Column: Sometimes inspiration comes from your little brother

People have asked me on occasion what drives my love for sports, and in turn, sports journalism. They obviously have never played 1-on-1 baseball with Mike, my little brother.

You know the drill, in some form or another. One batter vs. one pitcher, ghost runners, closing right field, pitcher's hand ... all elements of a kids' game with a lot of running - and a lot of offense.

When we were younger, Mike and I would play 1-on-1 baseball at Parkmont Elementary School in Fremont, Calif. We'd grab whatever kind of ball we could find at the moment - hardball, ragball, tennis ball, wiffle ball, racquetball - and head down to the school to find an open backstop.

Fremont was a great place to grow up, with mild winters and warm summers conducive to play year-round.

And play we did.

Mike has always been the better athlete, and it showed - even when I had a few inches on him at age 12. Whatever advantage I had in terms of physical maturity and experience, he made up the difference in craftiness and a desire to beat his big brother.

Through my junior high days, Mike and I went everywhere together, and we'd play at whatever field we could find. We lived in San Jose before moving to Fremont, and I still have vivid memories of street ball games with the neighbors' kids.

I remember one time when my brother, then 7 years old at the time, took a big swing with my dad's homemade wood bat and launched a tennis ball over the two-story house across the street. We stood there and watched it in awe, a Herculean feat even by this 9-year-old brother's standards.

Fremont offered vast playfields, where the ball would seemingly roll for miles. Three hours later, Mike and I would return home, out of breath and with a new layer of sunburn to go on top of the layer we'd acquired the day before.

Something happened when I hit high school, though. The games got more scattered as I found other things to do in life. I was slowly discovering my love for reading and writing, and this gradual shift took away the time to play.

I don't know what Mike thought of all this growing up, but I do know that his love for playing baseball never died. Mike played a little ball in high school, but the best was yet to come.

When Mike arrived at Simpson College in Redding, Calif., during the fall of 1995, there was no baseball team. By the time he graduated last April, baseball was a varsity sport.

Mike was the leader of a small group that lobbied to get a baseball club started. Next season, the college will debut a brand-new baseball field.

Putting baseball on the map at Simpson was perhaps Mike's greatest accomplishment there, and it was no small feat. He devoted tireless hours to training and making sure the team was getting better.

After graduation, Mike joined the Army. One of the reasons was to pay off his school loans, the other was for the chance to play baseball for his base team. Unfortunately, he will be medically discharged this week because of an old shoulder injury, and his days of playing baseball might be over.

I hadn't been able to articulate this until lately, but part of the reason I cover sports the way I do is because of Mike's approach to the game of baseball. He loves it, and he respects its traditions. He hit his first collegiate home run earlier this year, and I still remember the excitement in his voice as he told the story.

Mike's athleticism never rubbed off on me, but the joy he derived from playing the game did. Joy was not a quality he lost as he grew up - in fact, it grew with time, and it grew on me.

Life dealt Mike a blow this summer, as he'll return home from boot camp this week having to start over. We talked a few weeks ago on the phone, and he sounded distressed as he pondered an unknown future.

I never told him this before, but perhaps when he returns I'll find time to thank him for his outlook on sports, and in turn, life. His strong character has already made him a success, and a few bumps in the road won't change that, even if they look like the Sierra.

In my time here at the Appeal, I've tried to focus on the joy of sport, one of the good qualities one can gain through participation.

I see a lot of ugliness in the sports scene, even in youth sports. Character matters more than winning, but it strikes me that some coaches sacrifice the former to achieve the latter. This has got to change, or it'll be harder to find people like my brother as sport enters the 21st century.

Today's section represents my last work as sports editor of the Nevada Appeal. I have accepted a position at a newspaper in Los Angeles, and the chance to work at a major metro paper has long been a dream of mine.

For now, I'm living my dream.

My little brother, on the other hand, is having to dream it all up again.

Somehow, I think we're both going to be just fine.

Write to Jeremy Littau at newz2me@earthlink.net

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