WESTBROOK — Kory Rolbiecki set his water bottle down on the bench in the otherwise empty dugout and hung his bat bag on the chain-link fence.

ThatMomentHe and his grandmother’s fiance – Kory’s Pepe and coach – had always gotten to the field early to practice throwing. For the first game of the season, he was early again and the only one there from his team.

He unzipped the bag and took out a ball. “Pepe’s always watching you” was written in purple marker on the white leather. He tossed the ball in the air and caught it in his glove.

When the family moved to Windham in the fall, Pepe asked if Kory could keep playing in Westbrook Little League, so he could stay with his friends. After Pepe died in January, league officials assured them it wouldn’t be a problem.

But most of the other 7-year-olds didn’t end up moving up with Kory from the instructional division to the minors. And, with Pepe gone, too, it wasn’t the same.

As Kory tossed the ball to himself while waiting for his teammates, a coach from the other team asked if he wanted to practice with them, and he ran right out to the boys throwing in left field.

When he went to wind up, he realized what he was holding, turned around and ran back toward his grandmother, who was standing at home plate.

“Wrong ball, wrong ball,” he said, giving it to her to hang onto.

• • • • • •

Kory’s grandmother, Arline Rolbiecki, first met Chris Doucette 11 years ago working on a road construction project in Carrabassett Valley. She was a flagger going through a divorce, and he was on the construction crew and willing to listen.

He helped her find a hotel room to stay in so she could get out of her house in Stratton.

“At that point we were friends,” Rolbiecki said, “then it turned into something a little bit more.”

He was 10 years younger – in his early 20s at the time – but that didn’t bother her.

“Easily trainable,” she remembered thinking and laughed.

When she decided to move her family to southern Maine, he went with them.

Her daughter, Krystal Rolbiecki, was still living with them when she got pregnant with Kory, and they’ve moved around together since then. Although Kory’s father has come in and out of his life, Pepe was always there for the boy.

“They were two peas in a pod,” Arline Rolbiecki said.

Every time Doucette went to go to the store, Kory was right behind him. He took up his Pepe’s interests in car racing and watching football and grew to love Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Patriots.

“Everything Pepe wanted to do, Kory liked it just because,” she said – not the least of which was baseball.

Doucette started as an assistant coach for Kory’s team two years ago, then became the head coach last year.

He had just asked the league president about coaching Kory’s new team in the minors before he died.

Rolbiecki was giving Kory’s little brother a bath the night when Doucette came in and sat next to her. He told her he thought he was feeling better from the flu that had been going around the house, then keeled over and never got up. The virus had attacked his lungs.

As an ambulance came to take Doucette away, Kory’s other grandmother, Rhonda Vosmus, picked him up and brought him to her condo in Portland, where he sleeps over a couple times a month.

Usually he takes advantage of her Internet access, playing Minecraft for hours, but that night he had bigger concerns.

“He asked me, ‘What if I forget all the good things that Pepe taught me?'” Vosmus said.

So, she got out a notebook and they started writing them down.

• • • • • •

Kory hasn’t slept alone since then, Rolbiecki said, and neither has she. Sometimes, when they’re lying in bed at night, he starts asking questions.

He wants to see pictures of heaven so he knows where Pepe lives. He’s asked whether he drives a car there and if he has a new blanket and pillow to sleep on, because he left his behind. He wondered if Pepe could write him a letter and leave it on the kitchen table, letting him know why he had to go.

“I didn’t have answers for him,” Rolbiecki said.

But there were other things she could do for Kory, like help him get ready for his baseball games, as Pepe used to do.

“It’s new for me, but I’m learning,” she said, after tying up his high-top cleats at home before the season opener last week.

Long before it was time to leave, Kory had his batting gloves on and his bat bag around his shoulders.

As his mother packed up drinks and snacks, he kicked a soccer ball around their den.

Kory said he never gets nervous for baseball games, even the first one of the season. He didn’t know what position he would play, but could handle them all.

“Any but catcher, ’cause I don’t have a cup yet,” he said.

His grandmother asked him if he remembered the two things Pepe always told him.

“Eye on the ball and – I forget the other one,” he said.

“Control,” his grandmother reminded him.

• • • • • •

At the field behind the American Legion on Route 25, Kory’s teammates started arriving, so he left the boys he was throwing with and ran back to the bench.

There, he saw his old neighbor from Westbrook, who didn’t have a uniform. He had signed up for the instructional division but decided to move up after his first game.

“Finally, I have someone on my team that’s my friend,” Kory said, and the two of them took off for right field to throw.

As the game was about to start, his coach, Mitch Kosoff, called to the players from the bench.

“Guys, bring it in,” he said.

Kosoff went through the lineup. Kory’s name wasn’t called, but the coach assured everyone they’d get their chance to play.

Sure enough, in the top of the second inning, Kory was sent to second base.

He got through three outs without touching the ball, but wouldn’t stay out of the action for long. When they came off the field, Kosoff shouted out the next three batters. Kory was the third.

The first batter grounded out, bringing Kory on deck. As he took practice swings from the sideline, he watched another teammate strike out.

When he got up to the plate, with two outs, his teammates stood up by the fence, their fingers hanging from the holes.

“Let’s go, Kory, let’s go,” they chanted.

His feet spread shoulder-width apart and his hands gripping the bat by his shoulder, he watched the first pitch fall in front of the plate.

“Let’s go, Kory, let’s go,” they sang again.

When the second pitch came in, he took a step forward like Pepe taught him, swung and missed.

“Keep your arm up,” an assistant coach yelled from the dugout.

The next ball went behind his back. Another came in too short to hit, but he went for it anyway, and the count was even.

“If it’s a strike, you swing for it,” the coach said.

Kory didn’t move as the next pitch crossed his chest.

“Full count,” said the other team’s coach, umping from behind the mound.

As the deciding pitch came in, Kory held his stance and kept his eye on the ball as it soared over his head.