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Third-place winner: Dixie youth 

Robbie wore the Stars and Bars with pride. The insignia, patched neatly on the sleeve of his "youth-large" uniform, was embossed with a baseball floating at the nexus of the St. Andrew's Cross. Robbie, unaware of the baggage accompanying the symbol, strode to the plate with an air of confidence. At age 11, he was much too young to recognize his role as a walking contradiction; a black child rising above his peers on the podium of an organization waving the Rebel flag. Digging in to face his opposition, Robbie mistook the motivations of a shirtless heckler's catcalls as purely baseball-related.

Known as "Meat" to his teammates, Robbie loved sports, especially baseball. The fields of competition provided a welcome oasis, far away from the home life of 13 Perry Street. He was an athlete with superior tools, bigger and stronger than most his age.

"Strike one!" Before Robbie could react, the white pill whizzed past his frozen semblance. Jared, the grizzled four-year veteran of the Dixie Youth baseball Cubs, wasted no time in claiming an advantage. Having faced one another several times during the regular season, Robbie knew Jared's modus operandi: fastball, curveball, fastball. Thus far Jared had held true to form. Robbie backed out to gather his thoughts.

Dissecting an opposing pitcher's strategy came much easier to Robbie than defeating the caste system in place at the Perry Street housing project. He took refuge in the competition of youth sports. It was there that he gained acceptance from his peers. "Meat" was treated as royalty on an otherwise non-descript Mets team.

"Milky." "Yella." "Wanna-be." Monikers that replaced "Meat" as Robbie's field-of-play shifted from the ballpark to his home and school. Robbie was afflicted with a light complexion, and academic success rivaled that of skin-tone as the leading accelerant for sparking verbal assaults in the Perry Street projects. Robbie's mother feared that he would soon succumb to the negativity and hopelessness encompassing Perry Street, falling into cahoots with the local "Folks" gang or becoming disinterested with life in general. To that point, Robbie had hurdled his naysayers and their prejudices to become an all-A student with a charming personality to boot. The locals' daily taunts, however, were chipping away at the foundation his mother had fought so hard to reinforce.

Guessing curveball, Robbie shifted his weight to his back foot, hoping to avoid a premature reaction to Jared's deceptive out-pitch. As he patiently raised his front toe in anticipation of the expected breaking ball, another fastball zipped by Robbie for strike two. "Damn," he muttered to himself, disgusted with his sloth-like reaction.

Meat knew that no matter the result, this plate appearance would be his season's last. His Mets were trailing 4-3 in the league championship's final inning. While the season's end meant something different for each kid (and parent), it signified misery for Robbie. The distraction of sport would give way to the constant picking and prodding suffered at the hands of his classmates and neighbors.

Absolute panic gripped Robbie's limbs as he prepped to face the impending 0-2 pitch from his rival. Jared had baffled him with two straight fastballs, and Robbie had no idea what pitch to expect next. Raising and winding, Jared released a pitch that appeared on a collision course with Robbie's helmet. Frightened by the approaching projectile, Robbie bailed. As he turned to duck, Robbie noticed a tiny circle forming at the incoming baseball's center, the tell-tale sign of a tightly spun curveball.

This recognition was too late, as the ball broke directly over the plate for strike three. Robbie's heart dropped with the pitch, his season's work finished. Conciliatory pats on the back followed the dejected 11-year-old to his seat at the end of the bench. These assurances did little, though, to mute the screams of defeat encircling Robbie's conscience.

Down to the game's final two outs, Blake lumbered to the plate as the Mets' best chance for tying the score with one swing. A ridiculously large figure juxtaposed with most 12-year-olds, Blake was a menacing presence. His swings produced all-or-nothing results; the ball either traveled into the great beyond for a homerun or, as was more often the case, into the catcher's mitt for a strike, the swing-and-miss producing a gale of epic proportions. Failures at the plate sent the ill-tempered giant into an infant-like tantrum, complete with helmet tossing and bat slinging. Blake had his father to thank for the wonderful disposition.

Suspended from coaching little-league two years prior for assaulting an umpire, Blake's dad yelled advice from the stands while gripping the fence with white-knuckle ferocity. Blake recognized the grip all too well, the deep-hued bruises hidden beneath his uniform serving as a painful reminder. A homerun now and Blake would be his father's pride and joy, an out and he would be the bane of his father's existence and the target of his uncontrollable rage. Partially ignoring this threat, Blake posited a sneer at Jared in hopes of intimidating his foe. Jared laughed to himself, thinking, "What a stupid lard-ass. This guy is getting nothing but breaking balls. Moron."

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