Friday, May 7, 2010

Annals of the game...

As the boys of summer in the big leagues began their season last month, the little league boys and girls of summer in Warren Park on the far north side of Chicago began their season this week. This was the week where hope springs eternal for the little Derrik Lees and Paul Konerkos of all shapes, sizes and abilities.

My nine year old who began his love affair with baseball almost exactly one year ago is on the Cardinals. I suspect that the late comers to the league ended up on the more unpopular teams which the Cardinals certainly are, at least on the north side of Chicago. But a Cardinal he is and trying his uniform on for the first time at home produced a smile that, hard as he tried to hide, would have warmed the heart of the deepest cynic. In fact everything that's good about the greatest game ever invented could have been summed up by that smile.

Anyway these Cardinals are made up of a bunch of enthusiastic third and fourth graders, most of whom have little or no experience with organized ball. My guy played tee ball for one season but spent most of his time in the outfield gazing at the sky. Now he's a serious ballplayer who could spend at least 23 hours a day playing ball if we'd only let him, leaving an hour for a nap, snack, and bathroom break. All this enthusiasm has paid off as he can now catch, throw and hit well enough to be at least in the middle of the pack on his team. After each game or practice he wants to continue playing catch or take fielding and batting practice, long after his teammates have headed home, and long after his father is tired, hungry, and ready for bed.

As every other kid, he wants to win. He plays soccer on a team that has a couple of players who are so good they should really be in tougher leagues. Because of their dominance, his team has never lost a game. He loves this of course, but it's not a great learning experience as he expects to win every game, even if he doesn't contribute much to the outcome.

It's quite clear from the outset that this won't be a problem with these Cardinals. Our first game was against the Blue Jays. Clearly the Jays have quite a few experienced players. We Cardinal parents joked that we wanted to check some of the Blue Jays kids' ids.

The Cardinals faced the juggernaut of the Little League equivalent of Kerry Wood in his prime. Her name was Sarah. Now anyone who has ever experienced baseball at the level where the kids are just beginning to pitch knows that the outcome of a game is determined almost entirely on whether or not a pitcher can throw a strike. Most of them can't. This means that it's not uncommon for every inning to feature a conga line of batters walking one after the other. In our league there is a merciful limit of five runs per team per inning. It is not unheard of for a team to score the maximum 25 runs in a five inning game.

But Sarah could throw strikes. Not every pitch mind you but enough to strike out most of the batters she faced. Many of our guys including mine, never even took the bats off their shoulders before being called out on strikes. Plus Sarah had some velocity to her pitches meaning that when the Cardinals did swing, they usually missed. And when on that rare occasion one of our guys made contact, their infielders were able to throw our guys out, routine plays for big leaguers to be sure, but fantastic plays for the Rookie League. On the other side our pitchers struggled with some control problems but gave up a respectable 10 runs, normally few enough runs to win a game.

Unfortunately our Cardinals were shut out. My son was not quite reduced to tears but he came close. He had lots to be proud of in fact during the game, he caught admirably for four innings, holding on to pitches that were swung on by the batters, not an easy feat even for more experienced catchers. He had only one at bat, and not one swing. My telling him that it wasn't a big deal, the other team simply had more experience fell on deaf ears. He hates to lose.

This brings up a funny thing that I've encountered since he's been involved in organized sports. All of the leagues he's been a part of are instructional leagues, meaning that the competition part is underscored. Everybody gets a trophy in the end. This idea is appalling to some who have the idea that kids need to be taught to want to win. But in my experience, the desire to win is the one thing kids don't need to be taught at all, it's something as natural as breathing.

Game two was against the Mets. We played them already in a pre-season game and knew they were more at our level. The Cardinals had first at bats and our leadoff man hit a double and the batter after him hit a perfect drive, splitting the outfielders, good enough for a home run. Then came the conga line of walks and we scored the maximum five runs. Our pitcher this game was a pint sized fourth grader named Tristan. What Tristan lacks in size he more than makes up in ability and form. He has the sweetest swing on the team and on the mound it's clear he's watched a lot of big league pitchers as he has the motion down to a tee. He struck out two and made a great play himself by throwing out a runner at first, three up, three down.

We scored a bunch more runs in the second, mostly on walks, then in the bottom of the second, Tristan could not find the strike zone. The rest of the game was a succession of walk after walk on both sides, most innings ended after five runs instead of three outs. The game dragged on and on. It was getting dark and worst of all it was getting colder by the minute. Thankfully, the Mets coaches whose team was down by about five runs, suggested we call the game after four innings. This left one inning to play, an eternity to be sure but way less than two more innings. Walk walk walk, we score five then it's the Mets' last at bat.

In the bottom of the fourth, our closer Liam, another adorable little munchkin of a kid, was making his debut on the mound. Walk walk walk, they score five and we think, game over. Not so, their coach informs us. League rules state that the team with the last at bat gets a chance to tie, no matter how far down they are. Now at that point none of us really cared that this would be a serious challenge to our first victory. Everybody, including most of the kids just wanted to go home. But play on we did, walk walk walk. Somewhere in between all the walks, Liam managed to get a couple of kids out by swinging at pitches that were way out of the strike zone. The Mets were now down by only a couple of runs, all they had to do was keep their bats on their shoulders and they certainly would have ended up with the tie. Up comes a kid that I remember from our first game. His name, believe it or not, was Casey.

Yes the Mets' chances depended upon Casey at the Bat.

Unlike his namesake of lore, this Casey was not a big home run hitter. In fact I never saw him actually hit the ball. But his heart was certainly big enough to live up to that name. With Casey at the bat, the air was indeed shattered by the force of Casey's blow two times. Miracle of miracles, Liam has an 0-2 count on Casey, and the Cardinals are one strike away from scratching out their first victory. But Casey gets wise and takes the next three pitches for balls.

So here's the situation, Mets down by a couple of runs, the bases are loaded, their leadoff hitter on deck, two outs and a 3-2 count on the Mighty Casey. We know if Casey walks forcing in a run, the next batter would at the very least walk, to tie and end the game, and our hopes for victory. After two and a half hours of pure tedium, this ending couldn't have been more exciting if it had been the last game of the World Series.

"Come on Liam, just one more strike" come the calls from our bench.

"Protect the plate Casey" come the calls from the other bench.

"No pressure" I say under my breath.

All eyes were on Liam and Casey. Liam checks out the situation, he glances at the runners making sure they don't try anything. Liam goes into into his stretch, he delivers his best 20 mph fastball. Casey watches it go by, the ball popping into the catcher's mitt. Then silence in the park for what seemed to be an eternity.

"Strike three you're out!" shouts the umpire. Cardinals win. Bedlam breaks out. The Cardinals players are all over Liam who is hero of the day. The teams line up to congratulate each other on a good game. Our coach, with the diplomacy required for the job handed out (virtual) game balls to the entire team, even though everyone knew one real ball should have gone to Liam.

And how did my guy do? Well he didn't get much playing time in the field this game as the coach had more players than positions. But he did get to play shortstop in that tumultuous last inning and made a gallant dive for a ground ball. At the plate he walked of course, but only once. As one of the few batters on our team to swing at any pitches he got a solid single up the middle in his second at bat and another hit which probably could have been fielded but was not in his last at bat. He drove in three runs, and scored two. He was a perfect three for three yesterday making him 3 for 4 for the season which gives him a blistering on base average of .750 and a .667 batting average.

But who's counting?

You just gotta love baseball.

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