A relative of Roy Dale Craven wrote me to say that today would have been his 51st birthday, and to thank me for the piece I wrote about him back in 2002, in National Review Online. I couldn’t find that piece on the NRO site, but here is an excerpt of Roy Dale’s story, taken from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:

The ballpark was also the place where dying young touched many of us kids for the first time. In the summer of 1974, on my first team, the John Fudge Auto Parts Angels, a blond tow-headed Starhill kid named Roy Dale Craven was the star pitcher. That might not have meant much in a league where the oldest players were, like Roy Dale, nine years old, but Roy Dale was a real phenom.

He was also a poor country boy with a million-dollar smile. His mother, Evelyn Dedon, and his father had divorced when he was very young. She raised Roy Dale and his brothers in a little brick house on the side of Highway 61, on the outskirts of Starhill. They didn’t have much money. Roy Dale invited his father up from Baton Rouge one afternoon to watch him play his first game. The dad must have seen what a raggedy glove his kid was playing with, and bought the boy a new glove. At the next game, Roy Dale showed up with a brand new glove. A week later, that glove was as floppy and dirty as if Roy Dale had used it all season long. That’s how much the kid practiced with it.

Roy Dale and his glove were inseparable. One day, Paw drove home to Starhill for lunch and saw Roy Dale and his brothers headed across a bottom for Grant’s Bayou, carrying fishing poles. Roy Dale also had his glove. There was no one else to play with, but he couldn’t bear to leave it behind.

Paw, who was one of the team’s coaches, remembers that Roy Dale was so passionate about baseball because he had so little, and grasped at every opportunity offered him. He was a sweet kid. The game was his life.

One night, the coaches pulled Roy Dale from the mound after he completed the second inning, because he vomited up his supper in the dugout. All he’d had to eat before the game was pickles. No one knew if he had eaten so badly because he had chosen to, or because that was all the food his family had in the house that day. No one wanted to ask.

On July 15, late in the afternoon, Roy Dale lit out from his yard to his cousin Allen Ray’s, across Highway 61, hoping to catch a ride to the ballpark. He did not see the northbound car, which struck and killed him. The driver was not charged. I found out about the tragedy sitting in the back of Paw’s pick-up, headed to the game; we were stuck in traffic backed up from the accident scene. Paw said later it was just like Roy Dale to be so excited about playing ball that night that he didn’t pay attention to anything else.

That funeral was the first time most of us kids had seen death up close. At some point before the service started, one of the Angels found the courage to step into the aisle at the funeral home chapel, and go forward to pay respects to our teammate. A gaggle of six to nine-year-old boys walked forward, and saw that beautiful boy, Roy Dale, dead in his coffin. They buried him with his glove on his hand and his uniform on his back. This may have been the nicest set of clothes Roy Dale owned.

That night, I heard Paw and his friend Pat Rettig, the other coach, out on our back porch, talking. I stood by the screen door to listen, and realized these grown men were weeping in the dark. I didn’t know how to take it, and went away. It was 28 years before Paw and I had a conversation about Roy Dale that wasn’t ended by a grown man’s tears.

Free Republic posted the entire text of the NRO essay. It’s pretty much what you see above, except this is how it ends: with a 2002 visit to Roy Dale’s grave, the first time I had been since his 1974 burial:

We didn’t linger long. It was hot, and there wasn’t a lot to say. In truth, I can’t say Roy Dale was a close friend, because he was older than me, and we went to different schools. But I’ve thought about him throughout my life, wondering where he’d be now if he’d lived. Would he have made it out of our town, and his humble circumstances? Would he have made it to the pros? Would he have been an All-Star? Would you know his name?

I think you should know his name. For 28 summers, Roy Dale Craven, a poor little country boy who loved baseball madly, and who didn’t get the chance he deserved in this life, has laid under the rye grass behind a hill you can’t even see from the road. Thousands of people drive past his grave every day, not knowing how close they come to something so tender, so worthy, and so pure.