For Andrew Lessner the task was clear. Setting his mouth grimly as he put on his batting helmet, staring at the pitcher through its thick plastic shield, clenching the bat, he knew the time was now or never.
The score was 4-4 in the top of the fifth. With dusk falling on the field at Ridgely Middle School, it was obvious the game would go only five innings, instead of the regulation seven.
That left Andrew, leading off the fifth for the Lutherville-Timonium Braves, to break the tie.
He didn't waste a swing. His solid contact with the first pitch skipped the ball past the shortstop and into center field. He landed at second, an eye-lash ahead of the tag.
A sharp single by the next batter brought an excited Andrew home. Panting with exertion, he slapped a few high fives with the boys on the bench and let his mom give him a hug.
"That was good, that was great," praised Martha Lessner, who rarely misses one of her son's games. "Now get yourself a drink."
Scenes like this will be played out all spring by millions of young people on thousands of baseball diamonds across the country.
Baseball is America's pastime, and the passion of American youth. "There's just some inherent attraction in trying to hit a ball with a stick," is the way Scott Bollwage, program director of the United States Baseball Federation, explains it.
Mr. Bollwage, whose organization is the national governing body of amateur baseball, estimates that 19 million youngsters under 18 will play baseball this season. (Although the vast majority are boys, most programs allow girls on the teams.)
Teams are organized through rec councils like Lutherville-Timonium, through service organizations such as Lions or Kiwanis clubs, and through national organizations like Little League and Pony League.
In Baltimore County, where the Lutherville-Timonium league is situated, nearly 20,000 youngsters were registered on about 1,300 teams last year, according to Marge Neal, of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks. Area businesses sponsor teams with donations, meeting expenses of about $100 per player for uniforms, plus bats, balls, bases and other supplies. Andrew's team, the Braves, is sponsored by Loyola Federal Savings and Loan.
Supporting the 20,000 players are more than 6,000 volunteers, Ms. Neal added. Most are parents like Mrs. Lessner -- whose husband Denny manages the Braves -- and coach John Maciolek, who is running the team for a couple of weeks while Mr. Lessner is out of town.
"I'm a banker," Mr. Maciolek said as the boys milled around getting ready for the game. "But when I put my cap on and come down to this field, I'm a kid again."
There's a familiar feel to this chilly April evening on the Ridgely playing field, a timeless feeling for any parent who's ever had a kid in youth baseball, anyone who's ever been a kid in youth baseball.
This is professional baseball scaled down to a community level, the roar of the crowd distilled to personalized cheering from parents and siblings standing along the foul line and dotting the bleachers.
The cries from the crowd are gentle ones.
* "Good eye, son, good eye," as a batter refrains from swinging at a high, outside offering or a pitch that bounces across the plate.
* "Good contact," as a runner is tagged out at first after a routine grounder.
* "OK, good cut, fella," after a fruitless swing and a miss at the plate.
Youth baseball lore is rife with stories of parents pressuring kids to excel, of kids responding with anxiety attacks and long-term emotional impairment. But none of that was apparent Thursday night at Ridgely Middle School, where kids who struck out or dropped a pop-up got encouragement, not criticism.
"I don't see the pressure from parents, I see it from the boys themselves," Mr. Lessner said before the season began. "If they make a bad play, they really get down on themselves. You have to tell them, it's only one play."
In a pre-game pep talk Thursday, Mr. Maciolek told the boys, "The most important part of this is enjoyment. Second is good sportsmanship, third is learning how to function as a unit and learning baseball."
Three hours later, Andrew's run started to break the game open for the Braves, who scored four more times that inning. The Phillies only managed to come back with one run in the bottom of the inning. The game was called because of darkness with the final score 9-5.
The kids insist that winning isn't everything to them. "I just like throwing a ball around with my friends," said Travis Mulkay, a Ridgely seventh-grader, a few days after the game. "If we play good, I don't care if we win or lose. If I don't play good and the team doesn't, I'm not happy."
Travis added, "I'm only in the seventh grade. Winning isn't that important."
Matthew Streyle, a Ridgley sixth-grader, echoed that sentiment but also admitted, "Winning gets more important toward the end of the season when you're close to the championship."
And Christian Miller, a fifth grader at Hampton Elementary School, says he enjoys the accomplishments of his friends.
"The fun is watching someone you think isn't very good hit the ball," he said. "It feels good. You feel so good for them."