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Tornado destroyed their town but not Joplin Little Leaguers' spirits

PHOENIX -- As the plane descended into Sky Harbor Airport, a pre-teen boy looked out the window into the Arizona desert and said to the passengers near him, "There are no trees down there. It's just like back in Joplin."

The boy was one of a dozen Little League ballplayers from Joplin, Mo. -- the town of 50,150 ravaged by a May 22 tornado that killed 159 -- who were given a special invitation by Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program to participate in a tournament tied into All-Star weekend.

They played six games, participated in a skills clinic hosted by Diamondbacks rightfielder Justin Upton at FanFest and attended the Home Run Derby, a packed weekend in which they were able to "just be normal kids thinking about baseball," RBI director David James said.

Ten of the 12 players on the team had lost their homes, the parents of the others lost their businesses and the EF-5 class twister profoundly affected each. But when the boys entered the airport, clad in t-shirts with "Restore Joplin" printed across the chest, a cheering horde of MLB officials and nearly a dozen camera- and notepad-bearing reporters greeted them.

It was an unexpected welcome party -- "paparazzi," the players joked -- that turned their heart-wrenching reflections on treeless Joplin into the same unadulterated joy they felt when first told about the trip.

"It was Christmas in June," coach Mark Etter said.

*****

Mark Etter grew up in Kansas, where it wasn't unusual for him to be on the golf course, playing the front nine while a small twister touched down on the back nine. They were always skinny and generally harmless. That's why, Etter said, he rarely heeded Joplin's tornado's sirens with any haste. "That'll never happen again," he said last week.

On May 22, however, the tall trees at the back of his property started shaking "like toothpicks," so he and his 11-year-old son, Alex, piled into a cramped first-floor bathroom. The father knelt on the floor, and his son sat on the toilet, the room's only available seat. When Mark first looked up, he saw Alex with his legs crossed and calmly reading a two-month-old issue of Sports Illustrated. Then the tornado hit.

"The walls were like Poltergeist," Mark Etter said. "We heard the hail. It sounded like a freight train. We heard the windows crack."

Added Alex, "It was kind of freaky. I just remember feeling like I was up in the air, and my ears popping."

After the winds died down, father and son looked to see what was left of their house and didn't find much. "That bathroom," Mark Etter said.

Across town Trace Myers, 11, and his family were at a gas station's convenience store. With the tornado approaching, they piled into the ice cream cooler and put their heads down. When their heads came back up, the roof had collapsed, as had much of the store. Back home they were lucky too: The house next door was flattened, but theirs was spared.

Jake Young, 12, was getting ready for family dinner with his mother, father and 15-year-old sister. They retreated to the basement. After the storm, Young's father went upstairs first, saw that their house was damaged and surveyed the neighborhood thusly: "Everything's gone."

*****

Joplin gained notoriety after Bobby Troup name-checked it in his 1946 song "Route 66," but its more consequential place in American history is as a booming mining town for lead and zinc in the late 19th century.

But the midsized city in southwest Missouri, five hours from St. Louis and half as far to Kansas City, has a rich if untold baseball tradition, too, dating to the minor league Joplin Miners, who lasted under various names and in various leagues from 1887 to 1954. It was the home to 18-year-old Mickey Mantle in 1950, when he batted .383 with 26 home runs in 137 games before making his major league debut the following year.

More recently Joplin was home to the Tournament of Stars, a joint MLB and USA Baseball production, from 2001 to '06, where scores of future major-leaguers competed on its fields as teenagers -- among them these top-10 overall picks: Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Delmon Young and Mike Moustakas, to name a few. The bonds continue, as players stay with host families during the Tournament of Stars.

Justin Upton was among those who contacted his former host family immediately after the tornado to check and make sure they were okay.

"With people like Dan and Trina and that community that I met when I was there," Upton said, referring to his hosts, "they'll push through it."

For those who traveled to Arizona as guests of MLB, it was apparent that baseball has helped.

On the morning after the tornado hit, the Etters walked past Sunny Jim Park, the Little League field of Joplin South, and it lay in ruin. Alex's team was scheduled to have a game that night, and despite the widespread devastation across town, he asked his father, "Where are we going to play?"

An arrangement wasn't made that night, but soon thereafter Joplin South's crosstown counterpart, Joplin North, offered its fields. The two organizations improvised a merged league for the next couple of weeks to make sure every kid got in nearly a dozen more games. Many of them couldn't have imagined not playing, as they explained in the blissfully simple manner of a pre-teen.

"I've been at a baseball for a long, long time," Alex Etter said. Added Myers, "My whole life has been baseball."

Joplin South Little League board member Tom Owen, who accompanied the team to Phoenix, noticed a difference.

"Once those kids got back on the ballfield, it brought some normalcy back," he said. "Beyond that, the kids would get up every day and would see the destruction and devastation."

Of course, the players weren't the only ones who benefitted.

"When I walked in between those white lines," Mark Etter said, "all the insurance adjustors, the massive amounts of traffic, getting the rest of my home torn down and rebuilding -- all that stuff was put on hold. And I know all that probably sounds pretty cheesy, but it's like a light goes off when the game's over, and it's 'here we go again.'

"[Baseball] takes the pressure off, every game that I'm coaching my son. But when I walk between those lines, it's just a calmness. A central peace."

*****

RBI's mission is as much youth outreach as baseball (and softball) prep; encouraging academics, promoting teamwork and increasing minority participation in the game are as central to the mission as the instruction in the sport. RBI helps expose underserved populations of young people to opportunities outside their immediate community.

Joplin is not typically served by RBI, except in this one-time invitation in which Joplin became known as "Lucky 13" in what previously had been a 12-team tournament.

"The neat thing for Joplin was to get away from what has become their normal," said James, the RBI director, "which is reconstruction."

In Arizona they built only memories, from souvenir exchanges with other teams to the games themselves, capping it on Monday with a trip to FanFest in the afternoon and seats to the Home Run Derby at night. Upton surprised the Joplin Little Leaguers at FanFest, where he offered a clinic in baseball basics.

"They were having fun out on that field and having a fantastic experience," Upton said. "It was cool for me. We presented them medals. They were really excited, and I was glad I could be part of that."

It was even cooler for the young players, who now have stories of meeting and interacting with an All-Star. Myers, for one, was ecstatic that night with tales of how Upton tried on his sunglasses for a few minutes.

Reminders of the tornado are never far away, either. During one session of tournament games James received word of a brewing dust storm and ordered all of the players off the fields and back onto their buses. The Joplin players, who had been through far worse, complied calmly.

*****

Rebuilding in Joplin continues. With the assistance of several agencies, especially the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, the city has undertaken the task of starting again. It has even established a committee to consider what enhancements can be made, from streetlights to sewers. Ballfields and other public lands are being restored. Families want to recreate their old neighborhoods. Mark Etter, for one, said he'll rebuild his house on the same lot.

There's an almost defiant determination to renew the way their lives were before the tornado. A note on Joplin South Little League's Facebook page about the season's closing ceremonies noted that they were being held "at Sunny Jim Park. No, that is not a typo, they will be held at SUNNY JIM PARK."

Even in just six days away from Joplin, they'd see notable improvements in the clean-up upon their return, but while in Arizona their attention was on the moment. Young said it was "just a blast to be able to hang out with my friends."

For a few days they were kids again, unencumbered by the burdens of rebuilding their hometown, just another travel baseball team attending a tournament.

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