It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind
That’s how badly the DC Dynasty had whipped us Arlington Cardinals in the wee morning hours. It happed just the day before, in what now has been coined “The Great Hangover Game of 2013.” You see, our young B-teamers, 11 and 12-year-olds all, had bounced back after getting thrashed by the Arlington A Team–the Storm–in the first game of this, our last tournament of the season, to actually win the next game by mercy rule. The ecstasy of that 11-1 win, a game that started at 8pm, kept most of our kids up past midnight that night.
And any parent can tell you that a pre-teen with a bad night’s sleep is a truly gruesome sight to behold. As our boys staggered onto the field for an 8am start, they looked more like they’d be hunting for brains than baseballs.
And yet, here we stood the next day in the semifinals against that very same Dynasty, headed out to the field for the bottom of the 6th and possibly final inning of our season, and the story was a very different one.
Once again, we had gotten down early, but this time we had our top pitchers on the mound, and our ace contained the damage and, with solid defense, we were down only 4-0 going into the top of the 4th.
Raj, our #2 hitter, led off the inning and worked a nice walk to get us started, and my big fella Gus followed with a booming double to right centerfield, our first well struck ball of the game and a capper for his breakout offensive season where he batted .533. And even though Gus eventually got thrown out at home, our guys still carried that momentum forward doing what we worked on all season: working the pitch counts, laying-off the high heat, and focusing on putting the ball in play. By the time the inning had ended, it was more than a brand new game.
When we trotted out to try and defend that slimmest of leads, it would be my guy on the bump. Gus was our #2, but had really developed into a solid pitcher in his own right. After giving up a leadoff double to their best hitter, Gus managed to do what the Dynasty could not. He worked around an error, an infield hit, and a walk. Walking the tightrope as he had done all season, he managed to escape the 4th with only one run scored. The bottom of our order was then no match for their pitcher, however, and we found ourselves out there again deadlocked in the bottom of the 5th.
Gus again worked his best through a batting order far deeper than ours. He gave up a bloop single which in our league is essentially an automatic double as with leads and 70 foot basepaths, it is the rare day when a runner gets caught trying to steal. They played a fundamentally sound game and bunted the runner over to 3rd. Now our entire season was dancing up the baseline, attempting to induce a wild pitch.
And, of course, up once again stepped their big fella, whom our parents had nicknamed, “The 30-Year-Old.” He had burned us the day before with a home run that sealed our mercy-rule fate. He already had two doubles on the day. And puberty seemed to be rushing upon him so quickly that I swear you could see his stubble growing as he waved his bat menacingly in the batter’s box. As I viewed the matchup, I could only think of one possible solution:
“Step off, Gus, step off!” I yelled, remembering a point in an earlier tournament that season when I wasn’t vocal enough in calling time out and it cost us (that’s a story for another day, but it’s a good story). He complied, though glaring at me in that, “Dad, you’re the assistant coach, you know,” kind of way. I turned to Danny and pled, “Walk him. Let’s walk him. Let’s intentionally walk him!”
Hey now. Don’t give me that look. It made perfect baseball sense. Mr. 30 was the guy who has beaten us all weekend long. There were two outs, and the most important run was at 3rd. I was simply trying to apply a sound strategy to a big moment—perhaps with just a small touch of, “My boy has had such a great season, please-please-please don’t make him pitch to this brute!”
Danny called time and trotted out to the mound to chat with Gus. I immediately ran to the ump to see if we could simply declare a walk rather than throwing four intentional balls, something that you are usually allowed to do at this level. But when Danny returned, he simply said, “No walk. Gus wants to pitch to him.” Abject terror and immense pride washed through my body in what, though I hope to never validate, is what I would expect a small heart attack feels like. My son toed the rubber, and let the first pitch fly.
He attacked high in the zone, and got Mr. 30 to take the bait. Swing-and-a-miss—strike one. A ball outside to even the count, then a low called strike on the outside corner to get him way up. All season long, we had worked on varying location. None of our pitchers, even our best ones, had “swing and miss” stuff. So location and changing speed were our bread-and-butter to compete. Now, it was time to execute.
“Climbtheladderclimbtheladderclimbtheladder,” I muttered over and over, hoping that our catcher Harry would make the right call. I saw him come ever so slightly out of his crouch. Yes! Yes!! Do it!!! Gus fired the ball right at chest level, and—PLINK—the ball went sky-high right to the left side, a towering fly to the infield. Gus had done it! He beat the behemoth!
As the ball sailed in the air, its hue shifted from a dirt-smudged white to neon green. For in my mind’s eye, that ball became one of the hundreds of popups Coach Mark and I had swatted at our fielders with a tennis racket in what we called the “Sky High” drill. It was the perfect way to safely whip soaring popups in the air so our fielders would know where to be and how to communicate. It was one of those perfect coaching moments: a huge situation where you prepared these very players for this very thing.
But when both the 3rd baseman and Shortstop took two staggering, silent steps backwards, confidence turned to prayer.
A teeter. A waiver. A desperate lunge.
A ball making, quick, popcorn-like bounds as it landed safely in the short-outfield grass.
Then our crimson uniforms were suddenly replaced with jerseys marked “Chico’s Bail Bonds.” A rage-fueled throw back into the infield careened past the 2nd baseman, allowing the runner to take 2nd. And the only reason he didn’t get to 3rd is that the equally ill-advised throw back in managed to find the 2nd baseman’s shin, as he wasn’t even looking when the throw came bounding through. After a ground ball single scored the next run, you could feel it all getting away. But Gus, much to his credit, settled down and struck out the next hitter, giving us a small gasp of life in our season.
Now, if you are skeptical of baseball gods ruling the fate of we mere mortals on the diamond, the top of the 6th should make you a true believer. For we stood there with two outs, our season saved by the juggle of a catch in what would have been a game ending double play. Tyler, the boy who had lunged at that fateful fly, came up to the plate. Ty had been mired in a slump and was moved down in the order, and was not having a great day at the plate. He got down early in the count, but each time the final pitch seemed destined to find leather, a small sliver of aluminum got in its way. He fought back to fill the count, and, after a 10-pitch at bat, worked the walk.
Bases loaded, two outs.
Okay, sure, that’s a huge moment, but not the magic you were expecting? Well Tyler’s walk brought the at bat a full year in the making. For at this very tournament last year, in this very same semifinal game, in this very 6th inning, up stepped Jack, our centerfielder, who has been playing for me since 2nd grade. In that moment, he lined a ball to Left that seemed ticketed for a game winning double, only to have the ball picked off by the fielder that the other team’s coach admitted was, “the kid we hide because he can’t catch.”
The statistical implausibility of this at bat happening again a year apart was enough to make me believe in the Easter Bunny (and I’m Jewish). As he approached the plate, I could feel his apprehension as his chest filled and sagged. Rustling up what little emotional control I could muster, I managed a smile and said, “Jack baby, you know you can do this because you’ve done it! This time, just find a hole!” Maybe it was just me, but Jacked seemed a bit heartened—and a lot determined—when he stepped over the eroded chalk line.
I saw him in his wide-open, left-handed stance, something we changed together to get him diving toward the ball so he could cover the outside corner. And when that outside fastball came, JC was ready to roll. CRACK. A screaming grounder to the left of the 3rd baseman. He had a shot at it, but it was too hot to handle and crawled up his arm and into left field. Even with 2 outs, however, there wasn’t enough time to get that tying run in as the outfielder was playing too shallow.
But, on the very next pitch, with our last-place hitter at the plate, the pitcher uncorked a wild one, and our runner dashed in safely. I had to chide Jack who rather than running down to 2nd base decided to strut and clap his way to the bag. “Get to the bag, then strut, big guy!” I yelled. He grinned and nodded.
After a well-earned walk loaded the bases again, our leadoff hitter rapped a ball on a line, but right at the 2nd baseman. No lead, but a mini-miracle for all concerned.
And so Gus, our middle of the order hitter, the guy who had pitched more innings than anyone else—my son—was asked to go out one more time to save our season.
He didn’t have quite as much pop on his fastball, but was still locating well. He got ahead of the leadoff hitter, and induced a weak fly ball to right. But the yips got the best of our right fielder, despite the pre-game instructions for outfielders to “run in and dive for any close ball” he pulled up and allowed the popup to drop. A quick steal of second, and trouble was once again looming.
As they did the last time, the Dynasty looked to bunt their runner over. But this time, Gus was ready, and kept the ball up high-and-away twice inducing two foul pops to get ahead 0-2. We needed the K desperately, and he loaded up to go low-and-in. But the ball stayed up, and ran right over the middle of the plate.
And there was a sound of thunder.
A walkoff. A walkoff home run, no less.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
As we lined up and awaited the conclusion of the Dynasty’s home plate dogpile, I noted that our boys were surprisingly chipper, save one devastated blond fella. I realized then that Gus had in the most sincere sense taken one for the team. All the mistakes were washed away, because we had come back from them. Even the missed fly ball to open the inning didn’t matter, because the home run made it irrelevant. It’s not that they wanted it to be Gus’s fault. But a piece of each and every one of them were relieved that it wasn’t their fault. They were proud—rightfully proud—of their hard work and their fight and, even in a loss, felt that this B team put in an A effort both today, and throughout the season.
But, as the boys settled in for post-season cake and pizza, it was my boy with his back turned at the next table, shoulders hunched from the piano that fell on his shoulders. All the coaches, this one included, took their turn at cheering him up to no avail. Even one of the coaches of the Storm came over to tell him how well he played. That bucked Gus up a bit, but the moment, the brutal finality of it, was an anchor no adult could pry free.
But someone could.
“Hey Gus! Don’t be so down. You actually did us a favor, as I didn’t want to get our butts kicked by the Storm again anyway!” said our #1 pitcher, patting him on the back. “Yeah!” agreed Raj, “Who the heck needed that?” A small grin, a seed of the joy that season had been until that very moment, fought its way through the heartbreak of the moment and broke through the gloom. A hand reached for a slice of pizza. And, not 10 minutes later, Gus sat on a see-saw doing his darndest to knock Tyler off as he in the glorious stupidity of youth attempted to balance in the middle.
The next evening, Gus was having dinner and as he wolfed down his 7th taco, casually told his Mom, “I’m ready for baseball to start again.” “Gus, it’s only been a day,” Kirsten replied, incredulously.
“Really? It feels like it’s been 10 years.”
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind