Do You Believe in Miracles?

You’ve got to be kidding me, God.

That’s what I was thinking as Gus stood at the plate.  He had been mired in a slump ever since coming back from breaking his finger, and now he stood there—my son— down one with two outs and no one on representing the final out of our season.

Gus made a play at the plate and asked his Mom if he looked like Josh Gibson. Love a 10-year old who knows his history.

But even more than that, he represented the final out of our era.  I had been coaching Gus and many of the players on this Grays team (named after the Negro League Homestead Grays, who used old Griffith Stadium in DC as a second home) since Kindergarten.  With Gus about to graduate 5th grade and enter the brave new world of Middle School, next year they would graduate to the upper level of the league, one where kids are drafted rather than kept together.

Given I had such a connection with these kids, and reached the level of my own incompetence in coaching, I knew this year would be my last with them.  As I looked at these young men with their peach-fuzz facial hair, deepening voices, and constellations of blemishes cracking open that Pandora’s box of manhood, I remembered the children they once were.  Chasing them with the “tickle monster” an orange hand puppet that filled them with joyful terror as I trailed them around the bases making nummy noises.  Playing the  “Hit the Coach!” game where they all pelted me with tennis balls at the same time.  Teaching these little boys lessons in teamwork, cooperation, and focus all wrapped up in the joy of playing what to my mind is the greatest game ever invented.

These boys were now young men, and the baseball we were playing now was more mature as well.  We got off to a very slow start, as just about every team except ours had at least two hard-throwing pitchers.  The first half of the season was filled with strikeouts, frustration, and more than a few games lost by mercy rule.  But I saw this “crisis” as an opportunity to teach another wonderful lesson that baseball offers.

After a particularly bad loss to the powerhouse Dodgers, I stood at the plate the next day at practice, a group of sullen pre-teens looking at me dejectedly.  I told them that I saw our problem, and our solution did not lay in swinging harder or faster, but in swinging slower and more softly.  I had their attention, confused and disbelieving that it was.  “Coach,” I said to Coach Craig, standing on the pitcher’s rubber, “throw the ball in here as hard as you can.”

Textbook form

He let it fly, but rather than taking a hard cut, I just took a soft, slow, controlled swing, and the ball jumped off my bat. Hardly moving, the ball flew all over the infield, and even a couple making into the outfield.  “Holy crap!” Kiarash yelled, stunned at what he was seeing.  “Okay Coach,” I chirped, “really let it go.”  He threw even harder, and I turned and bunted.  High, low, inside, outside, he simply couldn’t get one by me.

I turned to the boys, their attention now completely wrapped.  “Gents, I have taken a look at our scoresheets, and in our league, if you put the ball in play, you get on base 75% of the time.  We are now done with swinging for the fences.  If we are going to be successful—this is the way we need to play.  Anyone interested?”

They ran to get their helmets on.

And so for the rest of the season, we worked on our “Bunt, Slap, Swing” drill and, suddenly, we were a team with a new identity.  We beat the Red Sox, a team who mercy ruled us just three weeks before.  We beat the A’s by six runs and it wasn’t even that close.  And we beat the Cardinals by mercy rule.  When other teams came in before games, I’d hear their players say “Oh, we need to be careful, this is the team that bunts all the time.”

And yet, here we were in the first round of the playoffs, having used all our tricks to score six runs against the Yankees.  But they had seven, and Gus now had a 2-2 count. One strike left in Grays history.  And it was my earnest, emotional, and passionate son who would now carry the stigma of ending not only a season, but an entire chapter in our lives.

I know it’s not THESE Yankees, but whenever we play a team with that name, this is all I can think of.

The Yankee pitcher came set, and launched a nasty fastball right on the inside corner.  Gus was late, but just timely enough to get a piece of it.  Foul ball.  What little was left of my voice was bellowing from the 3rd base coach’s box.  Lord only knows what trite statements I was bellowing out.

Another ball heaved toward the plate, this one just low—Gus had managed to fill the count.  But the next pitch was another bullet, this one over the outside corner.  But Gus wasn’t going to go quietly, he reached and slapped, with perhaps a centimeter of the bat grazing the very bottom of the ball.  The faint plink of aluminum on leather indicated that it was still 3-2.  I wanted to claw the flesh from my bones.  I wanted to beg that pitcher to just slow it down a bit—give the kid a chance, for chrissake!

I held my breath as he let the bullet fly toward home…

I’m an agnostic, so I don’t know if there is a God, or baseball gods, or Zeus has decided that he’s a baseball fan.  But I thanked all of them and more when Gus trotted down to first base on a walk.  He stole second, came to third on a wild pitch, and on a slow roller to third which was fielded cleanly, the first baseman just missed holding onto the throw, and Gus scored the tying run sending us to what ultimately was an 8-7, extra-inning victory.

While I felt badly for the Yankees and we coaches made sure the boys settled down quickly to shake hands, I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how far we went in the playoffs, these kids had now created a memory that they will take with them wherever they go, and a life lesson that with determination, thinking “outside the box” and making the most out of what you have, even those small-ball Grays could find big-time success.

Maybe that’s not a miracle after all.  Maybe it’s something even better.

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