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A connection with Joey: Bishop McLaughlin ace hopes to hit homer as tribute to his brother

SPRING HILL — One home run is all Brian Holland wants.

Style points be darned. For all he cares, it could just as easily be an opposite-field, wind-aided fluke as a 400-foot missile to center that lodges in a pine tree. To Holland, the best pitcher on Bishop McLaughlin's roster, this isn't about making a statement with his bat.

It's about making a gesture once he drops it. A simple skyward glance to Joey.

"He loved baseball and all that," Brian said of his older sibling. "I always thought it would be nice to at least hit one home run and be able to point up at him."

Should that homer come to fruition, Joey may be too busy slapping celestial high-fives to make eye contact with his baby brother. For the first decade of Brian's life, baseball was the mutual passion that bridged his and Joey's 23-year age gap.

And as sure as that gold Saint Joseph medal around Brian's neck, Joey would be gushing over Brian's success this season.

In the North Tower

Joseph Francis Holland III, a commodities trader who lived just outside New York City, owned season tickets to all Friday night Yankees games. He took Brian to his first one, and almost certainly would have taken him to more had terror not swooped down and shattered their universe.

Joey, who normally didn't work in the World Trade Center, was attending a meeting on the 92nd floor of the North Tower when the terrorist-steered passenger jet slammed into it on Sept. 11, 2001.

As Joey's dad later learned, from a wife of one of Joey's co-workers who made cell phone contact with her husband at the meeting, the blow caused the conference room door to be jammed. The occupants never made it out.

Ten days before, Joey, then 32, had become a dad for the first time.

"He had just come back (to work) that Monday," said Joe Holland Jr., a stocky 65-year-old upper Manhattan native who worked more than 20 years for the New York City Fire Department and helped install the North Tower elevators in the late 1960s.

"He would've been there anyway because … they called everybody in from vacation, everything. I mean, it was a big meeting. That's why they were all there."

Forever Joey

Seven and a half years later, Brian, 17, sits at a picnic table near Bishop McLaughlin's ball field and pulls off a gold necklace supporting a small medallion. On the front is an image of Saint Joseph holding baby Jesus. Inscribed on the back are the words Forever Joey.

The elder Joe, a retired Marine, has the same medallion, given to them by a friend of Brian's mom, Terry. Joey was the oldest of the two kids from Joe Holland's first marriage, but Brian deems "half-brother" a blasphemous term, akin to saying Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter goes half-speed.

After all, it's the photo of him and Joey at the Bronx Zoo that Brian keeps on his desk at home. It's Joey who bought him the poster of ex-Yankee Tino Martinez — Brian's favorite player — that still adorns Brian's bedroom wall. And it's that Saint Joseph medal that he guards far more carefully than his cell phone or wallet.

Restrictions on jewelry keep Brian from wearing it at most games, but he has circumvented that inconvenience.

By wearing Joey's spirit on his proverbial sleeve.

"Whenever I struggle, I'll go behind the mound before an inning, and if I know I'm in a tight spot I'll say, 'Joey, can you help me out here?' " said Brian, who moved to Florida when he was barely a month old and was a fifth-grader at Suncoast Elementary when his brother died. "I'm able to relax that way."

This year, the struggles have been few. Before his rocky three-inning stint in Thursday's 14-4 loss to Cambridge Christian, Brian, a lanky right-hander with a wicked submarine pitch, had gone 5-0 with a 3.34 ERA in 31 innings — numbers that belie his medical history.

He separated his right shoulder as a sophomore (it rests about 2 inches lower on his frame than his left shoulder) and has come back from two right knee dislocations. A solid student — he owns a 3.4 grade-point average and 1260 score on the SAT — he wants to attend UCF and walk on to the baseball team. Long term? He wants to be the Yankees general manager.

"He's just a great kid," Hurricanes coach Nick Rodriguez said. "He's everything you'd expect a high school boy to be; mischievous but good. He got the win over Tampa Catholic, he got the win over Brooks-DeBartolo. And if you had made it to those games, we beat those teams. It wasn't like they were having a bad day."

On Brian's surrealism scale, that 7-6 triumph at Tampa Catholic — considered the biggest win in Bishop McLaughlin's brief history — has nothing on last Sunday. Before a Pirates-Yankees spring training game, as part of the dedication of a permanent Sept. 11 memorial at Tampa's George M. Steinbrenner Field, Brian's dad threw the ceremonial first pitch.

Brian was allowed to join him on the field. Before letting go, the elder Joe said, "This is for you, Joe."

Tino Martinez caught the pitch.

"It was really emotional," Joe Holland said. "Even my wife, she couldn't film it. She had to give the camera to Brian's girlfriend."

For one blissful, bottled-up moment, Brian was in heaven.

That much closer to Joey.

Joey Knight can be reached jknight@sptimes.com.

A connection with Joey: Bishop McLaughlin ace hopes to hit homer as tribute to his brother 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 10:31pm]
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