NEW YORK —Moments after catcher Joe Reznick angrily wondered aloud why a runner failed to advance after the ball was bobbled in the outfield, a crowd gathers around shortstop Pat O'Donnell, who explains why Spiderman is his favorite superhero to those who question the giant tattoo on his left shoulder.
Mike Newbert jokes about his versatility, saying he is in left field tonight but plays all positions with equal inadequacy. Sunflower seeds make their way down the bench. The scenes are not that different from those on fields across America on a given summer night.
Bill Beyer captures everyone's attention by explaining that a fellow firefighter severely burned his hand in a fire, a reminder of the daily danger. George Hopkins sits beside him and talks about the entire team coping with death.
"It's still overwhelming," Hopkins says. "We have a poster in our firehouse with pictures of all the guys lost on 9/11, and I still look at it, recognize a new face and say, `He was in there?' It's hard to believe a year went by."
These conversations cause players to deviate from their rapid banter. They slow down and speak with helplessness in their eyes as if still digging through the rubble at ground zero.
As much as this group of firefighters, the FDNY baseball team, is characterized by playfulness, it also is steadfastly resilient, powerful in mind and body. The desperation and heartache lingering from Sept. 11, 2001, is met with the simple joys of summer and the relationships that lend normalcy to lives turned upside down.
They look back - always - but have parlayed their dismay into energy to carry on. They have come together this summer, using the memory of two lost teammates as the driving force to form a team with players who share more than passion for the game.
Getting back to the game brings its own joy, too. This team was unlikely to exist even before Andre Fletcher and Michael Weinberg were killed on 9/11.
On this night, FDNY is about to play Game 1 of the Triboro Baseball League championship series against the Manhattan Knights at Taft High School in the Bronx. The team wears blue jerseys with FDNY in red letters across the front. The red numbers "343" are stitched across their left sleeves, representing the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center.
Fletcher, who was 37, was the team founder. Weinberg, 34, was the team's best player. Here on a field about a mile from Yankee Stadium, their spirit remains with teammates who felt they owed them this season. There is center fielder Tom Mandel, who remembers Fletcher giving him one of the few things missing in his life four years ago - baseball. There is Hopkins, who says Weinberg threw a baseball harder than anyone he had ever seen.
And there is always manager Scott Miller, also the cleanup hitter and first baseman, who stands in front of an American flag that dangles on the backstop and hits fly balls to his outfielders. Miller was just as disheartened as Fletcher when FDNY could not recruit enough players to field a team last season. Shortly after 9/11, Miller knew it would be up to him to re-establish the team and do Fletcher and the department proud. And now, less than two weeks from a Sept. 20 charity game against the NYPD before which Fletcher and Weinberg will be honored, he has.
Andre Fletcher was the type - even in a city the size of New York - whom friends would run into on the street. He was outgoing, energetic and on the move, traits that leave his father, Lunsford, with little wonder why Fletcher tossed self-preservation aside and rushed to the towers on 9/11.
"I know why he did what he did," Lunsford said from his house in Freeport, N.Y. "Other people mattered to him."
A memorial for Fletcher, one of eight firefighters who were lost from Rescue 5 in Staten Island, was held Oct. 13.
In his passing, Fletcher inspired. At the memorial service, Miller and Hopkins spoke of their friend and eventually about baseball, both agreeing a team had to be established in Fletcher's honor.
A few weeks later, Miller posted a message on an FDNY website: