A legacy lives on in the heart of a team

What’s in a game?

Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s last home baseball game of the season was a stunner.

We ran a picture last week of Brad Ableman stretched out beyond what seemed humanly possible, having caught the ball in his glove. He leaned so far back, he fell to the ground. But he held on to the ball. He made the out. And he wore the number 8 on his jersey sleeve.

And then there was the moment at home plate where, amid an opaque cloud of dust, Maclin Norray tagged the Duanesburg player sliding into home base. The umpire hesitated, waiting for the dust to clear, before he called the out. Norray wore the number 8 on his sleeve.

And there was Cory Depeaux at bat, his eyes on the ball, his jaw tense with concentration. He hit it on the sweet spot, and the ball soared. He wore the number 8 on his sleeve.

The game had started with ceremonial first pitches from Jim and Bonnie Spencer.  Bonnie Spencer had a wide smile as she threw the ball, her wedding ring glinting in the sun. After Jim Spencer’s pitch, the team gathered around the couple; there were broad smiles and heartfelt hugs.

The Spencers only child, James Wyatt, known mostly as just Wyatt, had once been part of the BKW team. He had worn the number 8.

Wyatt was almost 13 when he died on May 28, 2009 after an off-road vehicle accident.

“He always looked out for the little guy, stopped kids from picking on each other at school,” his father told us the week he died. We talked to kids who said the same thing.

His father also said, “He was one hell of a pitcher. He was the one they brought in when they needed the game to end.” Wyatt threw a 60-mile-an-hour fastball, his father said.

Jim Spencer reminisced then about a trip he had taken with Wyatt to Cooperstown, to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. An old man in the back of a baseball-card shop was signing autographs.

Wyatt asked him who he was. The old ballplayer identified himself as Clete Boyer.

Boyer was a legend in Wyatt’s eyes: He had played for the Yankees — Wyatt’s team — with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris.

“Wyatt couldn’t believe it,” his father said. “He started listing off names and numbers and records to this guy.”

Impressed, Boyer, signed an action shot of himself, “To Wyatt, my number-one fan,” and gave it to the boy.

“It makes me want to cry,” said his father, “but it also makes me feel so good, and so proud. I think that, if Wyatt had to make a statement to the world, he would say, ‘Take care of the world, and take care of each other.’ He always used to say that.”

His old teammates are taking care of Wyatt’s memory and honoring it.

Kelley Hess, the mother of Jack Hurst, one of Wyatt’s best friends, helped organize a scholarship drive in Wyatt’s name. The $5,000 scholarship will be given this year for the first time to someone in his class, someone who exemplifies his virtues.

“The idea was to give them some place to put their grief,” said Hess when she set up the scholarship.

She was at last week’s baseball game and told a tale that, in the telling, gave her goose bumps. The game had started as a rout, with Duanesburg ahead, 4 to 0.

In the bottom of the fourth, Duanesburg brought a new pitcher to the mound.

“They brought in a pitcher and his number was 8,” said Hess. She was watching the game with the Spencers.

“Jim said, ‘You think Wyatt’s messing with us?’

“When number 8 came up to the mound, I said, ‘Holy cow, Wyatt’s right here’...I said, ‘They’ll score five runs and pull ahead.’”

Our photographer, Michael Koff, said the team felt it, too.

The Bulldogs actually scored more; the game ended with a BKW victory, 11 to 6.

But the allegiance built through sport is about more than winning a game.

Through tears, Hess described how, after Wyattt’s death, his teammates had petitioned the school’s athletic director to retire Wyatt’s baseball jersey; the district agreed.

Then some of the team — Hess referred to them as the Band of Brothers — built a shadow box to display’s Wyatt’s No. 8 jersey. The boys burned their signatures into the frame of the box, which now hangs at the school.

Jim Spencer wrote in a letter — posted on a website, Wyatts Mission, to honor his son and raise funds for the scholarship — words that sear as surely as if they were burned: “Let me start by saying I wouldn’t be truthful unless I admitted that I am pissed, shocked, depressed, anxious, and most of all left wanting. That is the worst want you could have is just to see your child one more time...so there it is.”

We won’t pretend to know what this pain feels like, to have your child die before you; we can’t imagine anything worse. Some believe that William Shakespeare started writing his tragedies with the deep agony and resonance that echoes still because of the death of his only son, Hamnet.

We will say, though, that the way the Spencers and the BKW baseball team have channeled their grief, finding hope and healing through the bonds of the game, is an inspiration to us all.

We think Wyatt would be proud they are living his advice: Take care of each other and take care of the world.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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