The pitcher's eyes bored right through the batter and into the catcher's mitt. The championship game was on the line, in the bottom of the last inning, and the team from Salt Lake was at bat, down in the mouth and on the scoreboard, 2-zip. The count was 1-and-1, with runners at first and second. The kid on the mound had dominated all day and the kid in the box had struck out twice before. Hopelessness was blitzing hope.
The young hitter, though, had learned to battle and beat back hopelessness every day of his life. The tough pitcher staring through him had nothing on autism.
He pushed out a breath, tapped his bat on the plate three times, then looked around the ballpark at Cooperstown. The place, called the Dreams Park, was a miniature version of a Major League stadium, and it was packed. The infield had been dragged and the bases replaced a couple of innings earlier. Everything was set for something memorable. But what happened next blew memorable straight into a thousand tomorrows.
After winning 11 consecutive six-inning games, the Salt Lake Sidewinders, an under-12 travel team, were the first entry from Utah ever to make the title game at the Cooperstown tournament near baseball's Hall of Fame. On July 11, they were one of two teams remaining in a field of 104 from around the continent. And, suddenly, they were two outs away from elimination, at the hands of the Tallahassee Heat, a club that had crushed opponents throughout the weeklong event. There, in the bottom of the sixth, the matter was in the hands of Ethan Fowlks, a kid from South Jordan, who seemed rock steady, despite his earlier failures.
His dad, Guy, a former University of Utah pitcher, anxiously looked on from the coach's position adjacent to first base. So did 2,500 spectators. Ethan took the first pitch for a ball. He fouled off the second, a heater in tight. The third delivery was a curve. Completely dialed in, the young hitter saw the thing tumbling toward him and then â¦
Hold on. The story gets better if you first know more about Ethan Kristopher Fowlks. The third child of Guy and Kristen, he was born a little different. In the early months, nobody noticed. His motor skills seemed right on. But as time went by, he never spoke and rarely interacted. His parents grew concerned.
Heartbreak for them came in the form of a beautiful 2-year-old son who could walk to them, but could not speak what was on his mind. When he opened his mouth, he made sounds nobody could understand. When he was frustrated by the circumstances around him, he dropped down and repeatedly pounded his head on the floor. When Guy and Kristen took him in for tests, they were told their beloved boy had autism, a diagnosis that devastated them.
"It was hard," Kristen says. "You go through a mourning period for the child you thought you'd have, for the dreams and expectations that you have for a little baby, the loss of that dream. But then, you adjust, move forward and find gratitude."
Says Guy: "Every parent wants their kid to have a great life, or just to fit in, to be able to function, to have friends. Then, you realize those things may not happen for him. And you wonder, 'Will he have a productive life? How will he live his life? Will he have to live with us forever? What happens when we're gone?'"
That was too much to conquer all at once. So the Fowlks took it one day at a time, one minute at a time. They noticed that even though Ethan wouldn't talk, he observed their actions and learned. For example, he had watched his mother put a bag of popcorn in the microwave and push the button.
When he had the urge for a snack, he climbed up to the microwave and did the same for himself.
"We worried about him turning on the oven or going outside," says Guy. "We had to put locks on the doors and keep a close eye on him."
They also enrolled Ethan in the Pingree School, a specialized school for autistic children where they learn to better communicate and process their surroundings. Thereafter, in the first grade, he made enough progress to be mainstreamed into a "normal" school.
"He struggles from a social standpoint," Guy says. "His speech and the way he communicates are different. He has a hard time having a conversation where he asks somebody, 'How are you today?' He turns it back to him, sees things from where he is. But he's getting better at that."
Although most of Ethan's classmates treated him well, there were cruel moments, times when the more he tried to fit in, the more he was ridiculed. His safe haven was baseball. The diamond was a place Ethan had grown familiar with because he tagged alongside his family to games in which his older brother, Aaron, played. When his father threw pitches to Ethan, it turned out he could mash.
"He was my buddy at the baseball field," Guy says. "When I started throwing pitches to him, his ability to track and hit the ball was extraordinary. It was impressive. The baseball field became the one place where he was more normal. Put him on the field and let him play the game, that's where he wants to be. It's his world."
Every now and then that world is ruptured. Playing on competitive teams, there are times when Ethan strikes out and feels as though he is a complete failure. He breaks down and cries.
Like other autistic kids, he often thinks in absolutes. He acts out, loses composure, makes a scene.
"He has outbursts, sometimes," says Rob Jeppsen, head coach of the Sidewinders. "But the boys on the team have learned to deal with that. They all support and feel close to him."
Opponents, even parents, aren't always as mature. At one game not at Cooperstown a group of people who were aware of Ethan's condition started screaming at him, knowing that would rattle him. They later apologized, but the kid has absorbed the hard way that fear, disappointment and heartlessness can invade his sanctuary.
Not all of it is intentional.
During the sixth game at the Cooperstown tournament, when Kristen was seated down the third-base line, she was struck in the head by a roped foul ball. It broke her glasses, broke her cheek and sent her to the hospital. Greg Madson, one of the coaches, says all the Sidewinders, as well as players and coaches on the opposing team, were shaken by the injury. Ethan was absolutely traumatized.
"He thought his mom was dead," Jeppsen says. "When I told him she was going to be OK, he said, 'No, she got hit in the head and her brains are going to fall out.' That's the way autistic kids process things."
Jeppsen would know. One of his children also is autistic and he regularly educates people about the condition. He marvels, however, at Ethan's capabilities, and says that most parents of autistic kids, like Guy and Kristen Fowlks, focus on their child's abilities, not disabilities. And if a venue is found for the child to enjoy success, that should be celebrated.
"Baseball has been a big enabler for Ethan," Jeppsen says. "He's remarkable. He plays ball, has a good time and sits in the dugout with his friends."
The third pitch in the bottom of the sixth tumbled off the top of the table toward Ethan, dropping on the outside of the plate. He triggered and then turned, tagging the pitch toward the opposite field. It arced upward and, when it came down, landed in the right-field bleachers for a three-run walk-off bomb to win the tournament title.
"I thought I was going to hit it pretty solid," Ethan says. "But I didn't know if it was going out. When it did, I felt like we made some history. I was excited."
Yeah, his Sidewinders were champions. As he circled the bases, teammates and coaches, including his dad, gathered around home plate, jumping like kernels of JiffyPop on a hot burner. They smothered their hero when he arrived.
"I'll tell you, that was the happiest I've ever been in my life," Guy says. "It eclipsed anything I've ever experienced. It was a thrill, just â¦ incredible."
As the jammed spectators, fans of other teams from around the country, stood at their seats, applauding and chanting, "Salt Lake â¦ Salt Lake â¦ Salt Lake," down on the field, an amazed father, with the plumbing backed up in his eyes, wrapped his son in his arms, looked straight at him and said: "Man, you're awesome! You're awesome!"
Dad was right. And never before had Ethan Fowlks been so glad, so grateful to be who he was, to be something other than normal.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.