Zach Smith has endured more than just about any other young baseball player this season, but no one would know it by talking to him.
"I enjoy being out here and playing this sport. I love it," the Evans boy said before a recent game at Riverside Park.
Zach is a second baseman on the GreenJackets team in the 11-12-year-old Dixie Youth League in the Columbia County Recreation Department. Like any other Columbia County boy, he couldn't wait for the season to start after his dad, Jeff Smith, registered him for another year of baseball.
Soon after, however, disaster struck.
"He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis," said Smith, who also coaches the GreenJackets. "It's a disease of your colon. We had to take him to the hospital."
Just like that, Zach's dreams of playing baseball again began to fade. Instead of looking for a new glove and fielding ground balls in the backyard in preparation for a new season, he was taking heavy drugs to fight stomach pain.
"He was laid up for about six weeks," Smith said. "The whole time I think he was more worried about how the team was doing."
Smith stayed with his son while assistant coaches Marty Ogden and Noel Simmons took over. Zach was released from the Medical College of Georgia Hospital on March 29, but he was still a long way from a full recovery.
"He lost a lot of weight and muscle mass," Smith said.
Almost the entire first half of the season was gone, and Zach certainly wasn't in the same physical condition he once was, but the second baseman returned to the baseball field May 9.
"It was his first game back, and he didn't start," Smith said. "We had a five-run lead going into the last inning, and he got into the game."
That's when the other team, the Rivercats, staged a comeback. A three-run rally left the Green- Jackets holding on to an 8-7 lead with two outs and a Rivercat runner on third base.
That's when a ground ball was hit Zach's way.
"I was focused on the game, but I nearly had a heart attack," he said. "I didn't think I was going to make the play."
Zach did make the game-winning play. He knocked the ball down and fired to first base for the final out to save the victory.
"He's never been real mobile, and with all this he's even less mobile now, but he made the play," Smith said. "That did the whole team good."
During the postgame celebration, Zach was awarded the game ball.
Smith said his son is still battling the colitis and probably will for a long time to come. But for a day, a Riverside Park baseball field was the best medicine.
"It's been hard on him, and we didn't want him out here unless he could handle it," Smith said, "but being out here has been a big part of the healing process."
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