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For fans like Janice Tapia, the game is more than a pastime. It provides them with a sense of who they are.

The Church of Baseball

The score is 7 to 2 at the top of the seventh and the Richmond Braves have all but clinched the second of four home games against the Pawtucket Red Sox. It is as good a time as any for Janice Tapia to make her rounds.

A pack of regular spectators stand an arm's throw behind home plate. Tapia takes her place among them, the only woman of the bunch. Seamlessly, she jumps into the conversation, asking about baseball, kids and summer plans. A few indulge her with stories. Tapia laughs and nods along.

"Have you taken care of your kids tonight?" a friend asks Tapia. He turns to the others and points to Tapia: "They ask her who's signing."

Tapia is the one to ask about autographs. Still, she shrugs off the credit .

"I'm by far not an expert on any aspect of the game except I love it," she tells them apologetically.

The men appear content to stand here for the rest of the game. But Tapia, flanked by fans who tower over her, must press on. She promises to check back before the game is over. She slides her purse and tote bag — full of cards, programs, pictures, pens and virgin baseballs — over her tanned bare arms and grabs her beer. With a shy smile to the huddle, Tapia slips away.

Baseball is a fickle sport. Nobody knows what will happen when a ball explodes off a bat. It could arc into a cloudless sky and land most anywhere. Everyone at the ballpark expects this.

Tapia expects something more. She connects to baseball in a way others don't, sizing up action on and off the field like a nurse taking a pulse. In nine innings, she visits as many people and pockets of the ballpark as she can. Tapia is always the first to say hello. She relieves vendors for breaks during the game. She chats with stadium workers about their personal lives. If a co-worker or friend wants an autograph for his kid, she'll do her best to get it.

The ballpark is Tapia's sanctuary; its people, her congregation. And Baseball is her religion. It's what she believes in most. Tapia's allover presence lends a kind of certainty to the game. And when she makes her rounds, it seems strangely possible that little about baseball, or the experience of it, is left to chance.

n hour before the game, "Back in the USSR" blares from stadium speakers. It's still too early for a crowd. Downy clouds sail overhead. The sun, refusing to be shut out, soaks the outfield. In minutes, the chalk-marked infield is shaded past the pitcher's mound. The stadium seems to swell and curl higher and higher like a giant tidal wave. The surreal quality of the place isn't lost on Tapia. This is often her only quiet time of day.

"Being outside in the summertime is just so relaxing," she says, cupping her hands to gaze at the sky.

For 10 years she's been dashing from her job as an auditor at Philip Morris to every one of the season's 71 home games. The sooner she gets to the Diamond, the better. But her early arrival is more than a time to find quiet. It's also a willful attempt to collect autographs from the visiting team. Collectors get there early, she says. Chances are, they've already filled multiple books with cards signed by the Braves.

Tapia is the lone female among nearly a dozen teen-age boys who regularly scout games for opponents' autographs.

"Some people buy clothes," Tapia says. "I buy cards and baseballs." With her khaki shorts and black tank top, silver sandals, red-painted toenails and French manicure, Tapia looks like Barbie among a pack of G.I. Joes. She says baseball is an ageless game, so she declines to give hers.

"My teen-age buddies will think I'm too old and won't want to hang out with me," she says teasingly. The boys with short haircuts, long shorts and T-shirts don't appear to notice the difference.

A player for Pawtucket appears at the fence and the pack swarms to him. He signs two of Tapia's cards. She thanks him and turns away, bashfully. "He's so cute," she whispers.

Batting practice is over and the field is being primed for the game.

"Now that that's done I'm going to get me a beer," she says with a sigh.

apia, a native of Hampton Roads, started going to Braves games more than a decade ago with her sister and her family. Instantly, she was hooked.

"Now I do it for me," she says. Tapia is part of a club of baseball lovers that stretches as far as baseball does. But she takes it to another level of devotion.

"It caught me off-guard a little bit when I first met her," says Braves player Pedro Swann, who has known Tapia for six years and rents a room from her during the season. "But I soon realized she really loves the Braves and the games, and it's all very sentimental to her." Swann says Tapia goes out of her way for the players. Recently, he says, Tapia picked up a player's wife from the airport when no one else could. "In the beginning of the season the new guys don't know her. But they keep seeing her in the stands and they ask me, 'Who is she?' I tell them: 'We need more fans like her.'"

And her love of the game has expanded far beyond the Diamond. She has a baseball room in her West End house filled with all kinds of baseball paraphernalia. She has hundreds of signed balls, displayed and organized according to team and year. Her hallway is lined with 8-by-10-inch signed photographs of players from nearly every team. In 1995, Tapia went to the World Series for Game Six when the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians. And she was at the first game of the series in '99. Still, she's partial to her Richmond Braves. Often, she goes to Scranton, Norfolk and Charlotte for away games.

Every March for nine years she has taken a week's vacation to cheer the team at spring training in Florida. At the Diamond she's had box seats from dugout to dugout. Her seat this year is in the first row behind the backstop. She paid $315 for it and, so far, she says, she's spent two innings in it. When baseball's not in season, she says, "I clean my house and organize my baseballs. I just catch up on baseball."

Tapia keeps tabs on her players after they've graduated to the big leagues in Atlanta. When each gets his first major-league hit she sends him a keepsake. "It's just a little $5.98 trophy with their name engraved on it," she says. "It's a token that someone noticed. We remember."

t 6:37 the announcer comes on to give tonight's lineup. Two young brothers with camouflage baseball caps wait for a head to appear from the opponent's dugout.

"Hey, sir, will you sign my glove?" the taller of the two asks.

A minute passes. Nothing. Hoping for the best, the boys toss the gloves over the fence and into Pawtucket's dugout. It doesn't matter who signs them. Another minute later, the gloves fly back up and over the dugout. The wide-eyed boys stare at each other, amazed. Just then, an usher marches down the steps to tell them they can't do that. Tapia watches and laughs. "To see a kid get an autograph just tickles my heart so!" she says.

Five minutes before the game 11 men and boys hover by the dugout, hopeful they'll get one last autograph before the umpires come out, the firm signal for players to stop signing. Tapia and the collectors are passing cards.

"We don't trade, we give back and forth," Tapia says.

"Janice, do you know who that is?" asks William O'Flaherty, a rising freshman at Collegiate School who plays first base and catcher on his school team.

"Gosh, I'll have to look at the roster," says Tapia. But Tapia is poring over a list. "Hey Tut, are you coming to the picnic?" she asks the booster-club member.

"Oh, yeah, I'm bringing 30 cans of Coors Light," Andy Tutka replies. Tut, it turns out, played ball at Langley Field in the 1940s during World War II.

"Who's going to run and risk getting an autograph for a beer?" Tapia asks. Nobody would dare. "There's not very many people here tonight," she notices. She decides to go for the beer. In the breezeway at the top of the steps, she spies a player: Braves pitcher Delvis Pacheco.

"Hi Delvis," she says.

"Hi," he replies, flatly. He brushes through the crowd to his side of the dugout. "We've got a lot of good players," she says, not appearing the least deflated. "But they struggle. Baseball is a constant struggle." She pauses for a moment, as if to wonder where she should go from here. In a flash Tapia's brow is smooth again. Few players make it to the majors, but a stop in Richmond has a purpose. "Once you're in Triple A, it's the next step," she says sounding hopeful, "the very next step."

he first pitch crosses the plate at 7:03.

Three up, three down. It's the bottom of the first. Tapia decides to sit for some of the next inning with her friends from the Richmond Braves Booster club. She finds an empty seat among them on the first baseline. She is among her peers here.

"My friends who aren't fans just don't get it," explains Ann Lane Witt, 27. "It's amazing to see the ones right on the threshold," she tells Tapia.

Nearly an inning passes in silence before Witt speaks: "Desserts," she says. "Put me down for cookies and brownies." Tapia nods and smiles, pulling out the list she's made of what everyone's bringing to the annual picnic.

Tapia looks over to the stands where the players' wives and families sit. She's looking for a player there.

Tomo Ohka pitched the previous game for Pawtucket. Tapia — like all the signature collectors — is eager to get his autograph because he has Major League cachet. Already this year, he has pitched for Boston. Tapia keeps four Fleet Tradition Ohka cards handy. The moment she's within range of Ohka, she says, she'll pull out her blue Sharpie pen — the only kind that works well on the cards' shiny surface — and a brand new Rawlings professional series ball. With the ball, she'll offer a ballpoint pen. She shows the sweet spot of the ball, between the stitching. It's where the signature goes if only one player signs the ball.

Often the autographs are not for Tapia. Tonight, she's promised to get two for a friend's grandkids.

Suddenly, Tapia spots Ohka in the crowd.

"We're going to go behind the plate!" she says.

The Braves' Ismael Villegas and Pawtucket's Ohka are seated in box seats directly behind home plate. Dressed in plain clothes, they nearly blend in with the crowd. The two had pitched in last night's game and tonight they have to record other pitchers' pitches.

As soon as Tapia reaches the landing above Ohka's tier, she learns of a snag: Ohka is not signing. He hasn't signed a single autograph in three days.

Tapia aims to persuade him. Ohka is charting pitches. His teammate Paxton Crawford holds up the radar gun to each throw. Villegas sits across the aisle from the two opponents.

Tapia darts down the steps and crouches next to Crawford's seat. The teen-age collectors watch her and wait. In seconds, she springs back up the steps with her card signed by Crawford. No Ohka, but still a triumph. Gleefully, she shows the others, who don't dare interrupt the game in the middle of an inning.

Tapia runs off to give the card to the friend she promised it to. She still hasn't gone to her car to get a jacket, an hour after she mentioned she needed one. Fortunately, the wind has stopped.

etween innings, Tapia rejoins the cluster of women poised from box seats on the first base line. They are members of the Richmond Braves' Booster Club, primed for action. The Braves are safely ahead by 5. Soon talk turns to yesterday's fluke.

Pedro Swann had hit a dinger in the afternoon game. The homer helped ace a much-needed win for the Braves that nearly tipped their record to .500. It also incurred a casualty for one member of the team. The ball had shattered the windshield of a car lent to pitcher Delvis Pacheco. Naturally, Tapia is aware of this. During baseball season, she rents part of her house to Swann.

Thanks to booster-club e-mail, word had spread among the others like a 90 mph fast ball. The booster club has its perks. Members get news on roster changes. There are social events with the team. And, for some, when a hapless ball falls out of the sky, there comes a dawning that the players' lives are, in some ways, like their own.

"Sometimes it's hard to realize what the real important things are when you're clambering your way to the top," says Tapia. None of their boys are superstars, yet. Deep in her heart, Tapia knows few of them ever will be.

After the seventh inning, Tapia is again on the move.

She shuffles off to offer to relieve her friend at the Braves' souvenir stand. Fifteen minutes later the friend returns. Next, Tapia darts outside to visit with stadium workers at the tunnel.

"Everbody knows Janice," says Percy Mines, who has been a sentinel at the Braves' bullpen for 13 years. "Everybody loves Janice. She's good people, she's really good people."

Mines teases Tapia, calling out her name in earshot of Braves pitchers warming up in the bullpen. "Hey, number 23! Hey, number 23! Here's Janice!" he calls.

Tapia runs away. "I've got to get away from here. Those guys will think I'm stalking them."

She races around the front of the stadium and up the steps. "I've got to check on the boys."

On the way, she runs into a Brave.

"Hey, Izzy," she calls out to Villegas, the pitcher in last night's game.

"Hi," he says back.

Tapia stops to chat with Sabrina Jeter in the ticket office. "Sabrina's my buddy," she says.

"Everybody knows everybody," says Jeter, whose husband works at the games, too. "It's a club."

"We love our boys," says Tapia.

"She's the number one fan of the Richmond Braves," says Jeter.

It's off to the Diamond Room, the stadium's indoor restaurant, to cool off and sit down.

Tapia knows all the workers here, too. She asks one how her practice is since she graduated from medical school. Tapia had remembered that the woman had to work extra hours to pay off her loans while trying to grow her practice. The woman fills her in while Tapia sips her beer.

At the top of the eighth the Braves' Marcus Giles hits a double to left field, driving in two runs to make it 9 to 2. Next, another run is scored. Finally, Swann follows with a pop out for three. In the bottom of the eighth, Pawtucket scores. Tapia barely blinks.

It's 10 to 2 at the top of the ninth. Janice is at the exit talking to an usher, asking her if she's done with school.

Clumps of powdery moths race and dip against the black sky and glaring spotlights. A run comes in for Pawtucket to make it 10 to 3.

"The good news is it's almost impossible to ruin an eight-run lead," says one of Tapia's friends. The next play is the game's last.

"Yeah!" says Tapia, as Marcus Giles catches a pop fly. "We won, we won!"

Still, Tapia doesn't go home just yet. "They sign out here," she says, pointing to the fence where already a pack of boys have gathered. It's the last chance for collectors to catch visiting players before they board the vans. "But you gotta be able to recognize them out of uniform," she warns. Tapia decides not to wait this one out. She's already scored autographs from three days' worth of games against Pawtucket. She walks around by the tunnel.

"When Andruw Jones was in town this is where I went to get his autograph," she says. "I was terrible."

Approaching the Will Call booth, Tapia recognizes one of her favorite Braves' fans sitting alone on a bench. The stadium is silent and the parking lot is nearly empty. The elderly woman is waiting for her daughter to drive closer with the car. They come together to all the games, says Tap. Have done this for years.

"It's chilly," the woman says.

"Yes, it sure got cold," Tapia replies.

"But we won again, and that's what counts," says the woman. Her daughter pulls up and the woman makes her way with her walker to the car. "See you tomorrow," Tapia calls.

By the Braves' side of the tunnel a few stragglers wait for players to come out, hoping for one last autograph of the night. Chief, the Braves' unofficial basset-hound mascot, dozes by the field. It's 9:47. The scoreboard has been turned off.

A player walks through the tunnel, stops, and turns back. A minute later he emerges with something in his hand. He reaches a fan who has been waiting for him. The player hands him a broken black bat. "Here you go, brother," says Braves infielder Chan Perry.

The young man smiles. The man takes the cracked Louisville Slugger, emblazoned with Perry's name, and beams, cradling his prize.

Tapia watches Perry as he crosses the parking lot. She turns to the Braves fan and pats her chest over her heart, as if she knows exactly what he's feeling.

"You meet the nicest people at the ballpark," she says. S

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