During the same year Rich Spiegel swung his first Little League baseball bat, he took a big step toward adulthood.
It began with the death of his mother, Honora Catherine, when he was 6. She had attendedevery one of her son's games, beginning with tee-ball when he was 4.But after her death from cancer, Spiegel was transplanted to Frederick with his father, Al, and older brother, Mike.
"Some nights, when my dad was out and my brother was working," said the 18-year-old Northeast catcher, "I'd be home alone."
Being "home alone" for this 8-year-old was far from the adventure of the popular movie, but if Honora was around, she'd be proud of the gentlemanher son has become.
"With what he's been through, he could have just gone the other way," said Northeast coach Harry Lentz. "Instead, he's just a hard-working, great kid."
Spiegel's love for simple things, like crabbing and fishing, has earned him the nicknames "country boy and good old boy" from friends. His guitar playing and crooningvoice rivals that of his country-western idol, Randy Travis, so his girlfriend, Tina, says.
It's doubtful, however, that Travis can swing a bat like the 6-foot, 213-pound Spiegel, or whip a throw to second base in 1.89 seconds, "good enough to be a pro prospect," said Lentz.
Spiegel led the Eagles in batting (.428) and RBI (23) enteringyesterday's game against Southern. His four strikeouts in 49 at-batswas fourth best on the team, and defensively, he had 76 put-outs, seven assists and just two errors in 85 attempts.
The Eagles lost a recent game, 5-4, to top-ranked Severna Park, but Spiegel won a battle with Falcons' catcher John Milisitz, who was rifled out by Spiegel as he tried to steal second.
"Was I trying to make him look bad? Of course," said Milisitz, the Falcons' leading batter at .531 before Monday. "But we're good friends who compete in batting, throw-outs, everything."
Spiegel struggled as a freshman, barely making the cuton Northeast's junior varsity squad. As a sophomore, he was a back-up catcher and a designated hitter.
But hard work over the summer turned him into a power hitter. As a junior, he hit .473 with 35 RBI and became a second-team All-County selection. As one of five returning senior starters from last year's 24-0 Class 2A state champion squad, Spiegel's soft-spoken words carry ample weight.
Last fall, however, Spiegel just carried a lot of weight -- his own -- after ballooning to 230 pounds over the summer. Family doctors discovered high blood pressure, prescribed medication twice daily and admonished him to "get in shape."
They also told Spiegel to forget about his third year of varsity football, but he was determined not to let the ailment steal his senior baseball season.
He doubled up on his training byrunning, doing sit-ups and lifting weights five days a week. Soon, the symptoms were gone. He now bench-presses 250 pounds, and his powerhas him leading the team with three home runs.
"He came through in the clutch," said Lentz. "But he's such a nice kid, sometimes I've got to get on him to take charge."
Ranked No. 9 in The Baltimore Sun poll, the Eagles have lost more games at 8-5 than in the past two years (46-1) combined. "We've got a five-man pitching rotation," saidLentz. "But the only one Rich knew well was (first-team All-County selection Derek) Dolch."
Sophomore hurler Jason Hohman (.371, 3-1 on the mound) credits Spiegel for much of his success. "He knows a lotof batters and how to set them up," said Hohman, 16. "He bats No. 3,and I'm No. 4, so he critiqued me when I was looping the ball and helped me with my stance."
Spiegel loved his father, but often stoodon his own often as a youngster, before going to live with his aunt and uncle, Dot and Bill Hornberger, when he was 14.
Last fall, theHornbergers helped him buy a Ford EXP for $2,600. But the $2,200 annual insurance fee is his responsibility, so he earns $5 an hour working 15 to 20 hours a week at Stammer's Sport Center.
"My uncle loves me, but he really cracks down on me," said Spiegel, an honor-roll student. "I like doing things on my own. It teaches me a lot."
His goals include making All-County, All-Metro and even the big leagues someday. "I just want my chance," he said.
Spiegel sometimes is jarred by memories of his mother. During home games, for instance, peering through the bars of his face mask, over his right shoulder at the area designated for Northeast fans, he wonders, "What if Mom was sitting there?"
"It bothers me, sometimes," said Spiegel. "Like I wishshe was still watching me."