Whittle shows off his collection.
NCAA.com

CARY, N.C. – The two best fielders at the Division II baseball championship never actually made it onto the field of play.

The first thing you notice about Bilalian Whittle is his wheels. The kid can flat-out fly. Twelve years old and a rising seventh grader, Whittle flashed from one end of Coleman Field to the other in pursuit of yet another foul ball. By Friday, he had tracked down – get this – 31 of them.

Thirty-one? Oh, yeah. You betcha.

But here’s the truly remarkable part of the story. He didn’t keep any of them, especially after Tuesday soda-pop incident. See, here at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, anybody who turns in a foul ball gets a free soda in free commemorative cup. And, well, Tuesday, Bilalian had a big day.

He turned the balls in, got his drinks and … well, drank them. By the time he and his dad, Elizabeth City (N.C.) State  head baseball coach Terrence Whittle, were ready to leave that night, Bilalian was green around the gills.

No more soda pop for you.

“I caught a lot of foul balls, so I got a lot of sodas,” Bilalian said. “And I had junk food, too. So I got really sick to my stomach, and I couldn’t catch foul balls no more. I didn’t feel like going no more.”

After Tuesday, Bilalian continued to turn in most of the foul balls he chased down, but he received only empty cups in return. A few, he gave away to other kids who hadn’t yet received one of the cherished treasures. His father smiled at Bilalian’s exploits.

“He’s a baseball player, and for his age, he’s very good,” said Whittle, who is also a member of the DII baseball committee. “I might sound like a biased father, but he loves the game and he loves being around the game. I had him at the ballpark at three years, and he’s been around the teams that I coached. He’s just always had a knack for the ball.”

Well, yeah. That much was evident this week. Every time a ball was even near the stands on his side of the stadium, usually down the first base line, Bilalian was on the move in an instant. More often than not, he did not come up empty handed.

“I love baseball,” he said. “When I see a baseball in the air, I just stick to it because I play centerfield. I see a baseball in the air, I go for it.”

So does Nicholas Polonio, who will be a high school sophomore here in Cary. From the moment he walked into the ballpark Sunday, he had a plan. Like Bilalian, Nicholas is a baseball fanatic, and the closer he can get to the game, the better. In quite a literal sense, for him, a foul ball is a piece of the action.

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At last count, Nicholas’ collection of DII championship baseballs had risen well into the twenties. And that was before he served as a bat boy for the Catawba-West Chester game Thursday night.

“It makes you feel like you’re a part of the game, like you’re one of the players,” Nicholas said. “First, the pitcher pitches it to the hitter, and then you’re the guy out there who’s catching it.”

At first, Bilalian and Nicholas were in something of a completion over who would wind up with the most baseballs. Yet as their totals rose, they struck a peace accord.

If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.

While Nicholas was in the dugout Thursday, they agreed to pool their take for the night and then split it right down the middle. Their plan for the Saturday’s championship showdown between West Chester and Delta State is more elaborate. Nicholas will be the spotter, closer to the field. Bilalian will lay back, and listen for their code word, “airplane.”

Evidently, that means that a ball is in the air.

At the end of the tournament, Nicholas has a plan. He will keep a few of the balls as mementoes, use a several of the others -- he’s going to play college ball someday, so he needs to get the feel of the baseball -- and then sell the rest.

A queasy stomach, a bunch of empty cups or cold, hard cash. Take your pick.