Sunday, October 29, 2017

Annals of the Game

Another baseball season has just wrapped up for my son and his friends, this time with a championship. His fall ball team, a collection of the best players from his park house league, went undefeated, even winning two games from a team comprised of players from his and several of his teammates' high school.

As with every last baseball game of the year for the last few years, the question arises, what next? My son a junior, has a chance to make the high school varsity team, but as the new coach reminded us parents, there are about fifty kids competing for twenty five spots on the the roster. As of now, he's definitely on the outside looking in. Despite the odds, he remains undaunted in pursuing his dream, even with the knowledge that it might end in heartbreak. Truth be told, unless you're one of the few lucky ones to be able to retire on your own terms, baseball careers always end in heartbreak. As they say, if it doesn't kill you, it will only make you stronger.

For me, my days of being a baseball coach are probably over, at least on one of my son's teams. We came over to our present park after several happy years in our local park's Little League program. He didn't make the travel team there a couple years ago and found himself without a team as he aged out of that park's program. We found out about our the park league through some high school friends and teammates who have been playing together for years. Despite that, both he and I were welcomed to the new park with open arms. I can count many of the parents from this league as cherished friends. This summer one of those friends invited me to be an assistant coach on his house league team. Our team, as with the three others in the 16 and under house league, could be divided in three categories, one third of them serious high school ball players, my son included, another third, high school athletes for whom baseball was a part time diversion, and finally a third who played ball just for fun. On our team, one player was playing his first year of any kind of baseball. That's pretty impressive for a teenager. It was that final third who won my heart because such are the wonders and joys of house league baseball.

Fortunately the administration of this particular park league agrees with that assessment. It's been my experience that most parks, our old one included, place most of  their emphasis on the travel team, the serious players who spend much of their summers driving with their parents state to state, from one tournament to another. Not surprisingly the house league teams, made up of kids who just want to have fun, along with the more serious players who are required to play house ball, get the short shrift. Not so with our current league who places fun and sportsmanship above playing to win.
We witnessed that during the last game of our fall ball season today when our coach, with a tenuous 5-2 lead, pulled our most talented player who was cruising along on the mound, for another pitcher who saw little time pitching this season and who in fact, had just come back from an ankle injury. This new pitcher had a little trouble finding the strike zone and with some adept at bats on the other team with players fouling off good pitches and letting the bad ones go, and a little help from some bad calls by the umpires, we found ourselves in the situation of having the bases loaded and nobody out. Our coach then went to the mound, not to bring in a reliever, but to give the sell-shocked pitcher some words of encouragement.

The next batter hit the first pitch well over my son the left fielder's head. It would be his only real play in the field that day but my boy managed to navigate through a crowd of  park visitors deep in the outfield to get to the ball and make a good throw holding the batter to a triple. With the score tied and still nobody out, our coach brought in a more experienced pitcher who now facing the top of their order, managed to strike out the side.

Meanwhile, doing his best to console his brother the previous pitcher, a young man who had been videotaping the game asked his brother if he wanted to see the break of his prodigious curve ball. Devastated, his brother said he didn't want to see anything. I was standing right behind him and it truly broke my heart.

After the game when I told our coach how impressed I was that out of a sense of fair play, he didn't just leave our studly starting pitcher in to finish the game as he easily could have, he told me that he knew our team would score more runs. Which they did to win the game but most importantly, to pick up their friend and teammate who gave up the three runs. Perhaps it was just good luck, or maybe the divine providence of the baseball gods, but with two outs in the last inning, a ground ball was hit to the young man who scooped it up and tossed the ball to second base forcing out the runner for the last play of the game.

And just like that, the season was over, and for many of these boys, my son included, the question of what next, baseball-wise anyway.

They're young men now, they have the rest of their lives in front of them. The future is now in their hands. Some will go on to play college ball, maybe even beyond for one or two of them. For others, the game today might be their last game of organized ball. But hopefully for all of them the memories of their time as friends and teammates in the wonderful world of Gompers Park Baseball will stay with them the rest of their lives.

For the ones who may move on to bigger and better non-baseball related things, they can rest secure in the knowledge that as far as their baseball career was concerned, they went out on top.

The 2017 Gompers Park River Bandits
As our stalwart coach would say, "now how good is that?"

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