Thursday, August 09, 2007
THE FINAL CHAPTER OF THE MONDAY SOFTBALL DIARY
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
(Keith Goodrich - who didn't realize we were the away team - and Chris Mittell. In the background between them is Kurt Grueter. Jack Atton is the one with his knee up and that's Carl Hyman lacing up the spikes.)
(L:Kurt Grueter - 2nd Base R: Pete Mittell - Manager, Gentleman.)
I’m not sure exactly where this is headed, other than to say a very loving good-bye to some men with whom I’ve shared a field, as well as to a sport I’ve played for 43 years. Let’s start with the details of the final game and go from there.
We were the visiting team. I led off. I took two pitches and then lined the third one into center field for a single. Carl Hyman, who was superb for us all year, followed with a double. I scored and Carl took third on an error. After a pop-up, Big Jay Atton grounded out, 6 to 3, with Carl scoring. Kurt Grueter followed with a single, but he was forced at second to end the inning.
Kevin Meagher started on the mound for us. He’s been battling a very bad shoulder for most of the past two years and has just now found himself able to pitch with any sort of real effectiveness. He throws with medium speed, his bread-and-butter being a good change-up and excellent control. He had a pretty smooth first inning, giving up a lone single to the third batter before striking out their clean-up hitter. We led 2-0 after one.
(With Kevin starting, manager Pete Mittell was able to keep both Attons [Jack and Big Jay] on the field as third baseman and shortstop, respectively, rather than having one of them pitch. In the bullpen was the man 29 years older than me – the amazing Bobby Ridley. I feel decrepit at 50 and he’s planning on coming back next year at 80. Wow. He’s my hero.)
(The Ageless One, Bobby Ridley.)
We didn’t threaten in the top of the second.
In the bottom of the second, Robinson/Paige saw their first six batters reach, four on hits and two on errors. Three runs were in, the bases were loaded with nobody out, AND the top of the order was coming up. Kevin did some beautiful pitching, getting the first two outs on pop-ups to Kurt at second base and then the third out on a grounder to Kurt, which he got over to me at first base in plenty of time to end the threat. The score stood at 3-2, Robinson/Paige, after two innings.
In the top of the third, I drew a walk to lead off. Carl followed with a single to left, helped a bit by a slight misplay by the left fielder. He didn’t quite read it and it fell clean. I was playing it halfway and was able to beat the throw to second when it dropped in. Jack Atton then singled to right center. Pete, who was coaching the bag, stopped me at third. Good thing, too, as their center fielder made a nice throw to the plate. It was certainly the right call, even if the throw had been a bit off, as we now had bases loaded with nobody out. You never want the first out of an inning to be at home.
Big Jay Atton came up. He’d been a .500 hitter most of the year, but was slumping a bit lately. He forced Jack at second base, but I scored to tie the game at 3. Now Kurt Grueter came through with another hit, a double that scored both Carl and Jack. We were up, 5-3, a runner on second and still only one out.
(Kurt had a whale of a game both at bat and in the field. He was immense.)
Chris Mittell followed with a single, sending Kurt to third. Unfortunately, that was it. After a pop-up and a strikeout, the inning was over.
(Carl Hyman - LF)
In their half of the third, Rob/Paige were only able to scratch out a single. After three complete, it was 5-3, Flames.
(I was unsuccessful in tracking down a foul that inning. There's a slight rise between the foul line and the out-of-play area, which is a running track some twelve or fifteen feet beyond the line. That frickin’ rise has screwed me up on every single foul I’ve gone after this year, bar none. This time, I had a bead on the ball and I thought I had it. I hit that little hill, though, and I started to lose my balance. The ball went off the tip of my glove and I fell backwards on my ass, with my head snapping down and hitting the running track. Guys from both teams came running over like maybe I had been killed. I appreciated the attention, kind of, but I really should have caught the ball and it was embarrassing.)
(Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt at all. I thought about going to the hospital after the game, but an x-ray of my head would have shown nothing.)
(Bah-rump-bump! I’ll never be here again. Try the veal.)
(Oh, and it was immediately after this play that I looked up into the stands and saw MY WIFE sitting there. Bless her, she had come to see my final game. That was the first play she saw all year, me bapping my head against the ground.)
Our part of the fourth went by quickly. I came to bat with two outs and nobody on. I decided to pull the ball and see if maybe I could get it down the line for a double. Our chances would be better with two outs if I were in scoring position. No go. I got a fair piece of it, but pretty much directly at the left fielder and a bit too much air under it, too. It was my only out of the game.
(As we were going to take our positions, Big Jay referenced my piece about playing on asphalt when I was a kid. He said something to the effect of, “As soon as I saw you hit that, I thought, ‘There’s a shot that would have cleared that 125-foot fence when you were a kid.’” Funny bastard.)
In the bottom of the fourth, the leadoff batter for Robinson/Paige hit a line drive a step to my right. I got it for the first out.
(After 43 years playing this game, I still have no élan. Instead of styling, and firing it around the infield, I tossed it right back to Kevin on the mound. Everybody gave me grief.)
With one out, and after giving up his only walk of the game, Kevin surrendered two hits and a sac fly. Tie game after four complete, 5 – 5.
We went 1-2-3 in the top of the fifth and then Rob/Paige came alive in their half.
It started innocently enough, a grounder to Jack Atton at third. He relayed to me at first for the out. I even remembered to start the around-the-horn this time. The next batter reached on an error. Following that, the next guy blasted one out of the park and we were down two. Kevin gave up another single, prompting Pete to come out to the mound. He opted to lift Kevin and put Jack Atton in. Mike Minchoff, who had been our hitter, took over at third.
It was a good move. Kevin had done a fine job, but he was tiring and my guess is his shoulder wasn’t up to going the remainder. Jack had given these guys fits in the past. As a matter of fact, my very first game with the Flames was a 2-0 shutout of Robinson/Paige by Jack, one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen in our brand of ball. This year, he had handled them pretty well, a win and a loss, with the loss mostly a result of some truly horrible defense.
I hate to even write this part. I love Jack’s spirit. He wants to win as badly as anyone with whom I’ve ever played, but he keeps it all in a healthy perspective. As my manager in the other league, he’s a real up guy, always keeping everybody’s ego pumped – sometimes when the guy he’s giving a smile to has just torn his heart out. I hope he cuts himself some slack, like he does everybody else. He’s a big-time gamer and I’d rather have him on the mound, in a tight spot, than anyone else I’ve played with. I could hardly stand to watch his face while it was happening. I never saw a sadder guy on a field.
Jack just didn’t have it. His control wasn’t there. He walked the first two batters he faced, loading the bases. Then the roof caved in. The #10 hitter smacked a towering shot to center. Grand slam. A walk and three singles followed that, with us getting an out at third when a runner overran the bag. Jack reared back and got a strikeout for the third out, but now it was 13 – 5 and we only had two innings left.
I know that much of what I’ve written this year has been a love letter to my teammates, but I can’t help it. These guys rock. Lots of teams – most teams – would have shut it down at this point and just gone through the motions. They would have gone up there swinging for themselves, trying to get a big fly for their ego and to hell with the team. Not the Flames. They play ball the way it should be played and I’m proud as hell to have played my final game with them.
(Bryan Welch - OF)
Kurt Grueter did what a leadoff man should do. He worked the count and drew a walk. Chris Mittell followed with a solid single, putting Kurt on second. Then Bryan Welch brought us all back to life with a gapper to right center, ending up on third with a triple and two runs batted in. Keith Goodrich hit a liner, but it was caught a foot off the ground by the third baseman. Mike Minchoff singled to drive in Kurt. Kevin Meagher, now as the hitter, singled to right, Mike moving to second.
I came up for what would turn out to be my final at-bat, although I certainly wasn’t thinking about that then. On a 2-1 pitch, I laced a liner to right. It got to the fielder so quickly, we could only go station-to-station. Bases loaded.
Carl hit a grounder to short. My final act on a ball field, as a hitter/runner, was to slide into second. I ripped a new hole in the knee of my uniform. Big deal. It’s dirt, not asphalt. Mike scored on the play and now we’re down 13-9, runners on first and third, two out.
Continuing the parade of guys doing the right thing, Jack Atton drew a walk, re-loading the bases. Big Jay singled, driving in Kevin and Carl. We had batted around and now trailed only 13 – 11. We had the tying runs on and the go-ahead at the plate.
That was as far as it got. Jay was forced, 6 to 4, and we took the field again. Jack’s troubles on the mound continued as he walked the leadoff man. The next guy hit a grounder to me that took a nice high hop. My play was to first, so I took the out there. Two singles followed, scoring one. Now it’s 14 – 11. The #10 batter, the guy who had previously hit the grand slam off of Jack, was fooled this time and flied out to left. Two outs and the game is still within reach if we can get the next guy.
It wasn’t to be. A three-run homer and we were down 17 – 11. And that’s how the game ended. We got two men on in the seventh, but the third out was made while I was on-deck. That was it for the season - and for me.
We went into the game without our starting shortstop and our starting center fielder. Between the time of our previous game and this one, the shortstop wrenched his knee and the center fielder broke his ankle. That could be seen as a microcosm of the entire season. I don’t think we had more than two or three games all year where we were able to draw from the full roster for our starting nine.
We who took the field on the final night gave it our best shot. We certainly put a scare into the other team a couple of times, but we came up short in the end. It wasn’t due to lack of effort.
I walked out with the rest of the guys to shake the hands of the players from Rob/Paige. While we were waiting for them to stop their own celebration, Pete said some kind words to me. He’s a tremendously good guy to play for, always doing little things to make life easier for us. Not too shabby as a strategist, either. He really deserves a healthy team for a full year. The three years I’ve played for the Flames, he’s never really had that for more than a couple of games each year.
(Jack Atton, showing off his bruise from where he took a line drive almost two weeks ago.)
After we shook them up, I’m walking back to our bench and Jack kind of grabs me from behind, turns me around, and gives me a big ol’ bear hug and a pat on the back. I know he wasn’t happy with his own performance, but he was thoughtful enough to give me the big good-bye. I gladly returned the hug.
As I untied my cleats and put equipment away, other guys came up, shook my hand, and said nice things. Big Jay had been using my glove – I was using Pete’s first baseman’s mitt during the game – and he handed it back to me. I realized I didn’t need it anymore. On the spur of the moment, I told him to keep it. It’s the one and only Suldog autographed model. Knowing my penchant for leaving things on benches, I had written SULDOG-29-BOMBERS-FLAMES near the bottom of the thumb. I hope he’s smart enough to keep that writing there. Someday, when this War & Peace of softball is made into a movie, he’ll be able to get big bucks on E-Bay.
I took more manly hugs from Carl and Kurt. Carl is such a fine ballplayer. He carried this team for a goodly portion of the year. And Kurt just does whatever needs to be done. Fantastic instincts and smart – a rare combination.
Then Jay gave me a hug, too. He’s so freakin’ huge – 6’ 7” or whatever - I felt like a little kid. He thanked me for playing with him. Jeez, what can you say to that? I started to tear up, but there’s no crying in softball, so I snuffed it up and continued packing my gear.
Rob Podoloff, who’s having hip replacement surgery in about two weeks, said good-bye. Excellent teammate. He only played a handful of games this year, due to his bum hip, but when we needed him, he played every inning. When he wasn’t playing, he kept the book, coached, and did all of the other stuff that makes life better for the guys.
Chris, Keith, Mike, and Bryan gave me the big good-bye and the glad to have played with you and all that. Me, too, men. Chris said, “So long, Old Bones.” That’s what he’s called me for about three years now. I reminded him of some cartoon character once, an old skeleton or something. It was true this year.
(L to R: Chris Mittell, Rob Podoloff [#9] warming up, pitcher Kevin Meagher)
I would have liked a chance to have shaken hands and said good-bye to Dave Vargas and Brian Dillon and Mike Vosseller, but they were among the wounded who couldn't make it down. Hector and John Acosta, too. And Eric Elam who seems to have disappeared - maybe he's in witness protection. It was fun, guys.
Bobby the ageless wonder said good-bye, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out why someone almost 30 years younger than him was leaving.
The funniest one was Kevin. See, Kevin has no e-mail or internet. Apparently, he’s never seen this blog and I guess I never mentioned to him, in person, that I was retiring. He saw all these guys giving me the big hugs and saying “Good luck in the future!” and all this other stuff. He got all indignant.
“What? You’re quitting? What the hell are YOU quitting for? Are you kidding?”
I said, “Yeah, this is it, Kev.”
“Oh, cut the shit, Sully. You’re coming back. The guy I saw on the field tonight has no business quitting.”
He’s right. The guy he saw on the field in that game has no business quitting. As a matter of fact, looking at my last two games (my final game with the Bombers and this one with the Flames) I look insane for quitting. I went a combined 5-for-7, plus two walks, and four runs scored. I fielded my position pretty well, too. If I could play like that every game next year, damn straight I’d be back.
The thing is, these two games may have been the best two games I had all year. God answered my prayers and sent me out with my best effort on display. I’m satisfied with that, I think. And if I come back next year, I’d have to pay back these games to God. I’ll be damned (seriously… DAMNED!) if I want to go through that.
I’m going to coach a bit with the Bombers on Sundays, and keep the stats, and I’ll be available for true emergency duty – that is, if only eight guys show up, I’ll be the ninth body. But that’s it. I gave my glove away, for goodness’ sakes. You think I’m not serious?
Well, OK, I’ve still got a trunk full of bats, but that doesn’t mean anything. Really. It doesn’t. Seriously.
To everybody I’ve ever played with, from the asphalt to now, thank you. It was a gas. These were the most enjoyable utterly wasted hours of my life.
Final Stats - Flames