By Bill Burt
---- — HAVERHILL — It has the appearance of the oddest of couples.
A boy from Gilmer, Texas, and a community college baseball team 1,600 miles away in Haverhill, Mass.
Kativa Robinson can’t explain it, the connection between her 14-year-old son Jacob, nicknamed “Peanut,” and about 20 young men from Northern Essex Community College.
“All you have to know is he wanted to come to Boston for his birthday,” said Kativa, of her son who had never been on a plane before this week. “He loves this team.”
Loves NECC baseball?
What about the Texas-based juggernauts, schools like University of Texas, Texas A&M or SMU, a few hours away from their home.
“Nope,” said Jacob, wearing a blue cap with the “NE” letters on it. “Northern Essex is my favorite team ... And it’s not even close”
Jacob and NECC baseball were introduced 13 months ago when NECC qualified for the NJCCA Div. 3 World Series in Tyler, Texas.
Part of the duties for the competing eight teams is to participate in a baseball clinic for children the day before the games begin.
“My dad saw an advertisement for the clinic and thought it would be nice for Jacob to go. He’s always loved baseball more than anything.” said Jacob’s mom. “The only problem was we live 40 minutes away from Tyler (Texas). My dad said he’d take him. He picked him up from school and they went.”
Jacob, whose dad is not in the picture, was a month shy of his 13th birthday at the time. He was in a group of boys working with Northern Essex Community College.
“I just remember him being so intense and wanting to learn,” recalled Costa Tingis, who played last year for NECC before moving on to UMass Boston this past year. “We were joking around with him and his accent. He liked our accent. We told him to come to our game the next day.”
Jacob made the 40-mile trip. Three innings into the game, one of the coaches noticed he was standing several feet away from the dugout. He was invited to be on the bench.
“The thing was we loved having him in the dugout,” said Tingis of Lowell. “He was loud. He was energetic. To be honest, he helped us a lot.”
Jacob told the team about his Little League team in Gilmer and several players said they might try to make his game later that night.
Well, the entire team made the trek in two mini-vans, shocking Jacob.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Jacob. “It was one of the best feelings I ever had, seeing the whole team there to watch me. I was so pumped up.”
His mom recalled wiping away some tears as the team went onto the field for huge “team” photo with both Little League teams. In fact, the local newspaper in Gilmer ran the photo and wrote a story.
“It was one of the nicest gestures anyone had ever done for Jacob,” said Kativa.
Jacob said his team lost 14-2 that night under the lights.
“But honestly, it felt like we won the game,” recalled Jacob. “I had two hits and made a few plays at shortstop and they went wild for me. I’ll never forget it.”
One reason he couldn’t forget it was after the NECC team returned home a few days later, a few players, including Tingis, kept up with Jacob all year.
“He would always report to me how he did in a game or practice,” said Tingis. “I would give him a few tips, what to work on. It was like having a little brother. We texted each other a lot.”
When NECC went on a surprising winning streak near the end of the season this past spring, eventually qualifying for the World Series again, Jacob was waiting for them.
He was in the dugout, rooting his favorite team on and swapping stories with the guys.
“His nickname is Peanut, probably because he was small, but he grew a lot this year,” said Tyler Johnson, who just finished two years on the NECC team. “He was part of our team as much as any player was.”
NECC athletic director Sue MacAvoy, who made the trip with the baseball team the last two years, said the relationship between the baseball team is like something she has never seen before.
“People need to understand this wasn’t driven by the coaches,” said MacAvoy. “This was all player-driven. It’s really special. They really had a big effect on Jacob and I think he on them, too.”
Entering his sophomore year in high school, his mom said his relationship with the NECC baseball team has elevated his confidence and, in fact, helped teach him about leadership.
“It’s funny. Now he sees a little kid struggling with something, he’s the first one to help,” said Kativa. “This relationship has been an amazing thing for us and Jacob.”
The Robinsons spent time visiting Boston landmarks, including Fenway Park, where they took in a game with three NECC players last weekend.
“This means a lot to me, how these guys treated me,” said Jacob. “I get emotional when I think about it. I love being around the guys. They will always be like family to me. Always.”
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.