cousins the chuckling mixes with a giant, “Aww.”

Baldea rejoins Kris for a final statement, announcing, “On behalf of the team, we are extremely proud to have you here. Looking forward to having you as part of the team!”

Everyone claps, Samia and Robin included.

The signing isn’t over, though. Now that he is an official member of Maroon baseball, it’s time to celebrate Kris’s birthday. The room sings as Kris, his sister, and his mom blow out twelve candles on a baseball-themed cake.

The team brings out Kris’s gifts—everything he will need for the season—a baseball bat, a helmet, batting gloves, a Maroon banner, and a mitt. Kris takes off his cap to put on a new Maroon lanyard. Robin is vibrant. She puts the cap on her head, while Samia yells out, “Cool!” at the site of her new stuffed phoenix—her own gift.

As the signing concludes, Kris ends the conference like a gentleman. Unprompted, the mild-mannered 12-year old quietly, but just loudly enough says, “Thank you.”

After the signing, Robin can’t stop hugging the players and coaches. She tells me, “It’s amazing. It’s like seeing him smile for the first time.”