I had to say something to inspire the team. But what? They needed a pep talk, but what do you say to professors who inspire students at the front of a classroom for a living?
I was too old to run the bases. I only played the field or went to bat when we were short-handed. So I had become the de facto bench coach of a team of mostly 40 to 60 year old academics. Pep to these guys was a 5-Hour energy drink.
We were about to start the Chester County Co-Ed Softball League Western division best-of-five game championship against a younger, much faster, much better team from the Baptist Church of West Chester.
What could I say? I had no plan, no real idea. I just had a vague notion they needed a pep talk. We'd taken our practice swings and infield and we were gathered around the backstop watching the Baptist hitters pummel moon shots to the far reaches of the outfield. The left side of their infield was tossing lasers over to first base. You could hear their throws hiss like rattlesnakes as they kissed the first baseman's mitt. They were two dark-haired men in their early 20s. Ripped and righteous in their confidence.
"Come over here, let's talk," I called to my union team, the Rams. But what to say? The Baptists were the division's elite team. They'd scalded our asses twice, winning both games by the 10-run "mercy rule". They were the number one seed. But we were hungry. Hungry for redemption and maybe something more. Something that felt even better than another notch on the resume. Something to brag about at the corner bar later on.
This was the most important day of the year...... for some of us, maybe the biggest day of the decade. We were mostly tenured profs with publications on our vitae and papers to read at future conferences, but none of that mattered as much as this: winning a softball co-ed league championship; feeling the giddy joy of staving off the ghosts that were coming for us soon. We weren't young any more but we wanted to pretend to be.
"These guys are a pretty good ball club," I said. "They beat us pretty good. But they haven't seen the best of us yet. Let's show them we can play ball too. Let's put some runs on the board and give them something to think about. C'mon! We can do this!"
Yeah, I know. This sounds like so much cliched pablum. What else would I say: "Win one for the Gimper"? I don't think so.
Our first two hitters knocked clean line drives to center field. Our third hitter smacked a hard grounder into the hole. The ball skidded out of the shortstop's glove and rolled two feet away. He had a force play at third base but thought he'd take the sure out at first, but his throw sailed high and wide and the first baseman couldn't nab it. The ball careened against the chainlink fence and a run scored on the error. Our clean-up man slashed one down the line that handcuffed the third baseman. Another unearned run came home.
Up came our MVP, Manny "El Toro" Otero. Chiseled like a marble statue, with massive arms and legs. A gentle soul with a vicious uppercut stroke that frequently painted glorious parabolas against the summer sky. He was build like a brick outhouse, squat but square. On the first pitch he hit a whistling screamer past the head of the Baptist pitcher. The ball got to the outfielder so quickly -- he caught it on one neat hop and fired it to home -- he nearly had a play on the runner coming in from third base. Later in the game, Otero jacked a ball that rattled against the fence 325 feet from home plate.
Three blessed runs in the first. Five more the second. Play good "D", we shouted from the bench. Throw some leather at them!
By the bottom of the 5th, we were 10 runs ahead, 13-3. And the team got complacent. I could sense it. We squandered a chance to put them away with two errors on one play that allowed the Baptists to score a 4th run in the bottom of the inning to keep the game alive. Dark storm clouds were forming in the west, heading our way. Bad omen. The Baptists scored another in the 6th but came in for their last at-bats down eight runs.
A soft dink fell out of Otero's reach at shortstop. A slow roller with eyes found a hole for another hit. Off in the distance, little tongues of lightning flickered a menacing message and the sky faded to a dense, swirling gray. Rain drops began to fall and the field got slick. The Baptists' 10th hitter slashed a liner straight to our left fielder, as sure-handed an outfielder as you'd ever find in any Iowa cornfield. The ball skipped on the wet surface and found a spot under his outstretched arm. It careened against the rubber of his cleated right foot and went spinning out of bounds and down the foul line toward the outfield fence. Three runs scored on the play and my gut felt like a dishrag being wrung dry.
Mercifully, the bases were now empty. Things settled. The storm held off and we secured two outs before the Baptist lead off hitter came up for the last time. He'd hit two homers in the game already and slashed a double. But one batter later, he got caught in a run-down between second and third.
Game one went to the union heathens, 13-9. One down. Two to go.