Field of memories and of mending

Published May 5, 2006

CLEARWATER - He grew up on dozens of fields not much different than this one. The grass had the same sweet smell, the infield dust still stuck to your tongue, the sounds of bats hitting balls hitting gloves played like a symphony.

Less than 24 hours after his father had died, a high school ballfield in Fort Myers was the worst place Ryan Acosta could have escaped to, and the best.

"As soon as I stepped on the field, it was like this rush of memories hit me, so many things reminding me of my dad," the 17-year-old said. "I remember feeling real lonely."

For two innings, he went through the motions. He trotted out to third base, his head hung low. The flames that his father, Oscar Acosta, had spent a lifetime fanning were smoldering. And if only for a brief moment, baseball was no longer fun.

Then Acosta, a junior at Clearwater Central Catholic, remembered why he was there.

"About the third inning, I saw that chin come up and the eyes opened and he charged out onto the field, and charged off it when the inning was over," said Kathy Acosta, Ryan's mother. "That is what Oscar would have wanted him to do."

* * *

On April 19, New York Yankees minor-league manager Oscar Acosta and Humberto Trejo, the organization's field coordinator in the Dominican Republic, were killed in a car accident outside of Santo Domingo. Acosta had just passed another car, was clipped from behind and slid sideways into oncoming traffic.

Ryan Acosta said he was just getting to ready to order dinner that night at Chili's when his cell phone rang.

Kathy Acosta told her son his father had been in a car accident. When Ryan asked if he was all right, Kathy told him no.

"I flipped out," said Ryan, who was driven home by his girlfriend.

The next few hours are a blur, like watching a movie in which you star but can't possibly be true.

But it was.

As members of the Yankees organization sat in his living room and shared fond stories of Oscar Acosta that night, as Reggie Jackson and Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood called Ryan on his cell phone to see if he was all right, it slowly sank in.

* * *

Oscar Acosta may be gone, but not his way of living.

Ryan Acosta begins most of his sentences with "My dad used to say ... ". He is a no-nonsense, steel-jawed kid with a slick sense of humor who takes his baseball more seriously than most, who believes fervently in the sanctity of the game.

He grew up around the game, following his dad around when Oscar was the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers, and the past two summers as he managed the Yankees' Gulf Coast League team to championships.

While his friends spent their summer days at the beach chasing girls, Ryan Acosta chased fly balls at the Yankees' minor-league complex in Tampa and sat next to his dad on the bench. For most, the rookie league is a mundane collection of unseen baseball games between prospects few have ever heard of played before no one in the unyielding Florida heat.

For Ryan Acosta, it was home.

"To me, it was always just about being with my dad, sharing that time with him," Ryan said. "That's why the game is so special to me.

"We would wake up every morning about 6:30 a.m., pick up (coach) Billy Connors from his house, go to the park and eat breakfast. I remember my dad would always say good morning to every person he saw, and always made sure all his players were healthy before he even sat down. And I would lift weights with some of the players, get dressed and be the bat boy or warm up the rightfielder, and then I sat right next to my dad. I could just sit there for hours, just watching him."

His friends didn't always understand it. He turned down days at the mall and trips to Disney.

"They were best buddies," Kathy said. "Ryan had a passion for the game, and his dad would do anything to help him reach his dreams."

* * *

The day after Oscar Acosta was killed, CCC had a two-game trip to Fort Myers planned. Coach Todd Vaughan considered canceling it. Ryan insisted the games go on.

Everyone mourns in their own way. For Ryan, it would be on the field.

"My dad always told me, if you have a cut, a scrape, a bruise or an ache, and you can't play, then don't get in the way of other people," Ryan said. "The first thing that came to my mind was, "I'm going to play tomorrow. I'm not going to quit on my dad.' Quitting on my dad was the worst thing I could have done."

Acosta remembers his dad asking him on numerous occasions, "Am I raising a boy or a man?" Ryan wanted to answer him that day.

He says playing through the pain helped him more than sitting around the house ever could.

"It was hard the first game," Ryan said. "I remember breaking down in the dugout before the game. It was painful, but I had to be man enough to handle it. I'm a man now.

"I remember looking into the stands and seeing my mom. I knew then that everything was going to be okay. Standing there on the field, I realized it was not all about what I had lost, but what I still had."

* * *

In CCC's first home game since his father's death, Ryan Acosta touched the sky.

He hit a towering fly to right-center, the ball as high as it was far, seemingly skimming across the heavens.

The home run, that was for dad.

The crowd for the district semifinal game was filled with Yankees employees who had come to wish Ryan well and pay their condolences to Kathy. Standing in the batter's box, Acosta was overcome with emotion. He pointed toward the clouds all the way to second base.

"I really wanted to do something that would make my dad happy," he said. "'He wasn't here a lot to see me play this spring, but at that moment, I just felt he was up there sitting on a cloud with some of his buddies, saying, "That's my son, that's my boy down there playing.'

"When I hit that homer ... a relief came over my body. I just pointed to the sky and said, "That was for you, Daddy. I will always try to make you happy and make you proud."'

First-base coach Jan Meehan was so excited he ran down to home plate to meet Acosta. Kathy jumped up from her captain's chair, tightly squeezing her camcorder. The Marauders rushed out to greet him.

"I don't have any words for it," Kathy said. "His heart is filled with so much heaviness. He's this 17-year-old who could just say "Forget it, I don't have to go out there and play.' But he needed that. He needed something he could hang onto."

When Acosta got back to the dugout, he broke down and cried.

* * *

On Monday, Oscar Acosta was buried in New Mexico, where the family lived much of their lives.

Ryan said goodbye, then did what his father would have wanted. He boarded a private plane chartered by the Yankees and Wood, whose first pitching coach was Acosta, and flew back to Florida for a baseball game.

"I look at things differently now," he said. "I'm expected to not quit, to live my life like my dad would have wanted, and to take care of my mother. It's time for me to be a man and less of a teenager."

His teammates marvel at his strength, while Vaughan wonders how he does it.

"You're out there to inspire the kids, that's your job," he said. "But every once in a while, you run into one that inspires you."

Kathy said her family is dealing with the loss "one piece at a time." She watches Ryan swing the bat and field ground balls and thinks: I hope he's eating enough.

The night after the funeral, in the first round of the state playoffs, Acosta had a hit in every trip to the plate, including another home run, and the Marauders advanced to tonight's region semifinal in Fort Pierce.

It will be a new field, but not much different than all the others. The grass will still have the same sweet smell, the infield dust will still stick to your tongue, the sounds of bats hitting balls hitting gloves will play together like a symphony.

And Ryan Acosta will charge out onto the field.