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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A sanctuary from the storm

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

MINNEAPOLIS -- Blake Brewster was in his element Tuesday night at the Metrodome, racing around the bright green artificial turf on Mall of America Field, playing the game of baseball with an unleashed sense of abandon that, in truth, so many of the prospects at this year's Perfect Game Junior National Showcase seem to possess.

But Brewster's intensity seems to register at a different level, the one often referred to "notch above the rest." He is a 6-foot, 165-pound, 16-year-old incoming junior at Moore (Okla.) High School who has already experienced his share of good times and bad, with a disproportionate number of those good times coming at the ballpark.

"That was a lot of fun," he said Tuesday after taking part in the Junior National's morning workout session (he ran a suitable 6.86-second 60-yard dash) and playing a full 10 inning game with PG Green. "I love this stuff; I just live for it."

Brewster, an outfielder and left-handed pitcher, is the nation's 149th-ranked prospect in the high school class of 2015, a University of Oklahoma commit who plays summer ball with Team Oklahoma. He was at the PG Junior National Showcase with his good buddy Kyle Tyler, a Team Oklahoma teammate from Oklahoma City, and Kyle's dad, Wayne. The trio spent last week in the north Atlanta suburbs at the 16u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational.

Brian and Linda Brewster, Blake's parents, would have probably made the trip but they weren't in any position to leave Moore this week. They are extremely busy these days, trying to rebuild their family's lives.

WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE COLD HARD FACTS, BLACK-AND-WHITE REPORT posted on Wikipedia about the events in Moore, Okla., just over three weeks ago today:

"On the afternoon of May 20, 2013, and EF5 tornado, with peak winds estimated at 210 mph, struck Moore, Oklahoma and adjacent areas, killing 24 people and injuring 377 others. The tornado was part of a large weather system that had produced several other tornadoes over the previous two days. The tornado touched down west of Newcastle at 2:56 CDT, staying on the ground for 39 minutes over a 17-mile path, crossing through a heavily populated section of Moore. The tornado was 1.3 miles wide at its peak."

Other reports identified the tornado as the "strongest in the United States in nearly two years," and one that left 24 people dead, including 10 school children. It damaged or destroyed 1,200 homes and affected 33,000 people; 16-year-old baseball prospect Blake Brewster was one of those 33,000.

"The day (the tornado hit), I was in my football locker room at the high school," Brewster said. "We were sitting there for about an hour, and then (school personnel) told everybody, 'We've got to go the gym, we've got to get underground.' We were running up to the gym, and that thing (the tornado) was right behind the gym; it was just huge, just rearing its ugly face, coming right for us. We stayed for about an hour at the gym and waited for it to  pass, and then my baseball coach (Tony Borum) took me home."

Brewster hadn't adequately prepared himself for what he was about to encounter, but really, who could have prepared themselves for the reality of the total devastation.

"I walked into my neighborhood and I didn't even recognize it," Blake said, his voice becoming a little more halting. "I walked in (to the neighborhood) and I got a little emotional, just seeing all the memories and all the stuff that I've come to know -- stuff I was seeing every morning just walking by -- was gone."

That included the Brewster's home, which was destroyed. There was extensive damage at a pair of elementary schools -- Briarwood and Plaza Towers -- where 10 young school children lost their lives. The high school where Brewster was hunkered down was largely spared. And, he told PG, he was fortunate in that he didn't lose any loved ones -- family or friends -- to the storm.

"We got very lucky," he said. "My sister lives right by Plaza Towers, and she's fine, but it was just an emotional time for everybody, all of my family. At one time we had 15 people in my sister's house -- I have four sisters, and me and my oldest sister didn't have homes. All of her family and my family stayed at my sister Jen's house; it could have been fun having everybody together but this wasn't fun at all."

In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, the people in Moore -- a city of 55,000 that is part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area -- didn't wait for the National Guard to arrive -- oh no, not these folks. These are proud, hard-working Oklahomans, and they went to work.

"As soon as it happened and as soon as I got back home I just went to work trying to see if anybody needed help, just going around and making sure everyone was OK," Brewster said. "We pulled 23 people out of my neighborhood, out of their cellars."

Over the next couple of days, assistance arrived from all over Oklahoma and the rest of the country. In one of thousands instances of support, members of the University of Iowa football team hopped on a Hawkeyes bus and rushed down to join forces with the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team to help in the cleanup effort. There was a report that Sooners' football coach Bob Stoops showed up in Moore one day to help remove debris practically in disguise so no one would be distracted by his presence.

"It was amazing," Brewster said, his eyes widening at the recollection. "Just hundreds and thousands of people coming around to our neighborhood and seeing what they could do; you don't see that very many places. We had 100 people helping to clean up my house; everybody came and helped us pack up our house, and it was an amazing sight."

This was actually the second deadly tornado Brewster has survived in his 16 years living in Moore. The community was rocked by an even more deadly twister in 1999, when Blake was 3 years old.

TEAM OKLAHOMA MADE QUITE AN IMPRESSION at last week's 16u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in Marietta, Ga., finishing with a 5-1 record and sharing third place with the East Cobb Tigers 16u after losing to the Home Plate Chili Dogs 16u Childs in the semifinals.

Brewster was amazing at the tournament, hitting .588 (10-for-17) with three RBI, four runs scored and three stolen bases and being named to the all-tournament team. Batting in the No. 2 hole in the order, he was 4-for-5 with a double, an RBI and a run scored in the 14-11 loss to Home Plate. In a 6-3 quarterfinal win over NBS 16s, Brewster was 3-for-4 with a couple of RBI and pitched 6 2/3 innings, giving up two earned runs on six hits with nine strikeouts and one walk.

"For as many guys as we had -- I mean, we showed up with 10 guys," Brewster said. "We didn't have a lot of pitching, and we saw other teams with, like, 20 people. But we got third place, and that was a good feeling. We're going to come back in July (for the PG WWBA National Championship) with a lot more pitching and a lot more people, and that will be a lot more fun."

Blake Brewster won't run away from the challenges his family faces back in Moore. The Brewsters will persevere, rebuild and get on with their lives in due time. But don't fault Blake for finding a little peace, a little comfort, even a little solace on ball fields far away from central Oklahoma while looking ahead to a summer filled with baseball and friendship.

"Baseball is my sanctuary," he said. "I come here and play with my friends and meet new guys all the time; it's just a lot of fun. We're going to do a lot of traveling around this summer, just trying to get seen. We've got a bunch of the same guys on Team Oklahoma that have been playing together since we were about 7 years old. It seems like we've been together forever."

It's a bond not even a EF5 tornado can tear apart.

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