Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: McFarling: Boy gives a lesson on good sportsmanship

The star of a recent all-star baseball tournament isn't really into baseball.

Eli Franklin is 12 years old, and truth is, his interests lie elsewhere. Trucks, tractors -- anything with wheels and a motor -- he's all about them. But baseball?

"Not really," he says. "I just like being with my friends."

So when Montgomery County's All-Stars played in the Dixie Youth district tournament July 9-14 in Radford, Eli didn't put up monster stats. In fact, he didn't get any hits at all. He played the minimum required for Dixie competition -- one at-bat and one inning in the field per game -- and spent the rest of the time doing what he enjoys most: blending in with the guys.

Adding to the anonymity, the back of Eli's jersey had a different kid's last name on it.

"As far as a highlight moment?" says his mother, Kesha Franklin. "There wasn't one."

Oh, but there was.

"I have been doing this recreation stuff for some years now," Montgomery County Parks and Recreation athletics supervisor Chris Slusher said in an email, "and I have never seen that kind of sportsmanship before. It was truly amazing."

The jersey detail is an important one, because that's how this whole thing started. Dylan Akers was supposed to be playing in this tournament, not Eli.

Like Eli, Dylan lives in Riner. Unlike Eli, Dylan plays on a travel baseball team, swings the bat with conviction and can play multiple positions.

This was Dylan's first year on the Auburn Black Eagles rec squad, and despite being one of the younger players in the league, he performed well enough to be named to the 12-boy all-star squad.

"I really wanted to play," Dylan said. "I was really looking forward to it."

But his body forbade him. As the final pre-tournament practices wound down, Dylan started having recurring symptoms from Lyme disease, which he'd been treated for two weeks before. Joint pain. Swelling. Achiness. Fever.

Doctors put him back on antibiotics and told him not to play in the tournament.

"He was bummed about it," said Dylan's mother, Shannon. "He's outgoing and outspoken and he's a go-getter, so when he doesn't feel good, Mama knows."

The rules state that each team needs 12 players to participate. Slusher approached Eli, a cousin of Dylan's and a teammate on the Black Eagles during the regular season, and asked him if he would play.

Eli didn't really want to, but he took one for the team.

"The first day was rough for him," Kesha Franklin said. "He wasn't real crazy about it. Didn't want to go back. But then everybody started warming up to him and helping him because he didn't know a lot about baseball.

"By the end, he was having a great time. The whole experience was really great; I've never seen anything like it."

Meanwhile, Dylan started to mend. The new blood tests came back negative. And by the end of the week, he felt good enough to go to the games and cheer on his teammates.

On July 14, Montgomery County faced Christiansburg for the district title -- and won. Dylan cheered from the dugout, then went out to celebrate with his pals.

Then they started handing out trophies, one by one. Eli was announced last.

"At the last point, the announcer said, 'Eli would like to give Dylan his trophy,' " Dylan said. "I was just shocked. Nobody's ever done that for me before."

Eli had hatched the plan earlier in the week. If they won a trophy, he wasn't keeping it.

"Dylan's the one that deserved it," Eli said. "He's the one who's supposed to be on the team."

The two kids hugged on the field as Eli gave the trophy to Dylan. But here's the thing: Dylan didn't want it either.

Soon it became an altruistic tug-of-war.

Dylan: "You take it, Eli. You played. You won."

Eli: "No, you take it. It's yours."

Dylan: "But Eli ..."

Later, when organizers started handing out snacks, Dylan tried to convince Eli that he needed somebody to hold the trophy, just for a minute, so he could have both hands free to open the treat.

Eli didn't buy that-- and it's a good thing he didn't.

"I was going to run away," Dylan said. "Then he'd have to take it."

Eli's just fine without it. He had so much fun with his friends that he almost considered practicing baseball more often so he could become as good as the rest of the all-stars.

In the end, though, Eli decided against it. One all-star tournament was enough for him. When state action opened this weekend in Salem, Dylan was in the Akers jersey, back on the field.

Eli was at home, trophy-less and content.

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