Tuesday, August 07, 2007
And tonight is the night of my maybe, possibly, could be final game or games. The way the weather looks right now, we'll probably play. Good. I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be. In the meantime, some short trips down muscle memory lane.
Setting: A baseball field in Milton, Massachusetts
It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, nobody on. I’m up. My team is down – by one run.
The guy behind me in the line-up just plain cannot hit. He’s struck out five times, not even coming close to the ball. There’s nobody to send up as a pinch-hitter for him.
It’s a pick-up game. We’re playing without an umpire. No bases-on-balls are possible. The on-deck hitter is NOT going to get a bat on the ball. So far, he’s swung fifteen times and not even gotten a foul. Therefore, I have to hit a home run to extend the game.
The pitcher knows who’s on deck, too. He’s trying to be fine with it, keeping it low and outside. However, I don’t have to swing until he throws one I like.
I let eight or nine pitches go by. In the middle of this game, the other bench would have been jeering and yelling. Common courtesy applies in a game like this and you swing at the first good pitch, certainly no later than the second one. However, everybody knows what’s happening here. The game will be decided as soon as I swing. Either it’s over or we go into extra innings. Nobody is saying anything.
The pitcher unloads. It’s straight down the middle. I rear back and swing as hard as I can.
The ball goes high and deep, to straightaway center field. I stand at the plate watching it for a second, then start running. One guy on our bench jumps up and yells exultantly, “He did it!”
I thought so, too. It's probably the furthest I've ever hit a ball in my life, maybe 400 feet. Unfortunately, it's to dead center. The ball comes down, about three feet in front of the fence, and the center fielder catches it. We lose by one run.
It’s the only time in my life I ever tried to specifically hit a home run in a meaningful game situation. It’s the only time I knew for a fact that I had to try. I gave it my very best shot, but it didn’t happen. That’s the way it goes sometimes.
(And you thought these were all going to be stories about me being the game-winning hero. Nope.)
Setting: A baseball diamond somewhere in Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston
It’s tryouts for my high school baseball team. It’s my first try at making an organized team since I played CYO ball for Saint Gregory’s back when I was 13. I had already taken a turn in the field, at first base. I fielded everything cleanly. Now I’m at the plate.
The pitcher is one of the coaches. He’s throwing crappy pitches that are missing the plate in every way possible – high, low, outside, inside. Unlike everybody else who has been up to show the coaches what they can do with a bat, I’m not swinging. They’re BAD pitches.
Another coach - the head coach - yells at me. He says, “Sullivan! Are you going to swing at ANYTHING? We don’t have all fuckin’ day here for YOU.”
I take a step out of the box. I can’t believe that he doesn’t see I’m the smartest batter on the field. If somebody was pitching like this coach, in a real game situation, and everybody would do what I’m doing – nothing – then the team would never make an out. Instead, this fool is encouraging his prospects to swing at crap.
(Looking back, I realize he might have been embarrassed for his fellow coach. Too bad. I was still the only guy on the field doing the right thing.)
I step back in, geared up to swing at the next pitch no matter where it is.
The pitch sails high and outside. I flick at it and drop it about ten feet into right field, over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.
The head coach says, very loudly, “You look like you’re trying to hit a bull in the ass with a banjo. Next batter!”
Everybody on the field is laughing. Now I’m embarrassed and mad. It was a clean hit off of a lousy pitch that I was basically ordered to swing at. I go take a seat on the grass and watch other guys go up. They’re mostly lofting cans of corn to the outfield, swinging at every pitch that doesn’t bounce on the way to the plate. Every time somebody puts one deep, this idiot coach yells encouragement. It doesn’t matter that they’re mostly being caught. This guy likes big swingers, no matter what the result.
After the practice, he calls out names. These are the guys invited back to the next practice. My name isn’t called. As we’re walking off the field, I screw up enough courage to ask the coach why I wasn’t called. He says I don’t have enough power to play first base, and then he walks on ahead of me.
I just stop dead in my tracks, dumbfounded. What the fuck does power have to do with playing a fielding position? So far as this guy knows, I might never make an out. He never saw me make one. On the pitches I was thrown, I would have walked twice and then singled on my only swing. I fielded the position cleanly when I was on the field. How in hell do you get cut when you’re perfect?
It’s the last time I ever try out for an organized hardball team.
Setting: Smith Field, Brighton, Massachusetts
Final game of the regular season. Going into the bottom of the seventh – the final inning - The Bombers are trailing by one run. We need to either tie or win this game to make the playoffs. A tie will get us fourth place because of the tiebreakers involved. I know this because I’m the manager and it’s my business to know it. The team we’re playing probably has no idea. They’ve already been eliminated from the playoffs.
(My current Bomber teammate, Ariel Monges, is the manager of The Rockies that year. Their games are over and his team’s fate is in our hands. If we don’t make it, his team does. I notice that he's watching the game from the left field foul line. So are a few guys from the Titans, the team that will face either the Rockies or us in the playoffs.)
As we come off the field and get ready to hit, I make sure that every player knows what’s happening.
“We need ONE run. Just ONE run. A tie and we’re in. Got it? ONE run. We don’t need to win, just tie. ONE run.”
I’m scheduled to bat fourth in the inning.
The first batter pops out to the second baseman. The second one grounds out, weakly, to first base. Sean Dykens is the third batter, our last hope.
Earlier in the game, Dykens had singled and was on first base with two outs. I hit a double to right center. After I slid, I looked up to find Dykens on third. I thought he might have scored, but he hadn’t. Not a big deal at the time. We were leading and a good batter – Jason Atton – was next up. We both ended up stranded, though.
Now Dykens laces one to left center. On the bench, everybody jumps up. It looks like it might have a chance to scoot through between fielders and send Dykens all the way. The left fielder gets to the ball, though, and Dykens has to stop at second. I step up to the plate.
Matt Widiger, my left fielder, yells from the bench, “Hey, coach, this is your team! Time to show us how to do it!”
I take a ball, then a strike. On the third pitch, I hit a line drive that falls in front of the center fielder. As I make my turn at first, I see the center fielder slightly bobble the ball. I decide to try for a double.
I figure the worst thing that can happen is this: The throw comes in to second base. If it has me beat, I’ll get into a rundown. In the meantime, Dykens has to score. We'll have the tie and that’s good enough to get us into the playoffs. If the throw goes to the plate, it’s a damned long throw and has to be perfect to nail Dykens. Either way, as manager I want us to go for it NOW.
I’m going into second and I see that the throw is coming into second, but not quickly enough to get me. I slide. Safe! I did it! We’re in the playoffs!
Except, I get up with a smile on my face and I see that Dykens is standing on third. He was on second to begin the play and I hit a double. Why the fuck is he on third? Why didn’t he score?
(Later on, one of my guys tells me that Dykens waited to see if my line drive would be caught before he took off. Two outs. TWO OUTS! Does nobody think in this game? With two outs, you’re running as soon as you see the ball off the bat. It’s four years later and it still pisses me off. Aaaaaarrrrgggghhhh!)
Well, all is not lost. Jason Atton is up and he’s been immense this year. And in this game, he’s already gone 3-for-4. Since my going to second took off the force, I fully expect them to walk Jason to get to Matt Stone. Matt has gone hitless in this game and not looked all that good doing so. But I know he’s an excellent hitter and I know – I really know, deep down in the core of my being – that if they walk Jason to get to him, we’re going to win. Matt will get the hit.
Surprisingly, they choose to pitch to Jason. I sit on second base and don’t leave the bag at all. My run does not matter in the least. I’m not taking any chances that Jason hits the ball and the ball hits me while I’m off the bag. I also don’t want to distract Jason in any way, shape or form by moving into his field of vision.
Jason swings. I don’t turn around to look at the flight of the ball. I heard him say, “Shit!” as soon as the ball left the bat. I know it’s a can of corn. Three outs. No playoffs.
Jason played his ass off. So did I. The guy standing on third base… well, he got the hit to give us hope, but then he killed us by not thinking.
The last thing I saw as I left second base was Ariel pumping his fist. He was going to the playoffs. I was going home.
Setting: Clemente Field in The Fens, a couple of blocks behind Fenway Park
I’ll do what I always do - whatever the situation dictates. I may not always get the desired result, but I almost never have any regrets concerning my choices. We’ll see what happens tonight. Wish me luck.