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For the longest time, he couldn't get past it. Everything would remind him of Matt, every sight, sound, every group of kids standing at a bus stop waiting for their ride to school. And baseball. Baseball was the worst.

Gary Krol could no more watch a game of baseball than he could hug his lost son. It was too painful. The randomness and hurt were almost more than Krol and his wife, Peggy, could bear, but bear it they did.

"I was talking to a friend whose daughter was killed a year and a half ago," Krol said from his office as project manager with Dominion Construction. "She was a star athlete and a medical student and she was killed in a freak traffic accident. My friend said, 'My wife and I were on this cruise and we get the phone call that our daughter was killed and that's when our life ended.' That's the way I felt.

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"Life is never normal again."

Tomorrow, on the very field where Matt Krol once played in Calgary's Babe Ruth League, his father will throw out the first pitch in a ceremony honouring the teenage outfielder killed by lightning 15 years ago. It will be a simple observance with a few of Krol's former teammates in attendance. And as the years go by, Gary Krol has endured his altered life no matter how hard it's been. What he still can't fathom is, why? Why did it have to be Matt? Struck by lightning playing a game he loved.

It makes no sense.

"It was an act of God," Krol said, acknowledging he and his wife are Christians. "We believe things happen for a reason, but I don't know what the reason for that was, yet."

It was Aug. 4, 1994, when the Calgary Blues trotted back onto the diamond at Ancaster, Ont., for the resumption of their Canadian Big League tournament game. There had been a rain delay. The sky hung low with grey, heavyset clouds.

Future major-leaguer Chris Reitsma, the youngest Blue at 16, took to the mound to throw some warm-up pitches.

His best friend on the team, Matt Krol, had celebrated his 19th birthday the day before. He and the other outfielders were tossing a ball back and forth, loosening their arms.

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Reitsma toed the rubber on the mound. It would help save his life.

"Out of nowhere there was a noise," Reitsma said. "I'll never forget that noise. I looked around and I think I was the only one standing. I was on the rubber on the dirt. The guys in the outfield, there was water, moisture on the grass. The lightning went through Matt."

Gary Krol was sitting in the stands that day. There had been no thunder, no warning. One minute his son was smiling and playing catch. The next he was lying lifeless in left field.

"There was a big bang like you've never heard before," Krol said. "All the kids on the field were lying down. Matt was the only one who didn't get up."

The team was hustled to a nearby community centre where word filtered back that Matt was gone. Crisis-management workers were brought in for the players. It was awkward, Reitsma recalled. No one spoke.

Two days later, the Canadian championships resumed. The Calgary players put Matt's jersey on the field and stood around it holding hands. For Reitsma, the son of a pastor, it was a memory he would carry with him all the way to the major leagues.

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"When you go through something like that, it changes your view of life," said Reitsma, who spent seven years in the big leagues, mostly as a reliever, with the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners. "As a ball player, you go through times where you're either the hero or the goat, and if you're the goat, it's not fun. But it's an honour to be in the game and I remember, 'It could have been anyone on that field that day.' "

The Krols fell into an abyss of despair. "It screwed up our family for a long time," Gary said. "My wife couldn't be alone. Matt's younger brother [Jacob] he was 16 at the time. It really affected him and us deeply."

The father, who used to love baseball, found he no longer had the heart for it even if a game was on television. Then he heard how his son's friend had been signed by the Boston Red Sox, and Gary remembered how much he enjoyed watching the young pitcher throw. It was Reitsma and his connection to Matt that helped the Krols heal.

"We had to watch Chris pitch," Gary said. And when the Krols did, "It was, 'Wow. We really do love this game.' Chris brought the joy of baseball back to us."

It helped, too, that Little League Canada heightened its awareness concerning thunder and lightning and is quick to pull kids off the field at the first hint of trouble.

Then there were the tributes: a diamond named in Matt's honour in Ancaster, a Babe Ruth League scholarship bearing his name, now his father throwing out the first pitch 15 years later. Maybe that's as much sense as Gary Krol will ever find in his son's death, that by remembering Matt, it benefits others.

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"I plan to say a couple of things," Krol said of his ceremonial duties. "I want to tell the kids what I think the game is all about and how to play it. It's just a game."

***

LIGHTNING / THE POWER

There was no inquest into the death of Matthew Krol in August of 1994, but there was an investigation.

A Hamilton-area coroner, Dr. Bashir Khambalia, concluded that: "It's clear this poor, unfortunate chap just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"When lightning strikes, you're looking at two billion volts. There is nothing that can be done to stop it."

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Staff, with a report from

The Hamilton Spectator

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