Monday, June 14, 2010

Annals of the game...

It's been quite a week. First, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years, practically my entire life. The smile on my face coming back from their triumphant parade in the Loop on Friday could not be wiped off even after a fairly stressful afternoon at work.

Friday was also the opening of the world's greatest sporting event, the World Cup. I've written here about my father's passion for hockey but soccer came in a pretty close second. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of my old man taking me to soccer games, mostly the local ethnic league matches around town. We were fans of Chicago Sparta, the Czech representatives in the Chicago premier amateur league. Then every four years we went to theaters that showed closed circuit TV feed of live World Cup games, the only way to see them in those days, short of actually being there.

This Saturday we watched our first match in the current games, U.S.A. vs. England. The Yanks were big underdogs and played down to expectations early when they gave up an undisciplined goal at the four minute mark. But the Americans were given the gift of a tremendously soft goal allowed by the unfortunate British goaltender late in the first half and played well enough through the rest of the game to earn a 1-1 tie which was a huge moral victory.

Then of course there was the Crosstown Classic, part one of the annual series between the Cubs and the White Sox. The competition is intense, it's the closest we Chicago baseball fans usually get to a World Series like atmosphere. Unfortunately both teams are struggling to say the least, a friend of mine called this series the "battle of the suckiest." This weekend the Cubs earned the title of suckiest as they lost the series two games to one.

But all these amazing sporting events paled in comparison to the great Little League action that took place in Warren Park on Sunday. As I wrote a month ago, my son plays for the Cardinals in the Rookie league. Our Cardinals are a group of nine and ten year old boys who for the most part haven't played much organized ball. It's been a season of ups and downs score-wise but entirely positive in every other respect. What began as a bunch of little kids with big dreams is slowly turning into a team. Our pitchers are finding the strike zone, our hitters are starting to make contact, and what were once adventures in the field are now becoming routine plays.

Sunday's game was a makeup game with the Reds who were the only team we had not faced. My son has a friend from school who plays with the Reds. It turns out they had beaten the team that was probably the best team in our league, the White Sox, and my boy was in fact less than anxious to face them. The weather was threatening and I promised to take him skating in the very likely event of a washout. Low and behold the rain that was predicted held off, game on.

Still it did not look promising as after several drenching cloudbursts the day before, the field was in rough shape. To make matters worse, we were a couple players short of the requisite eight and it was already 30 minutes past the scheduled start, meaning that a forfeit was a definite possibility . Then the rain finally came, not a cloudburst but a fairly steady stream, enough for the Red's coaches to nearly call the game, as the umpire had not shown up either.

But technology came to our rescue as one of our dads had his iPhone tuned to local weather radar and saw that the green blob directly over us would pass shortly and we'd have a window of opportunity of maybe one hour. Just as the rain subsided, a couple more Cardinals and an ump showed up and it was time to play ball.

As the visiting team, we had the first at bat. We watched their pitcher go through her warm ups. For some reason, our team is the only one in our division with no girl players. The Cardinals began chomping at the bit at the chance to hit against a girl until I reminded them of the fire-balling Sarah on the Blue Jays who mowed them down left and right.

Unfortunately for the Reds, this was no Sarah, and quickly the bases became loaded with red birds. My boy Theo bats fifth, after the best player on our team, Andrew. Theo doesn't have much patience to take a lot of pitches, he likes to get on base by swinging the bat. He swung and missed the first pitch which was way out of the strike zone. Then he swung at another outside pitch, popping the ball up in foul territory to the first baseman for an easy out. This gave me the sinking feeling that maybe we should have gone skating after all as Theo ended up being the only batter that inning to make an out as we ended up scoring the maximum five runs.

Unfazed, Theo put on his catcher's gear and caught for the mighty Tristan, our diminutive star pitcher. True to form, Tristan had flashes of brilliance in the first inning, then had control problems later in the game. But the combination of Tristan's throwing strikes when he needed to and some adequate, if not stellar play in the field by his teammates, held the Reds to six runs, in four innings, very respectable in this league.

The Red's starting pitcher only lasted one inning as she was replaced by a boy who could throw strikes, in fact he pretty much shut our batters down. But in the top of the third, Andrew was up with nobody on. He hit the ball deep to left, over the outfielder's head. The left fielder stayed with the ball and got it back into the infield by the time Andrew reached second. But as these things go at this level, the throw was over the second baseman's head, meaning Andrew could advance to third, then another wild throw and before we knew it, Andrew was safe at home. There was a conference between the Red's coaches and the teenage ump about how many bases a runner is allowed to advance in this league after the ball has been returned to the infield. All for naught as the ump ruled in Andrew's favor. Now in more advanced ball this would be scored as a double with two errors. In our league however this is a home run, pure and simple.

Theo was up next and all I could think of was "please let him make contact and get on base." Otherwise I knew it would be a very long evening. Theo did more than just make contact, he hit the ball as hard as Andrew. The ensuing plays by the fielders were virtually identical to their previous efforts and Theo just kept running, despite our coach, no doubt wishing to avoid invoking further consternation from the other bench, yelling at him to stop at third. It was a close play at home but Theo was safe, his very first home run. Running up to congratulate him I had to restrain a little of my parental pride and admonish him ever so slightly for failing to listen to his coach, but in words that only he could hear I said; "I'm proud of you."

That was only the beginning. In the bottom of the last inning, Tristan's control problems surfaced again and he walked one batter and hit his third batter of the game. League rules stipulate that if a pitcher hits three batters in a game, he has to come out. Quite surprising to me, our coach had Theo trade places with Tristan. Once again my heart began to sink as Theo's only previous pitching appearance led to his walking in five runs, with only a handful of strikes thrown. But we had been working on his pitching form, basically on getting his elbows up. As usual, Theo ignored me, but here on the field something I said must have clicked, and he was doing exactly as I suggested. As Tristan donned the "tools of ignorance" I put on a catcher's mitt and warmed up my boy. His first attempts were high and outside but then he calmed down and started putting the ball right over the plate with some zip to it as well. I could hear over my shoulder the Reds coaches tell their players to watch out, this boy could pitch.

So with two on, one out and the Cardinals up by only one run, my boy had the fate of his team in his hands. First at bat was a boy named Hamsa. In his two previous at bats, Hamsa was hit by the pitch. To be fair to Tristan, both times Hamsa did not move in the slightest to get out of the way and in fact in his second at bat he actually stuck out his hand to stop the ball. I told Theo, "whatever you do, don't hit this guy!" Theo dispatched Hamsa in three pitches. Then up came Lizzy their starting pitcher. In her previous at bats I didn't see Lizzy swing the bat once so I knew that Theo would have to throw her strikes. Which he did, and on a 2-2 count, Lizzy was called out and Theo saved the game for Tristan.

As it turned out, that home run of his, the seventh and last run for the Cardinals, turned out to be the game winning run which of course he both drove in and scored.

That combined with the save earned him the game ball from his coach and produced a smile on Theo's face that I will remember for as long as I am on this planet.

Thinking back I wonder how much of this was destiny as earlier in the week the question of what to give his teacher for an end of the school year gift was asked of Theo. He thought about it for a minute and said; "I'd like to give her my game ball." "But what if you don't get a game ball by next Friday?" asked his mother. "Oh I'll get one" he said.

Sure enough that game ball is ready to be given to her on Friday. It I were his teacher, I'd think that would be about as special a gift as could possibly be given.

But I'm going to keep the ball he threw for the last strike of that game.

I haven't stopped smiling since.

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