It was a warm spring night, and families in the tidy subdivisions on the east side of Palmdale had gathered at the local ballpark to watch Pony League baseball under the lights.
Then screams silenced the crowd in the stands.
As witnesses watched helplessly Tuesday night, a 13-year-old player in the snack bar line allegedly grabbed an aluminum baseball bat from his equipment bag and clubbed a 15-year-old spectator in the head.
Bystanders, including his father, rushed to Jeremy Rourke, a former Pony League all-star who lay unconscious on the ground. Jeremy was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead a few minutes later.
The 13-year-old, witnesses said, looked stunned. Jeremy was the brother of one of his closest friends, they said.
Still wearing his red Angels cap, the boy was interviewed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies before being taken into custody. As of Wednesday night, he had not been charged with a crime.
The violence, at an event so much a part of the community’s fabric, stunned authorities and residents.
Some bystanders told authorities that the dispute appeared to involve one of the boys cutting in line. Others said Jeremy was teasing the 13-year-old, a pitcher and third baseman who had just lost a game.
“Jeremy apparently said something like, ‘How could you lose to a team with no wins,’ ” said Jay Croom, a longtime Pony League parent. “I don’t think Jeremy’s intention was to start a fight, but when you know other baseball players, you give them a hard time. It’s called razzing.
“The other kid was apparently a very competitive kid who plays very hard. What you call a gamer,” Croom said. “He was already upset at losing, and this probably fueled his fire.”
Andrew Bevington, who played on the same team as the suspect, said he witnessed the attack. “I was so shocked I had to walk away,” he said.
His father, Jeff Bevington, was standing a few feet away. “It happened so fast nobody could do anything,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve been in shock all day.”
Jeremy was a junior umpire for the league, but he was not umpiring that night. Witnesses said he was there to watch his younger brother and help his sister work at the concession stand. So Pony League officials don’t believe that the attack stemmed from disputed umpiring calls.
Parents and players described both boys as baseball lovers. Both families had been involved in the Pony League for years. Jeremy’s father was a coach.
The suspect, who is not being identified because he is a minor, “is [a] quiet, a cute boy. His parents are nice. I’ve never known him to be a troublemaker,” said Kelly Unger, a close family friend of the Rourkes. “Now you have two families whose lives are ruined.”
Youth baseball is a mainstay in Palmdale, where families have long flocked from urban areas to the affordable housing tracts that have spread across the Antelope Valley 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Palmdale, with a population of 116,000, is the fastest growing city in Los Angeles County.
Croom described the weekday night games as “community gatherings where you watch games, get to know kids and kids’ fathers.”
Children join the league as young as age 5 and stay until they are 14 -- time that creates bonds with fellow players and their families.
“I saw these kids grow up,” said Bill Blaylock, regional director of the Pony League and a 20-year volunteer.
On Wednesday, friends held memorial services for Jeremy both at his high school and on the playing field.
At Highland High School, tearful teachers and students gathered around the campus flagpole to share memories.
They described Jeremy as an outgoing athlete who played on the football team and liked to skateboard. Some students released dozens of helium-filled balloons with messages written on them, including:
“We will never forget the way you made us laugh.”
“We will always love you and your pink shirt.”
“He was a fun-loving kid from a family that was very tightknit,” said Croom, whose two sons had played in the league. “We lost a kid that had a tremendous amount of potential and who was full of joy. He was one of those kids who constantly made people laugh.”
Parents spent the day not just mourning but trying to figure out what went wrong.
Deputies said the attack occurred about 8:30 p.m. Several witnesses said Jeremy and the 13-year-old exchanged words and shoves in the snack bar line before the suspect retrieved his bat. They alleged the boy hit Jeremy in the shin or knee, then struck him on the head.
“I saw them pushing each other. I heard, dink, dink, I heard the sound of him hitting his leg,” said 10-year-old Troy Momjian. “Then I looked back and then I saw him take a full swing at Jeremy’s head and then Jeremy lay on the ground.”
On the ball-field Wednesday night, players and their parents gathered again, this time to mourn. They were joined by dozens of friends and neighbors. A family friend read a statement from Jeremy’s parents, who urged the crowd not to demonize their son’s attacker.
He “was not a monster,” they said. “He was a good boy who made a bad mistake. This is a mistake that will haunt both families for the rest of our lives.”
Times staff writers Wendy Thermos, Susana Enriquez and Nicholas Shields contributed to this report.