Friday, October 31, 2014

One for the ages

The table was set for the greatest at bat in the history of baseball. It was game seven of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two strikes on the batter. The home team whom everyone in the country was pulling for, except of course the fans of the other team, was down by one run. There was a runner 90 feet away at third base. The batter who had been hit by a pitch just above his knee cap in the second inning heroically kept himself in the game, as catcher no less, stoically playing his difficult position despite the pain. Now he found himself in the ultimate situation in the game of baseball where one swing of the bat would determine the next champion, his team, or the other one. It is the situation that every kid who has ever dreamed of playing big league ball, has mulled over in his head from time immemorial.

The game ending, or "walk-off" home is arguably the most exciting play in baseball. Google "great moments in baseball history" and you'll find accounts of many of them. However, beside all the dreams and countless works of fiction about them, in reality the number of times a batter has ended a game seven of a World Series with a come from behind, championship "walk-off"  home run, is zero. Bill Mazeroski hit a championship walk-off home run in a game 7 for the Pirates in 1960 against the Yankees, but the game was tied when he hit it. Joe Carter hit a come from behind championship walk-off homer in 1993 for the Blue Jays against the Phillies, but that was a game six.  Kirk Gibson hobbled by a knee injury and listed as unlikely to be available for the 1988 World Series, to the delight and astonishment of the hometown fans in Dodger Stadium, limped up to the plate and hit a come from behind walk-off World Series home run against the highly favored A's and the best reliever in baseball at the time, but that was game one of that Series. In the entire history of the World Series, dating back to 1903, there have been fifteen walk-off home runs, and only two of them, Mazeroski's and Carter's, were hit to win the championship.

It was clear when Salvador Perez stepped up to the plate for that fateful at bat, he knew exactly what was at stake. He would have the chance to be Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson, and Joe Carter all rolled into one. On the first pitch he took a mighty swing, a home run swing which had it connected squarely with the ball, would have had a chance to give the Kansas City Royals their first World Championship since 1985, which also happened to be the same year they last appeared in the post-season. But he didn't connect on that pitch, not even close. Perez missed the ball by so much it looked as if he was swatting at flies.

Watching the game, my son and I debated what the next pitch would be. Change-up I thought first, no, on second thought, he's going to throw another high fastball, Judging from that first swing, Perez it seemed, would never be able to catch up to it.

My second hunch was correct, Perez would not see an off-speed pitch in that entire at bat, just high fastballs, all of them well out of the strike zone.

During that at bat, the feeling that something remarkable and extraordinary was about to take place never left my mind. The Royals after all were the Cinderella story of 2014, a wild card team that won only 89 games in the regular season, In a one game wild card playoff they came back from a three run deficit in the eighth inning against one of the heroes of last year's World Series, Jon Lester, to beat the Oakland Athletics. Then they disposed of the teams with the best and second best records in baseball, the California Angels and the Baltimore Orioles, both in four straight games. Not doubting this team and its capabilities for a second, I told my son before the start of the ninth inning of game seven to watch closely. History was about to be made and someone was going to hit a "walk off" home run to win the game and the championship for the home team. Turned out it was Salvador Perez who had the opportunity.

Perez was eventually able to make contact when he fouled off a 2-2  pitch. He did the same twice more but on his last swing he got a little too much on the ball to hit it out of play, and not nearly enough for anything else. The ball stayed in play for Pablo Sandoval, third baseman for the San Francisco Giants, who took a prat-fall upon catching the ball for the final put-out of the 2014 season.

With one swing of the bat, Perez went from a chance at immortality, to becoming a foot note... "Who was the last out of the 2014 World Series you ask? Why Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals of course.". As far as the history books go, his moment in the sun will be forever in the shadow of Madison Bumgarner, the Giant left-hander with a delivery as awkward as his name. Bumgarner was nothing short of brilliant for the five innings of relief he pitched in game seven with only two days rest, a complete game shutout in game five, and a seven inning performance in game one where he also got credited with the win.

It was another great left-hander, Warren Spahn, who defining his craft once said:
Hitting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing.
In the 2014 World Series, Bumgarmer did just that. The Royals offense scored a lot of runs: 26 of them against the San Francisco pitchers who were not Bumgarner. With the big southpaw on the mound, the Royals batters looked off-kilter, confused, and just plain silly at the plate. He got most of them to pop up or strike out, chasing either his high fast ball or his tantalizing off-speed pitches.

In the 21 innings he pitched in the Series, Bumgarner gave up only one run. That was a home run to none other than Salvador Perez, who no doubt would have gladly traded that one meaningless run in game one for his last at bat of the season, a shot that would have made him a household name.

But really, Perez had no chance. After the game, Bumgarner said this:
I knew Perez was going to want to do something big... We tried to use that aggressiveness and throw our pitches up in the zone. 
The two pitches Perez took for balls were at about eye level. Bumgarner came down only slightly from there and Perez took the bait. Not a single pitch thrown to him in that last at bat was in the strike zone. Had he been more patient and taken two more pitches, his team would have had runners on first and third with third baseman Mike Moustakas at the plate. What would have happened then is anybody's guess; my guess is Bumgarner would have gotten him out as he did every time except once in the series. Perez also could have shortened up his swing a bit, going for a higher percentage game-tying base hit rather than a game-ending home run.

At this point it should be worth noting that the batter ahead of Perez, Alex Gordon, got on base with a solid single to center. Giant center fielder Gregor Blanco committed himself too late and the ball skipped by him going all the way to the fence where left fielder Juan Perez, ironically in the game for his defensive skills, kicked it around a few times, enabling Gordon to make it all the way to third. That comedy of errors stood in stark contrast to a World Series that was played almost flawlessly in the field by both teams.  Given that and Bumgarner's stellar work, had the outcome of this World Series been determined by that uncharacteristic display of ineptitude, as it would have been had Gordon scored on a Perez single, it would have been unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying. My theory (could be wrong), is that the baseball gods decreed that if KC was to tie and possibly win that game, Perez would have to do it in a big way, either with a home run or triple that would have scored Gordon from first, had the error(s) not occurred. 

Of course the baseball gods seldom are denied.

So how good was Madison Bumgarner's performance this World Series? The commentators during and after game seven went wild and some of them, getting out their stats sheets, claimed that it was bar none, the greatest World Series pitching performance in the history of the game. 

Well it turns out that's a bit of a stretch, but not much.

Here is a list from the New York Daily News that puts Bumgarner's performance into proper perspective. The list puts his performance just behind those of fellow Giant, Christy Mathewson, (Milwaukee Brave) Lou Burdette, and Bob Gibson. It places him ahead of none other than the perhaps the greatest left hander of them all, Sandy Koufax, among others.

From that list, Bumgarner may not be quite at the top, but he's very close, and in some awfully good company.

Perhaps not the greatest, but was it a performance for the ages?

You bet it was.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Don't it always seem to go?

It's funny how the mind works; the recent demolition of a building in Chicago just reminded me of the 1969 World Series.

If you don't recall the Fall Classic of 45 years ago, it was a contest between the Baltimore Orioles and that year's Cinderella story, the New York Mets. If you were alive at the time and a baseball fan in Chicago, I don't need to tell you in that year, the Cubs were leading their division for 155 days and looked poised to be playing baseball in October for the first time since 1945. But a late summer Chicago losing spell, combined with a concurrent surge by the Mets, led to one of the most memorable disappointments in the history of a franchise that has seen many of them. As a young Cubs fan at the time, I was crushed and developed a profound hatred of the Mets which continues to this day. That hatred has outlasted my love of the Cubs by about 42 years.

Needless to say, I rooted for the Orioles that series; I even got an Orioles cap, purchased by my grandfather from a sporting goods store on Belmont Avenue in the Lincoln-Belmont shopping district. Back then my beloved grandpa (surrogate grandfather to be exact), and I had a Saturday morning ritual of heading to that area where he had a weekly doctor's appointment. Afterwords we'd have lunch, then go shopping for toys. It was probably at that time when I learned the discipline of self-restraint as my grandpa would have indulged me with the world, had I asked for it. Usually a plastic model would suffice.

That commercial district along with several others in the city was teaming with life back then boasting a variety of businesses catering to a wide cross-section of the city, including children. Today these little downtowns are but shadows of their former selves, victims of the ever changing world of shifting populations and the vagaries of the retail business. All we have left are the buildings which speak of a time when retailers spared little expense to create homes for their businesses whose style and quality of construction reflected the pride they had in their work. Sadly, those wonderful buildings are disappearing too.

Anyway, I particularly remember one Saturday afternoon in 1969, eating at the lunch counter of a drug store that was on Ashland Avenue just north of Belmont. On TV at the drug store was the first game of the World Series. That was back when they still played the World Series in daylight. Come to think of it, it was a time when no matter where you were, you simply couldn't escape World Series, even if you wanted to. Wearing my new cap and rooting for my new team, the Orioles' victory that day slightly eased the pain of the Cubs' recent demise. Unfortunately, that relief was short lived as New York swept the next four games and won the Series, giving birth to the legend of the "Amazin' Mets."

Making sure I wasn't dreaming this, I just looked up the series on the website Baseball and sure enough, the first game of that series took place on a Saturday, October 11 to be exact, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Orioles did indeed win that game as I remembered, by the score of 4-1. In case you're interested, veteran Mike Cuellar got the win. Some guy who went on to have a pretty decent career of his own by the name of Tom Seaver got the loss. A visit to another baseball goto website. Retrosheet, confirmed that it was indeed a day game.

So why on earth am I bringing this up? Well it so happened that my wife and I were driving by the site of that former drug store the other day and sadly discovered that the building was recently torn down, along with the old La Salle Bank building, a prominent landmark of the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection. The 1920s era bank was renovated beyond recognition in the 70's, but the drug store building with the lovely Art Deco facade, was largely intact, until last month that is. That building was called the Medic Building and it made Preservation Chicago's 2013 "Chicago Seven" list of the most endangered buildings in Chicago. Here's a link to that list and accompanying article describing the building and photographs. From Curbed Chicago, here's a piece about the demolition.

The entire block is being leveled to make way for a mixed use, retail-housing development, designed in an eclectic style that defies description, other than it seems to be the most popular style for this type of development.

The Medic Building was a jewel in the landscape of that very interesting commercial district that sadly has seen better days. The new development will hopefully bring money and life into the area which was once such an important part of the city. For that reason alone we should applaud its creation.

Yet the architecture, at least from what I can tell from the renderings, leaves much to be desired. It perplexes me that the developers could not have somehow found a way to save or at least integrate the beautiful facade of the Medic Building which fronted both Ashland and Melrose Street into their otherwise ho hum design.

The Medic Building along with its contemporary neighbors, may not have been among the greatest works of architecture in Chicago. Still they created a sense of place which made their neighborhood distinct from similar commercial districts in Chicago.

The new buildings, inoffensive and bland, create a sense of every place and no place at the same time.

Forty five years from now, I wonder if the demolition of buildings built today will evoke memories for my kids of their own childhood.

Or will they even notice they're gone?

Postcard image of the Lincoln-Belmont district c. 1950. It still looked very much the same during my childhood twenty years later. The buildings currently being demolished are at the extreme right.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Green Fields, Revisited

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

-- A. Bartlett Giamatti

It was a difficult spring. Faced with the prospect of applying to high schools (the good ones being few and far between in this city), my son knew that he had to earn straight A's all year. On top of that, he needed to do well on the aptitude exams that would count towards his composite score, meaning the difference between getting into a good school or not. The pressure was intense but none of us were surprised; as every parent and child involved in the Chicago Public School System knows, seventh grade is a bitch. We didn't worry too much about the math, but his reading scores on practice tests were a little suspect. Much to our delight, he aced the reading test. But the evening we got the score, in the midst of our celebration, my son discovered a lump growing in his neck.

It wasn't the first time we found an unwelcome growth in our son's body, but it doesn't get any easier with each experience. It doesn't help when the nurse tells you to get him to the doctor's office immediately or when the doctor tells you he has no idea what's going on with your child, only that whatever is growing inside him, doesn't belong there. Combined with other family health issues, stress at work, and the countless other trials and tribulations of life, the situation did not bode well for a restful, peaceful summer.

At least there was baseball.

This would be our fifth year in the Little League program in our neighborhood park on the north side of Chicago. My son's been on the same team that whole time, and for all but the first year, I've been an assistant coach. You may recall that our team was called the Cardinals. As any baseball fan knows, the St. Louis Cardinals for whom we were named, has been one of the most successful teams in major league history. In that respect, our team bore more of a resemblance to the old St. Louis Browns. In case you don't know anything about the Brownies, let's just say that two of the most famous players in the history of that woebegone team were Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder, and Eddie Gaedel, a midget who had one major league at bat. You can look them up if you don't believe me. In other words, we were the lovable losers who got no respect from the rest of the league.

That point became very clear to my son once he made the park's traveling team last year. The travel team as I've told you before, is an elite group of kids 13 and under, who have played against some very tough competition in the region, This year they won the State Championship in the Intermediate National Little League Tournament. Representing Illinois, they got to play in that tournament's Midwest Sectional held in Kalamazoo, MI. Unfortunately my son didn't get to play because his head coach decided to only play 11, and as an alternate on the team, he was an odd man out. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially since the coach brought in new players from another park who leap-frogged over him to make the team. But my son handled the situation with grace and maturity well beyond his 13 years.

The silver lining of not being able to play in the tournament was that it would enable him to play with his Cardinals team, rechristened the A's, in the house league playoffs (which turned out to be scheduled at the same time). In Little League, everybody makes the playoffs in case you’re wondering.

It's not that the Cardinals didn't have their moments over the years. In our second season, as one of the older teams in our division, we had a respectable record with a kid who was a lights out pitcher. When he pitched we won, when he didn't, well...

This year we got a new head coach as our original coach decided to take over a younger team. The new coach, (from Oakland, hence the new moniker, the A's) is a passionate, intense man with good baseball chops. From the get go, the new blood, new players, and new spirit, still didn't spell success. In our Little League, players who aren't held over from the previous year are assigned a team in a player draft. To insure a semblance of parity, each team would receive no more than two members of the 13U travel team. Some teams it turned out ended up more equal than others as there were no such rules for 12 and 11U players. The team with the lion's share of those quality younger players turned out to be the team whose head coach also happened to be none other than the director of the travel program. Not surprisingly, his team won first place in our division winning all but two of their of their games.

For our part, in addition to six players held over from last year, we ended up with a bunch of great kids with a varying degree of baseball skills. One of the new players was my son's teammate on the 13U team, a very good ballplayer in all aspects, what they call a five tool player. At our first practice, our old head coach (who hung around as an assistant), asked the players what their goals were for this season. This boy's response was: "to win the championship." My immediate thought was: "sorry kid, you're on the wrong team."

As a member of the travel team, my son benefited from an off season training program, including one-on-one instruction with the head coach. He worked on a new swing and lost some of his bad habits. He now has a nice looking swing and good power, however a consequence is that he's having more trouble making contact with the ball and striking out more. He seems to have another problem that he didn't have last year: nerves.

Of course he had a lot to be nervous about. We visited a specialist about the growth. The doctor who proclaimed himself, "the world's authority on growths in children's necks", told us it was either a swollen lymph node or one of two different kinds of cysts, one of which carried a small risk of malignancy. We'd only know the answer from an ultrasound. If it were a cyst, it would have to be removed. With the very real possibility of surgery looming around the corner, our son quietly went on with his life, returning to school, taking the math test, and playing baseball.

On the two teams it was as if my son were two different ballplayers. He took on his role as one of the best players on the A's very seriously, and for the first time in his life, became a leader. With the help of his new swing and an expensive new bat, he hit a bunch of triples and even a few honest-to-goodness home runs. He excelled at all the positions given him, even the toughest in the game: pitcher and catcher.

As one of the weakest players on the travel team, he hit a few big drives too, including one that fell about five feet short of going over the outfield fence. But mostly he struck out. Playing almost exclusively in right field, he struggled with plays that were routine for him last year. Part of difference between the house league and the travel league to be sure is the level of competition; but I'm convinced much of his performance this year on the travel team had to do with the pressure to perform. The travel team is expected to win, and the coaches expect 100 percent out of each player. My boy was singled out often for mistakes, big and small. Small wonder he was nervous, had I been in his position at that age, I probably would have quit a long time ago. Much to my son's credit, he kept with it.

This year's A's picked up where last year's Cardinals left off, that is to say, we were bad. Either we put our best players in at pitcher and catcher and the kids in the field couldn't make the plays, or we put the best kids in the field and our pitchers couldn't throw strikes and our catchers couldn't hold on to the ball. Our hitting was no great shakes either.

 Sultan of Swat Jr.
After three losses we were able to scratch out a win against a team that was even worse than we were. Their one 13U player was a big, powerful, left handed 12 year old who looked like he had played since the time he was in diapers. The rest of the team was made up of inexperienced 11 year olds. It was like playing a team made up of Babe Ruth and eight Eddie Gaedels. In the first inning, with two men on base and Babe Ruth at the plate, I instructed our pitcher, our other 13U player, not to give him anything he could hit. My words went unheeded and the result was a monster home run that went about 350 feet. Later in the game my son faced the slugger and after I gave him the same instructions, he proceeded to walk the young Ruth on four straight pitches, none of them less than a foot outside. On his third at bat of the game with the bases loaded, the Bambino faced one of our pitchers who that day was having trouble finding the strike zone. I didn't bother to tell him how to pitch the slugger, as he wouldn't have been able to put the ball where I told him anyway. Wouldn't you know it, the kid probably threw his first strike of the day, and boy it was a good one, right down the middle. After Babe Ruth swung his bat, the ball left the field, the park, and possibly the neighborhood. Grand slam.

But that was all their scoring for the day, the young Bambino having accounted for all of their runs, seven RBI from the two home runs and one run scored after my son (un)intentionally walked him. We crept back, mostly on account of defensive miscues. Down by a couple of runs we tied it up in the last inning. Then with runners on first and third, our head coach yelled to the runner at first so the whole park could hear: "You're going on this pitch." He repeated it even louder. Yet again a third time he screamed as if anyone in the neighborhood missed it: "YOU'RE STEALING SECOND BASE ON THIS PITCH!!!"

Everybody in the park knew what our coach was up to, except apparently the other team's catcher and their coach. As if on cue, the ball was pitched, the runner broke for second, our batter took the pitch, the catcher threw to second base, and our third base coach, (yours truly) sent the runner at third, the winning run, home. Game over.

OK it was a cheap bit of subterfuge, perhaps a little bush league on the part of our coach, knowing full well the 11 year old covering second couldn't possibly make the throw back to the plate in time to nail our runner, But hey, a win's a win, and boy did we need it. For our head coach and me it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

We returned to our losing ways after that game and the season seemed a wash. There were some bright lights, we played the better teams well, moral victories to be sure. However we were blown out by some of the lesser teams, putting us in our place lest we thought we had any chance of respectability.

Another post game - post mortem
The tide began to turn the next time we faced Babe Ruth and the Munchkins. One of our most dedicated players, the kid who scored the winning run in our only win to date, told me before the game that he was going to catch one of the slugger’s monster drives to center field. What the kid lacks in natural talent he more than makes up in self-confidence, joie de vivre, and pure intestinal fortitude. I once saw him at shortstop take a line drive to the face. Holding back tears as best he could, he mustered up every bit of nerve and temerity in him and was back in the field the next inning. The nickname I gave him several years ago was The Eagle, not for his soaring speed, but for his heart. When he told me about his plan, I patted him on the back and said something inspirational like: "that's the spirit Eagle." But he was serious.

In the middle of the game, with two runners on and the monster 12 year old at the plate, our coach as he did every time he came up to bat, kept saying "back, back, back" until our three outfielders were essentially playing in the next field over. Predictably, Babe Ruth hit the ball a mile to right-center. Had there been an outfield fence, the ball would have cleared it easily. Our youngest player was playing right field and probably would have had a play on the ball had he moved a little to his right. The problem was, he had yet to make a catch in the outfield up to that point, usually he would let the ball fall in front of him or stand like a statue trying to make a play while the ball flew twenty feet over his head. Fortunately the ball was in the air so long the Eagle (who hadn't made all that many outfield catches himself), had time to get to it.

In all The Eagle ran about 60 fee from center field, cutting in front of our right fielder to get to the ball which he caught just as he was in mid-slide, ending up on his butt. It wasn't pretty but it was the most beautiful catch I ever saw. Even the Babe's dad couldn't stop talking about it. We ended up winning that game as well, our first game won as I mentioned to the team, because we played better than the other team, not because we didn't play as poorly as they did.

Shortly after that game, my son had the ultrasound that determined the growth to be an enlarged lymph node. On a follow-up exam, the lump specialist confirmed what we thought, the lump was getting smaller. The doc's disappointment was palpable when he told us we were no longer in need of his services. With that load off our shoulders, we headed over to a travel team game. Indicative of the ups and downs of this past summer, my boy sat on the bench most of the game, and went 0-4 at the plate. Soon after he learned he would likely not be invited to play in any of the tournament games.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
With those words, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti began his beautiful testimony to the game he loved, called The Green Fields of the Mind. I asked my son if deep down he wished his team would lose for not including him in the big tournament, as his doting father did. Proving that his heart was in the right place, he assured me he did not. We were even planning to attend a few games as spectators but were prevented from doing so because we had better things to do...

The A's after all, were playoff bound, and showing real signs of improvement in the last few games of the regular season. Fielders were making plays, hitters were getting on base, and we were beginning to feel ourselves coming together as a team. Given that 11 of the best players from the league would be off at the State Championship, the complexion of each house league team would be different and all bets were off when it came to picking a favorite.

Just like all the teams, we would be missing a bunch of players, all of them with pitching experience. We were left with only four players who could pitch.

Given our team's record, 4-9, I would have been thrilled to have won just the first game of the playoffs, Had I been head coach, I probably would have gone the distance with our best pitcher to give us the chance to win that game and if, God willing, we were successful, count our blessings and hope for the best in the next one. However our coach was looking beyond the first game and even beyond the second. He carefully planned the pitching rotation using three pitchers per game with the fourth available if necessary. Each pitcher would be limited to 35 pitches per game so they would be available to pitch the next game, and a third if we got that far. Despite the loss of all those good players to the tournament, the mere mention of the unthinkable, possibly winning the championship, made me wince.

And yet I believed in this team. As the unofficial chronicler of the season, I've been looking back at some of the things I wrote to the players and parents at crucial moments during the year. I marveled on how the team improved after a difficult start. I wrote about how thrilling it was that the bottom of the order, almost non-existent at the beginning of the season, was now playing an important role in our games, often picking up the better players. Most satisfying, I was able to write an honest account of a game and single out each player for a significant contribution. I had a good feeling going into the playoffs, not because I thought we'd win any games, but because we'd be able to hold our heads up, win or lose.

You might say that attitude shows good judgement and maturity, after all, it's only a game. But in reality I was just being the son of my eternally pessimistic mother who long ago taught me that when you expect the worst in life, you're never disappointed. I've taken that to heart and after all these years, that philosophy has never failed me.

In truth I desperately wanted our team to win, especially that first game against a team that had been a thorn in our side for years. This was the team we always ended up facing in the playoffs; the team that prevented us every year from moving on.

This year, that team was in the same position we were in: four players missing, one 13U player on their roster, another, off playing in the tournament. With only eight players on our team, we had to call up a replacement player from a younger league. We put him in center field. On the first play of the game, their alternate 13U player led off with a drive to center, where our diminutive replacement player made a sensational diving catch. Our starting pitcher sailed through two innings allowing one run but having thrown less than his allotment of pitches, he would start the third inning. Already a feeling of dread kicked in. Things were going too well too early.

Our coach brought in a new pitcher in the middle of the third. This kid was the most stoic player on the team, deliberate in everything he did, and impossible to read. His idiosyncratic delivery belied his pitching skills; he could throw hard and accurately, most of the time, which is why the opposing batters were a little scared of him. He promptly got a ground out and a pop up. The next inning went by uneventfully for him, while we were slowly building up a lead.

In the top of the fifth, they got a run when the runner at third got aggressive and stole home on a lackadaisical throw from our catcher back to the pitcher, driving the coaching staff into a bit of a tizzy. Unfazed, Dr. Deliberate got the final out of the inning, and we were ahead by two. In five innings we had only used two pitchers. Getting more out of our first two pitchers than expected, we wouldn't need our closer, my son, until the last inning. He struck out the first batter, walked the second then promptly picked him off first, and got the last out on a grounder to second. Final score, 8-4.

I was ecstatic, although I hid my emotions as best I could.

That victory was for us a milestone, a rare playoff win against our arch rival. Much more than that, the team played some really good baseball, mistake free in the field except for that bad exchange between the catcher and the pitcher. Our bats came alive as well, most of the noise coming from the top of the order, with the exception of our young replacement player who walked three times and scored twice.

The best news of all was that our head coach's strategy worked better than even he imagined; all three of the pitchers we used pitched economically and would be available the next game. Never in my life was I so happy to be so wrong.

Same three pitchers, same batting order the next game, no reason to mess with a good thing. I strove to do everything the same as well: I wore the same shirt, (not washed of course), conducted the same pre-game drills with the kids in the same order, and convinced myself we were going to lose. This time we'd be playing the second best team in the league, a team we came close to beating in the last game of the regular season with their full compliment of players. Had I not been so aggressive coaching third base and having key runners thrown out advancing when they shouldn't have, I'm convinced we would have won that game.

Our starter was shaky at the start but settled down, retiring the bottom of the order 1,2,3 in the second. We brought our second pitcher Dr. Deliberate in to face the top of the order in the third inning, which turned out to be almost a carbon copy of the first, same batters, same result: two hits two runs. My son came in to pitch the fifth against the top of their order and this time, they went down 1,2,3.

In our half of the first inning, our starting pitcher batted second and got us going with a double. My boy was up next and promptly struck out. Coaching at third, I bowed my head in frustration both for him and the team. Consequently I missed the fact that the ball got by their catcher. By the time I looked up, my alert son was rounding first base and heading for second as the throw from the catcher on the dropped third strike got by the first baseman, allowing the runner to score and my son to reach third.

This game was more of a nail biter than the first. My boy tripled in the tying run in the top of the fifth. Then in the top of the sixth with the score tied, it was time for the bottom of the order to come through big time with hitters 7,8 and 9 reaching on base hits. Our lead-off hitter, the head coach's son, who had been silent in the game up to that point, walked, forcing in a run. My son, with the bases loaded and the opportunity to do some real damage, struck out again. But some terrific at bats from the next hitters picked him up, and three more runs scored.

Redeeming himself, my boy finished the game on the mound with a little drama, giving up a double and walking a hitter before he struck out the last two batters. The tee shirt I wore that evening wouldn't be seeing the wash anytime soon. Unbelievably we won again by the same score, 8-4.

We were in the finals.

I tried to conceal my emotions but needed an outlet so I threw my cap into the backstop. My wife caught me but I'm not sure if anybody else did.

Celebration after one of our playoff victories
When I met our head coach at the field on the evening of the championship game, he told me our opponent’s assistant coach (their head coach being at the tournament final), was full of excuses. He only had seven regular players plus three replacements, he used up his best pitcher in the previous game, (just like I had intended to do), and by the way, wasn't that kid, my boy, a member of the 13U team? How was he able to play in this game? "

Ask your head coach,..." was the answer, "it was his decision not to play him in the tournament."

Adorned in my zesty tee shirt, I took the team through the same pre-game ritual as in the previous two games. Same lineup, same pitching rotation, once again we were the visitors; all systems were go.

First inning we went down in order including yet another strike out of my son. Their pitcher, a 12U regular and part time 13U replacement player looked tough. In their half of the inning we dodged a bullet; two walks and two doubles yield only one run. We manufacture a run of our own in the top of the second to tie it up.

Then the bottom fell out. In their half of the second, our starter walked two. Our coach pulled him for Dr. Deliberate. Dr. D. struck out the first batter he faced but walked the next, then gave up three consecutive hits yielding five runs, an inexorable lead against this team and its stingy pitcher.

It was over.

We had a great run. We were facing the best team in our league, the team hand-picked to win it all. Without their big stars, they were still too much for us, even beating up on the redoubtable Dr. D. It was their destiny to win this thing.

All told it didn't matter to me in the slightest. We stood tall, took on all comers and held our own. Despite no one having any respect for us, we beat every team in the league, except of course, this one. There were so many bright spots this season. Even that devastating second inning of the championship game was ended by a brilliant unassisted double play by our new first baseman, the Eagle. I was so proud of our team, it brought tears to my eyes. It still does three months later.

All we could do was wait it out, play the best we could, hold our heads up, and allow the victor their spoils. After all, we knew how to lose gracefully; we did it so often.

Or so I thought.

To my eternal delight, it turned out our team wasn't ready to give up as quickly as I was. With one out in the third, my son with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, manufactured a run all on his own with a base hit, steals of second and third, and a run scored on a ground out.

Despite the rocky second, Dr. D. was still on the mound in the bottom of the third. With two on and two out, their number 10 hitter hit a solid shot to right. Our right fielder, the same kid who long ago (so it seemed), let fly balls sail over his head, charged and scooped up the ball. With the entire coaching staff yelling at him to fire the ball home to prevent a run from scoring, he saw an opportunity and threw a bullet to the Eagle to get the hitter out at first for the third out. His heads up play saved us God knows how many runs.

Still down by four, our fourth inning depended on the bottom half of the order. The Eagle led off with a single and advanced on a ground out. After a strikeout, any hope for a comeback was on the shoulders of our mighty ten year old replacement player. He wouldn't fail us, coming up with a big time, two out base hit. Up comes the top of our order. The coach’s son responded with a double, driving in the Eagle and the ten year old. It looked like they'd be out of the inning still up by one run when my son hit a very high infield popup. Unfortunately for them, they misplayed the ball keeping us alive for Dr. Deliberate, who drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a single.

This time my son was brought in early to pitch the fourth inning, having to face the top of their order, all three batters having given him fits in the past. Not this time; he struck out the leadoff man, then got the next two batters on ground outs. All that in seven pitches.

So here was the situation: we're up by one run with two innings to play, our best pitcher who hasn't allowed a run in the previous two games is on the mound. For the first time in five years, the thought that we might win the championship crossed my mind.

That thought was premature. We didn't score in our half of the fifth, they did, on a sacrifice fly after a hit and a walk.

In the end, the championship game came down to the last inning with the two teams tied at seven: "just as it should be" said their coach to me as I took my place in the coach's box at third. The two adult umpires who have seen it all both commented: "This is one heck of a game." Before we came up in the last inning, our coach told his team: "if anyone would have told me that after a 1-7 start, we would be tied in the last inning of the championship game I would have …" at which point our starting pitcher interjected: "called the police."

Who should lead off but our amazing ten year old who gets us started with a walk. The coach’s son then hits a rocket to the first baseman who can't handle it. After a double steal and a popup to first, my son comes up to bat. Warranted or not, I guess out of respect for his being a travel team player, their coach decided to intentionally walk him to load the bases for, Dr. D.

That turned out to be a fateful move. Just as he had done in his last at bat, Dr. D. hit a shot to right field that drove in our ten year old for the go ahead run. Meanwhile, the runner at second blew through my very discreet stop sign. Memories of the last game of the regular season where I sent runners to their demise haunted me as he headed home. But the runner, the coach's son, scored the insurance run on a very close play at the plate. My boy took third on the throw home. I told him that I looked like a genius for sending the runner home and swore him to secrecy, not to let on that he did it on his own.

There were no more thoughts in my head about wining the game and the championship at that point as their best hitters were due up in the bottom of the inning. First up was their dangerous number 10 hitter, a replacement player who also played on the travel team. He struck out. Next up was their number one hitter who had stints on both the 12 and 13U teams. The first time he faced my son this year, he hit a home run. Not this time, he struck out as well.

Up by two runs with two out in the last inning, our coach yelled to all nine members of his team from behind the backstop: "you have to want the ball to be hit to you and want to make the play." Then he began to chant: "I WANT THE BALL, I WANT THIS BALL."

At this point there's a little discrepancy over what happened next. What we all agree upon is the next batter hit the ball in the direction of second base. Playing second at the time was the little brother of Dr. Deliberate, who had made some big plays of his own during the season. All I remember is that the ball was in the air for what seemed an eternity.  Our coach remembers it a little differently. Since his account is more thrilling than mine, I'll give you his version:
...before you know it the #2 batter who had a single and two groundouts to second, drills a buzzing line drive right at (our second baseman), who reaches up over his head to snag the ball. 
This time I made no attempt to conceal my joy. I tossed my cap up in the air, I jumped for joy, I hooted, hollered, screamed and hugged everyone within armshot. As was his penchant, our taciturn former head-coach suggested the kids be more dignified so as not to show up the opponents. I shot back: "oh let them celebrate." After all, we may have known very well how to be good losers, but few on our team, myself included, had much practice at being good winners.

There have been many underdog, "Cinderella" teams in baseball history: the 1914 Boston Braves, the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, and this year's Kansas City Royals immediately come to mind. Heck even the lowly Browns won the AL pennant in 1944. That was when able-bodied American men, including professional ballplayers, were expected to go off to war. The Brownies just happened to have had more short-sighted, flat-footed, asthmatics who also happened to be bona fide big leaguers on their roster than anybody else that year. Just like them, we didn't get much respect for our accomplishment. "Well of course...", some people said, "if all the 13U players had been there it would have been a different story." At the awards ceremony, trophies were handed out to all the players. My son noticed that our championship opponents' trophies were bigger than ours. The plaque on theirs read "Major Division First Place Winners." On our trophies the powers that be, instead of writing "Major Division Champions," found it necessary to add the qualifier "Playoff" in front of the word champion, as if the playoffs were merely a separate, second season. Funny, but in all the other sports I know, it's the team that wins the last game of the year who's crowned the unqualified champion. The two teams who had the best overall records in the American and National Leagues this year (quick, can you name them?) are at this writing, sitting at home watching the World Series played by two wild card teams, that is, teams who didn't even win their respective divisions.

They say you don't make up your own schedule, you play the teams and the rosters given to you. In the playoffs we had the toughest route of all, playing and beating the three best teams in our league. They were missing players, so were we: one was our best all around player, another our hottest hitter and winningest pitcher, and the other two were solid infielders, both with significant pitching experience.

One of my favorite quotes about the game comes from the late manager Earl Weaver who once said:
You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You' ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all.
In other words, the other team may hand you runs you don't deserve, but in turn, you still have to get the outs all on your own, without the benefit of prevent or trap defenses or playing keep away.

In the end we won those games because we were the better team, pure and simple.

I think that point was not lost on the league, most of whom were rooting for us, as I found out after the fact. The point was not lost on our opponents either as only a handful of them bothered to show up for the awards presentation. We ended up with the last laugh when it came our turn to receive the trophies and our head coach wouldn't give up the mike (much to the chagrin of the organizers of the event), until he mentioned in detail the accomplishments of every single player on the team.

That wasn't the end of baseball for my son this season. As a member of the team that won the State Championship, he got to meet and have his picture taken with the mayor. The 14U team was constantly in need of players so he played with them on occasion. He was soon back with his 13U team as they played in a suburban fall ball league. That season wrapped up last weekend. He last played in the quarter and semi-final games last Saturday where his team won both games.

As luck would have it, he was forced to miss the championship game last Sunday as he was enrolled in a class to prepare him for yet another big test that will determine his future, at least the high school he will attend next year. The 13U team won that game too, meaning he played on teams that won three championships this year. In his last two ballgames played on Saturday, he made a couple of spectacular catches in the outfield. He also struck out six times in the two games, meaning he'll have the long off-season to think about it.

The baseball gods giveth, and they taketh away.

As of last Sunday, baseball is now officially over for us this year. As Bart Giamatti predicted, the chill rains of fall have come. Yet the game has not quite left us to face the winter alone. That spectacular run of ours last July will stay with us for a long time. Of all the wonderful memories of the event, the one that will forever be etched in my memory took place after the last out of the championship game, during the hug-fest. Through the crowd, my son and I found each other. He had no words to share, the look on his face said it all. We had been through a lot together these past five years. Baseball for us has been a never ending series of ups and downs, of failures and triumphs, heartache and joy. Through all that, it's the one thing that has brought us together more than anything else.

It dawned on me, as I'm sure it did on him as well, that we were coming to the end of a sweet chapter in our lives. Next year the 13 year old players will move on to other teams and our run with the Cardinals/A's was over. For five years my son and I worked hard together on this team; he learned to be a ballplayer, a teammate, and a leader; and I learned the patience necessary to be a coach. We had our frustrations to be sure, but I don't think either of us could ever say we didn't love every minute of it. It was beyond our wildest dreams and expectations that the Cardinals/A's would end up the way we did, winning our very last game as a team. Quite frankly, I don't think either of us knew exactly what to make of it all.

While I hug my children and tell them I love them every day, at that instant on our beloved Field 4 of Warren Park in Chicago, where my son and I spent some of the most unforgettable moments of our lives together, for the first time in a very long while, my stoic 13 year old hugged me back, long and hard. There was nothing needed to be said. The moment will stay with me as long as I live.

It so happens that shortly before the playoffs began, I wrote a blog post dedicated to another sport. I concluded it with a lovely piece written by a soccer player who wrote about those moments few and far between, that transcend the game and describe perfection itself. I ended the piece by saying we should all be so lucky to experience such a moment at least once in our lives.

Little did I know that in a few days, my son, his teammates, their parents, the other coaches, and I would experience that one perfect, fleeting moment, when the stars and planets align, when all the fielders are positioned perfectly, the batters "hit 'em where they ain't", each pitch finds the outside corner, and every member of the team is connected together as if they were one.

When we experience moments like these, the best we can do is hold on to them and cherish them, because we never know when or if they'll ever happen again.

The memory of those three beautiful summer evenings last July when all was right with the world, will provide us with enough warmth to overcome anything the harsh Chicago winter could possibly toss our way.

Those lovely green fields of the mind will remain, sustaining us at least until another opening day.

Warren Park 2014 Major League Champions, the finest group of gentlemen I've ever had the pleasure of knowing

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Labels and such

There are certain words, most notably names of people, businesses, or ideas, that raise the hair of people of a certain ilk. You know what and who they are: buzzwords that people of one political ideology or other use to define all that is wrong with the world. To someone of the right wing ilk, words or phrases such as welfare, communism, tax and spend liberal, or Barack Obama are used to stir up the troops because of their power to get like minded people riled up into a tizzy. To those on the left, the names George W. Bush, the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, and Monsanto all have the same effect. When those labels fail to do the job, both sides love to conjure up the sina qua non of labels used to describe objectionable opinions and ideas: Hitler and the Nazis.

I've never had much use for labels; for me they are means to over-simplify complicated issues that deserve nuance and thought.

One of those buzzwords that people on at least one side of the political spectrum use to describe all that is wrong about the world, or at least this part of it, is the big box store Walmart.

The Walmart corporation's success is due to the creation of a sophisticated distribution system and maintaining extremely low overhead (including paying its workers what many consider to be less than a reasonable living wage), which enables them to undercut the prices of all the competition. That in addition to the one-stop convenience of being able to get practically anything you want under one roof in a convenient location with ample parking, makes Walmart THE go to store for tens, maybe hundreds of millions of Americans.

This of course comes at the expense of the competition: establishments that have been around for decades if not centuries in traditional shopping areas. Some people see Walmart as the cause for the downfall of  urban downtowns and small town Main Streets all over the country that today are mostly moribund if not dead.

To some, it's purely an example of business as survival of the fittest, in this case a tremendously successful company who does things bigger and better than anybody else deserving to win. Besides they say, Walmart creates jobs for lots of Americans who have the choice not to work there if they find the wages unacceptable.

To others, Walmart represents nothing less than the destruction of the American landscape and our very way of life.

Whichever side you're on, this article from last November's issue of Salon is well worth the read.

I never much liked Walmart, I've always found their stores extremely depressing places to spend time in and found their business practices to be objectionable.

But I've always thought using their name as a label for all that is wrong about America to be a little excessive.

That is until now.