Monday, July 23, 2012

It sure tastes sweet! Celebrating a softball championship

The final game of the Chester County Co-Ed Western division championship ended with a 14-3 victory for the APSCUF Rams. The Rams got hot at the right time, winning their last eight in a row and plowing through two rounds of playoff games undefeated.

After last Thursday's come from behind, extra-inning victory, 20-19, the game on Sunday evening felt like an anti-climax. Kevin Flynn, the team's pitcher and most valuable player, missed that seesaw tilt but was back at the pitching rubber for the championship and in command the entire game.

Eighteen players showed up, so the biggest decision was how to get so many players into the game and still stay competitive. Team captain, Kuhio Walters, and I decided to honor the men and women who had been on the team since the beginning. Eight starters played deep into the game before we went to the bench. Their energy turned a relatively tight 8-3 game into a last inning blow-out.

Fittingly, Flynn caught the final out, a pop-up to the mound. I asked every team member to play to sign the ball and gave it to Flynn for his mantle. Fifteen or 16 of us ended the evening hooking five tables together in the Square Bar and enjoying the rest of the evening with pitchers of Yuengling.

It's not hyperbole to say the season has been one of the best experiences of my life. I wish I could play like I did in my 30s, when I started a softball team at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. The friendships I made on that team are among the strongest of my adult life. Eight of us still meet at least once or twice a year for brews, golf, cards and camaraderie.

Luke, my son, was only a two years old when I started that team. We called ourselves the Typoz. I remember stashing Luke's baby stroller in the dugout with us, Luke strapped into it, watching the action intently, soaking up the cheers and the atmosphere, relishing the whole experience. My teammates rustled his thick, brown hair for good luck on their way to home plate. More times than not, this small superstitious gesture brought it to them. And it brought luck to Luke, too. That was the making of a baseball fan and player. 

For me, this entire championship season was the most fun I've ever had on a team -- because Luke shared the experience with me. It made me proud to watch him play. He's a good player and I knew when we added him to the roster he'd help us win. He plays with reckless abandon, the way the best players play. To see him stretch routine singles into doubles and to run down and catch fly balls in the outfield was a joy to witness. 

I started the championship game as one of the team's designated hitters. It was my only plate appearance in five playoff games. I hit a hard ground ball to the Baptist second baseman who turned it into a force out at second base. The next time around the line-up, Luke hit for me and then he finished the game in the outfield.

When he scored the winning run in our improbable win last week, yelling and screaming and wearing a grin as big as the sky, my heart flew into my mouth. I almost hurts to be that damn happy. 

Last night, I got to taste the sweetest drink of all...the taste of champagne after a championship, my arm wrapped around Luke, members of the same team. This is why we still play a kid's game. 

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Glory Days: Game one of the Chester County Co-ed Western Division playoffs

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.