Just before dusk yesterday, Eric Fosler took me to the field were he played baseball as a boy. It was on the grassy acre next to Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, off Hamilton Avenue in northeast Baltimore. Eric pointed to the patch of dirt that was once home plate, then a patch of dirt that was once the pitcher's mound. From this, we determined that the young guy with the gun robbed Eric Fosler on what used to be center field.
"Right here," Eric said, pointing to dead grass about 100 feet from the church. "This is where he made me get down on my stomach."
It happened on the first night of the new year, around 6 o'clock. Eric Fosler was robbed in his old neighborhood, right where he used to chase fly balls, where he and his friends from Cedonia Avenue played the boys from Bucknell Road every summer night after supper. That was 30 years ago.
When Eric Fosler came through here the other night -- a grown man with a 5-year-old son -- he was robbed at gunpoint. And he knew then, once and sadly for all, that the neighborhood of his youth was gone forever.
Today, he's dealing with that -- as all men must, eventually, deal with it -- plus the vivid memory of a young man pointing a long-barreled handgun, and the great fear that his little boy, Philip, was deeply affected by the episode. The little boy was with Eric Fosler when the gunman came out of the dark.
"We left out of my house, me and Philip, about quarter to 6 for dinner at my parents' house," Fosler explained. He lives on the west side of Belair Road, in a modest rowhouse off White Avenue. It takes about 30 minutes to cross Belair Road and walk to his parents' home.
"Me and Philip walked down Hamilton Avenue," Fosler said. "We got to the corner of Albanene Place, right near the church, and these two guys came up and asked if I had a match. I don't smoke, I said no. . . . I was walking through the neighborhood where I grew up, and it's funny because I was in a nostalgic mood. My parents are gonna move out soon -- they've been there since 1958, the Cedonia development -- and I was thinking, you know, that pretty soon I wouldn't be able to just sort of walk through this neighborhood and visit my parents."
And there were Christmas lights on the houses, a sparkling vision that made Eric Fosler doubly nostalgic for the old days when he was, in his own words, "a little monkey like Philip," playing in these streets with other kids.
"I have some great memories of that neighborhood," he said. "I played baseball in that lot by the church. I played football there. I learned to ride my first motorcycle there. This is the place where I live, where I grew up."
He sensed trouble when the two young men who had asked for the match stopped, conferred, then started following Eric Fosler and his little boy.
"We got to the field by the church, and the one with the gun came up on me at an angle. There was nowhere for me to run, no one to call to."
A couple of streets separate the field by the church from the apartment complexes and two-story rowhouses along that stretch of Hamilton Avenue. The church was locked and dark. Eric Fosler was trapped.
"You know what this is, we got you," the gunman said. He pointed the gun at Fosler's chest, then told him to lie on the ground. The other man went through Eric Fosler's pockets and grabbed his wallet. Philip, the little boy, stood a few feet from his father's head. He didn't say a word.
"They told me to roll over," Fosler said. "I just looked at the sky because I didn't want them to think I was looking at them. The one with the gun kept waving it. The other one pulled on my belt, then he pulled on the laces of my Reeboks -- so hard he tied the laces in a knot. I kept hoping, 'Please let them be pros, please don't let them do something crazy, please let them get what they want and go, please don't shoot me in front of my son.' "
In an instant, they were gone with Eric Fosler's wallet -- and perhaps his last hope for the old neighborhood.
"I really wasn't scared till they were gone," Fosler said. "That's when it all hit me -- two guys robbing a man in front of his little boy, right in the place where I grew up, where I still live. This is very heartbreaking, believe me. I can't begin to tell you how heartbreaking this is."