The 7th inning stretch
A friend of mine has a son heading to a state little league championship… this got me thinking about my own days around the diamond. Carson, this was written in honor of you. I hope your memories are just as fond.
“Get in some practice swings Doug! You’re up after Bruce.” My dad was the coach of our team. He was a good coach. And I was on a team that needed a good coach. The Rockwell little league was quite an impressive organization. Other teams made plans to ‘draft’ the best of the best, but unlike most of the other teams, my dad had a ‘bring in your huddled masses’ mentality. Our team had the most girls and it had most first time players. These things didn’t bother my dad too much.
I remember our first practice. The previous year was my first in the league and by the end of the year I became fairly good. I even became the alternate on the all-star team. I had improved in the off-season and was ready for the next year.
In my first season, my father was an assistant coach and we went undefeated. Our top player never struck out the entire season. Coach Reese was a great coach and his older daughter was an awesome third baseman. We easily won the league, and pretty much the entire team moved up with the Coach. I was left with the Coach’s two younger children. Coach Reese asked my dad to coach. Reluctantly, he agreed. For the record, my dad was a better coach.
Our first practice was very close to a scene from the Bad News Bears. We had 3 girls on the team and some boys who had never played a minute of ball in their life. I got my two best friends to join the team and they were pretty good: then there was Jeff Welch. Jeff Welch was literally God’s gift to baseball. This kid was that natural ultra-player. I have always been surprised that I haven’t heard his name in the pros.
It is funny when I remember the social dynamic of that first practice. I was armed with my two best friends and my dad was the coach. I knew I was a good hitter. Bruce was also pretty good with the bat and my other friend, Greg, picked up the game quickly. Immediately Jeff and I struck up a friendship: he was an odd looking kid, but he had a great smile. Jeff could throw a ball from third to first with no arc (I was good enough to play Second base). He was spectacular with the bat and he ran like a gazelle. There we were: the group of four and then there was the rest of our team.
After running through some drills, the team situation was clear. We lacked something important: talent. None the less, my dad gathered us together. His words were comforting: “We are going to have a great season: all I want you guys to do it to try to have fun. If we act like a team, we will win like one.”
As we were driving home, I lamented the situation with my dad. “Dad! We won’t win a game with that team.” My dad looked at me and said nothing but he smiled a little. I know he saw the same team I did, but my dad understood something that it took me years and years to grasp: sometimes the destination isn’t as important as the journey.
My dad began building a team. Three weeks later was our first game and we were playing one of the best teams in the league. We were trounced. Apart from 3-4 hitting from me and Jeff (two homers by Jeff, I managed one double), there was nothing to talk about. Still, my dad gathered the team. “It’s okay. You guys played a great game. That team had a lot of players we saw last season. We’ll get better! You wait and see!”… ‘wait and see’ Indeed! I was ready for a long season of being the league whipping post.
We managed to win our second game. Bruce and Greg had back to back homers in the bottom of the 7th to clinch it for us. Again my dad huddled us together: “What a great game! I am so proud of all of you! We all played better this week! You wait and see: we are going to get better!” From my perspective, the statement wasn’t really true. I personally made two errors, that cost us a run, and our outfield missed numerous pop-flies. All I could see was what we lacked.
We lost the next game making us 1 and 2, but my dad still had uplifting things to say. I have to say the losing wasn’t that bad. For me I wanted to prove I was as good as Jeff and being on a team with my two best friends was pretty great. Jeff was the better hitter, runner and fielder, but I had the better batting average.
Our fourth game was against the only undefeated team in the league: the Yankees (Isn’t that ironic). They were stacked at every position, but good fortune shown on us. Their two best players couldn’t make the game. Somehow, we managed to keep the game close. In the top of the 7th Jeff hit a base-clearing double, sending Greg, Bruce and Me home that put us ahead 5-3. We were poised to win the game. The Yankees came back and tied it, but we won in extra innings. My dad gathered us and conveyed his admiration at how we didn’t give up. We were .500 and we had only just begun.
With each game we improved, but our biggest problem was the bottom of our lineup. Our bottom three batters mustered a sub-100 batting average for the season. One of the boys (who’s dad was an assistant coach), batted 000 for the first 4 or 5 games. Still his father would yell “That’s okay Trouper! We’ll get ‘em next time!” Trouper would come into the dugout all smiles. I wasn’t as happy and my dad would give me looks reminding me to remember my good sportsmanship.
Still, with each practice and each game, we got better. By the end of the season we were one game out of first and, as fortune would have it, we were playing the league-leading Tigers. My dad’s strategy was simple: pound people with our first 4 batters, and hold on for the other 5 batters. But the Tigers had our number. We had already played them 3 times and we had lost two of three. Their coach was the most boisterous of men and his assistant was even more zealous. They had no girls, and they all looked a few years older than us.
The game started badly. Each inning the Tigers were scoring a few runs and slowly pulling away from us. By the bottom of the 7th, we were down 7 runs and we were heading to the bottom of our batting order. Our shortstop was on base but now it was time to weather the storm. The Reese siblings were up and two strike-outs later we were down to our last out and still 7 runs down.
Marry Batts was up. When I was 8, Mary was the nicest girl that I had ever met, but she was no baseball player. Still she tried with all her heart, but the pressure was on her and fear showed on her face like foreboding doom. Before her at-bat, my dad called a timeout and gathered the team together.
I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this: “This has been the most amazing season I have ever been a part of! I am so proud of all of you. Whether we win this game or not, I wanted you to know how much fun I have had and it has been an honor to coach all of you. Enjoy this moment because life doesn't get any better than this!” He turned to Mary and told her “Mary, when you are up there, please have fun! You try your best, but no matter what, I am very proud of you.”
Mary took a deep breath and headed to the batter’s box. Her first swing was dismal and she had that awkward smile some get when they are frustrated. My dad merely smiled and nodded and clapped his hands a couple of times. The second pitch, Mary was ready for it. She smacked it and the ball fizzled just outside of the shortstop’s reach. My dad jumped up and let the whole team know how happy he was at this hit. Hope was still alive.
We now had runners on first and second, but now it was time for Trouper. Bless his heart, but this young man had literally no baseball skills whatsoever. Everyone on our team knew it... so did everyone on the other team. I believe he was batting 059 for the year (I am not joking). The first pitch came and Trouper made some lame flail at the ball. “That’s okay Trouper! You’ll get it next time!” Trouper’s dad was also the first-base coach.
Then IT happened. ‘It’ you say? Yes IT! With two strikes, young Trouper managed to make random contact with the ball. Normally when a ball is hit, fielders know where it is going. Trouper's hit was this crazy spinning ball that sputtered somewhere between the pitcher and third base. “RUN TROUPER RUN!” the whole team was off the bench. Trouper had actually hit the ball so few times that he just kind of stood there watching it. Finally he realized he wasn’t done and he headed toward first. In the mad scramble between the pitcher and the third baseman, Trouper managed to make it just in time to first base.
I remember turning to Bruce and yelling ‘We’re gonna win!’ We were at the top of our order and we were on fire. Greg knocked in two runners, and Bruce brought in Trouper. I brought in Bruce and Greg and Jeff hit a nice homer to tie the game. According to my dad, the Tiger coach conceded the game even though we were only tied. No preplanned movie plot could have captured this moment any better.
We ended up co-champions of the Rockwell League (The Tiger coach refused to play us in a tie-breaker). But everyone on our team knew we were the champions. At the awards banquet, Mary Batts came up to my father and said “Thank you Mr. Joseph. This was the best time of my entire life.” For my father, he recounted that this was one of the greatest moment of his entire life: it was worth it for this comment alone.
We moved that fall to Florida and I never played baseball again. Still what a memory! And what a testament to a coach who believed in what no one else could see.
Labels: life baseball dads