Friday, July 20, 2012

Kuhio Walters walks on the wild side

There are moments in life you always remember. Little gifts from the gods that make all the aches and pains and tears of life easier to endure.  Last night was one of them: a silly co-ed league softball game that the union guys will be talking and smiling about for years, if only because we were on the winning end of the final score, 20-19.

If regular working stiffs can be part of something epic, that’s what this felt like.  Like Leopold Bloom walking the streets of Dublin on June 16th, having a stout with the boys and living the dream or Lennon-McCartney recording "A Day In the Life." We'll remember this one.

We knew before the game that winning would be a long shot. We were playing the local Baptist church in the second game of a best of five championship series.  They’d beaten beaten us roundly in our two regular-season games, winning both games by the 10 run "mercy rule". We’d extracted an ounce of revenge on Sunday evening, winning the first playoff game 13-9. 

But we were playing game two without Kevin Flynn, the team’s ace and our most valuable player. This is what we all learned about Flynn: he makes pitching look easy. We discovered how hard it really is to lob a softball 45 feet to a small white target and get it to drop gently into a space about one foot  square. 

Flynn has been doing this for three years now and each game he gets a little bit better. He’s learned to put spin on his throws. He varies the arc of his pitches to try to keep the hitters from getting a bead on them. He moves the ball around, trying to tease the brawniest bashers with balls off the plate, giving them pitches they can’t drive. He’s always thinking of new ways to make hitting harder.

You can laugh if you want. It’s slow pitch softball and there’s not much a pitcher can do to prevent the best hitters from smashing even his best pitches. But what we learned last night is that Flynn has impeccable control. He throws strikes. Heck, he’d rather declare bankruptcy than walk a hitter. We just didn’t know how precisely proficient a pitcher he is until he wasn’t on the mound for us in a big game. 

Kuhio Walters, the team captain, replaced Flynn. Walters is our fastest runner and I hated to lose his outfield speed by asking him to pitch. But we had no choice. It would have been nice if I could do it. It’s good strategy to let your slowest player pitch if he/she can throw strikes. But I tried it once two seasons ago and gave up eight runs in less than one inning. Out of a dozen hitters, I walked eight of them.  It felt like I was tossing pineapples to the plate.

On Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of 100 degree heat, Walters and I went out to the diamond to practice pitching, to get him used to tossing strikes. He threw about 50 pitches…and landed less than half of them within proximity of the plate.  When he threw batting practice before the game, I noticed his teammates were lunging, trying to put their bats on his pitches. A lot of his throws bounced in front of the plate. 

This seemed not to mean much when he faced the Baptists in the first inning. They went down on just five pitches. We answered with four runs to take an early lead. In the second though, Kuhio  imploded. The clean-up hitter lead off with a high pop up that he nabbed near the pitching rubber. But then he went cold and walked the next four hitters.  His nervousness reached new heights -- and the inning reached its crisis point -- when next he misplayed two easy grounders hit right at him by the Baptists' two weakest hitters. By inning's end, the score was knotted, 4-4.

The game see-sawed back and forth until the Rams put six on the scoreboard in the 5th to open some distance.  When the Baptists came to hit in the top of the 7th, Kuhio took a 15-10 lead to the mound  and the game seemed secure. 

That’s when Kuhio’s touch deserted him yet again. Sensing his nervousness, the Baptists became selective.  They took six walks in the inning and all six of them scored. I finally replaced Kuhio and asked our shortstop, Manny Otero, to come and pitch with the game tied, 15-15. Manny walked the first hitter he faced and then served up a grand slam home run to give the Baptists a 19-15. This wasn’t a tide turning, this was a tsunami. They had scored nine runs.

Some teams would have called it quits at that point. I’ve been on a few teams what would've had some colorful things to say to a pitcher who issued five walks in the last inning to let a beaten team climb back into a ballgame. Not one word of angst was directed at Kuhio. He’d kept us in a game we had expected to lose anyway, so why moan?  The Baptists were raising Cain on the sideline, hooting and hollering as if Gabriel's trumpet had called them home. Who could blame them? We had them dead and buried and then let them experience the joy of resurrection. 

The bottom half of our line-up was due up in the bottom of the seventh, yet the team seemed serenely confident.  It was almost like they had planned this all along, just for the fun of it. The first four hitters hit singles, the last one flying off the bat of Emilee Hussack, her second hit of the game. Moments later, she scored the tying run scored on a long sacrifice fly to left field. 

The Baptists got two runners on in the top of the 8th but couldn’t push a run across. We did in our half of the 8th. Luke, my son, slashed a double to center field and came whooping and hollering home with the winning run, his arms waving like pinwheels, on Tim Brown’s fourth opposite field hit of the night. 

It was an evening I won’t soon forget. I bet Kuhio won’t soon forget it either. Maybe this is why grown men play a kid's game. From such memories, epics grow.

And I bet when Kevin Flynn shows up for game three on Sunday evening, a whole lot of his teammates will be mighty glad to see him.

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