There's the old joke about the dog who chases cars. If he catches one, what's he going to do with it?
Yesterday, I finally became a member of a championship team. Now what do I do?
The Bombers beat the Titans, 11 - 3 and 7 - 6, to win the championship of our mens fastpitch softball league.
I've been chasing this particular car for 50 years, basically. I started playing ball (baseball) when I was 7. I played Little League, CYO, on neighborhood teams and briefly in high school. Then I changed over to softball. I really can't count how many different leagues I've played in, small-time tournaments I was a part of, company teams I helped to form, and times the season ended without winning the final game. For the Bombers part of the chase, it was 20 years of close but no cigar.
I'm still stunned. I'm so used to walking off the field at the end of each year being the gracious loser that I'm kind of at a loss for how to act. It was the same way yesterday. When game two ended, I was very happy but I didn't know what to do. I took off my mask and walked in a daze toward my teammates, smiling, until outfielder M. J. McCabe grabbed me with both arms and hoisted me up in the air. Then the rest of the day had that same aspect, as though I was looking down on the world from a higher place than normal. Thanks, M. J.; that was exactly what I needed at that moment in order for it to feel real.
As was the case for much of the year, Brian Pacheco (Cheeks) was the man who did the pitching. It was my pleasure to catch all 14 innings of his artful work and he deserves every bit of praise his teammates gave him. He set a number of team records this year in the pitching categories and he also beat out Brad Cole by a few percentage points for the team batting average title. But yesterday, the man who put a charge into the team early, and never stopped, was shortstop Mark Preziosi.
After Cheeks threw a scoreless top of the first, Jimmy Botting drew a walk to lead off for us. Pat Atton followed with a single. Preziosi stepped to the plate and proceeded to hit an absolute bomb for a three-run homer. We all exploded off the bench to greet him at home as he stepped on the plate to make it 3 - 0 Bombers. Brad Cole was next and he singled, followed by Cheeks with another single. Billy Botting then cranked his team-leading eighth home run of the year to make it 6 - 0 and that was all the scoring we needed for that game. In all, the first eight of our batters reached via hit or walk and, despite being the past champions they have been for many a year, you could see some shoulders slumping on the Titans. We scored another four in the second inning (the big blow was a three-run shot by M. J. McCabe) and coasted to the win, 11 - 3. Preziosi ended the game four-for-four, with three doubles added to his home run. It was a monster performance at the plate and he was almost as good in the field, hoovering up everything hit his way.
Game two was a different sort of beast. The Titans saved their ace pitcher to begin that game (he had arrived during the second inning of game one, but they held him back for game two since the score was already 10 - 0 in our favor. The strategy, a good one, was to have him be fresh and possibly outlast a tiring Cheeks if they could force a third game (or maybe Jack Atton, if Cheeks couldn't throw another one.)
We were the visitors for game two, so we batted first. And again, Preziosi set the tone. After two quick outs, he hammered another one to center field to give us the 1 - 0 lead. Please believe me when I tell you I've never seen a guy hit five balls in succession with the authority he did yesterday. Five at-bats, all bombs and lasers, for two home runs and three doubles. He ended his day with a long fly out (the Titan outfield was playing him somewhere in Cambridge by that time) and, having seen enough, they walked him intentionally in his final trip to the plate. Combined with his excellent work at shortstop, I think it might be the best single day performance I've ever seen for the Bombers by a position player, especially when factoring in that it came during the championship series.
The Titans were the defending champions, though, and they were not going to lay down and die. Their leadoff man put a charge into one and tied the game, 1 - 1. Both pitchers were on and that's how it stayed until the bottom of the fourth.
The Titans scored three in the fourth to take a 4 - 1 lead. In times past, this is where the Bombers might have let down and come apart. Not this day. In the top of the fifth, we answered with seven of our next eight hitters reaching base (aided, in a couple of instances, by some fielding miscues from the normally sound Titans defense) and, by the time they got out of the inning, we had reclaimed the lead at 7 - 4.
Back came the Titans with two in the bottom of the fifth, leaving us clinging to a precarious 7 - 6 lead.
They played good defense and had solid pitching for the 6th and 7th, allowing us a lone harmless single in those two frames. For us, Cheeks battled through a couple of errors and a walk to get out of the 6th scoreless (he was also battling a strained hamstring, which we tried to hide on our bench and meant, in all likelihood, that he wouldn't be able to do a third game; it seemed touch-and-go for a short time whether he'd be able to answer the bell for the final two innings, but he toughed it out with ice and guts.)
Bottom of the seventh, we're hanging onto the one-run lead. Three outs for the championship. The Titans first batter, top of their order, singles. He's forced at second, leaving a man on first with one out. Topher, their third batter and a mainstay on many a championship squad, strokes a solid line drive, but Brad Cole at third base is right in the path of it. He snares it for out number two, briefly considers trying to get the double play on the man scampering back to first, but makes the right decision - not chancing an errant throw to put a man in scoring position - and stops himself at the last moment. Two out. Cheeks was squeezed a bit on the next man, giving up a walk, the tying run to second and winning run to first, with Kenny Bean - a big clutch performer, including yesterday (3 for 5, and a walk) - waiting on-deck and the last man we wanted up with a chance to win the game for his team. But he got the final batter to ground to - fittingly - Mark Preziosi, who forced the trailing runner at second for the final out.
And there I was, standing at home plate, Frankenmask in hand...
... watching my teammates jump around and yell, then walking towards them until M. J. intercepted me and lifted me in the air. Other congratulations followed - big hugs, a vigorous rub of my bald head from Jack Atton, and then, after we had gone through the handshake line with the Titans (who showed great class in defeat, many of them stopping for a moment and looking me straight in the eye and saying, "Congratulations, Sully. You guys deserved it.") I got the nicest, but most shocking, moment I've ever had on a ballfield. While I was standing by our bench, looking out at the field and still getting used to how good it felt to win the final game, I received a drenching of ice and ice cold water over my head, a cooler full of the stuff. It was like the Gatorade showers after a championship football game. I was soaked. And I was extremely touched that they they poured it on ME.
Some more subtle celebrations followed. For one thing, I got a very satisfying smooch from MY WIFE. Then Mark Preziosi came over and handed me the ball with which he had made the final out. I said, "No, Mark, you were immense today. Game ball to you." He refused, handing it back. It was a sweet gesture and I appreciated it. Someone - maybe Billy Botting? - suggested everybody sign the ball. I signed it, then everybody else did, and I was saying things like, "This will have a cherished place on my mantle." But, as the last signatures were being put on it, I saw Ronnie Johnson leaving the field. I called out to him to come back. And I told the guys to give the ball to him.
Ronnie and I are the only two who have been on this Bombers team for the entire 20 years of its existence. And I was getting a lot more attention because I've done self-promotion, always talking about never winning a championship, but without Ronnie there literally would be no Bombers team. Back in April of 1995, he was enough of a good guy and a softball lifer to put together an expansion team when asked to do so by the then league commissioner. He had been on another team that folded the year before. We all answered an ad in the "Sports Plus" section of the Boston Globe, coming out to a field in Brighton for a tryout. Some of us were decent players, but the best of the lot were picked off by that louse of a commissioner before Ronnie was able to get to the field. Ronnie was left with what that bastard didn't want. We went 6 and 21 that first year, finishing 8th of 8 teams. Without Ronnie leading the team in most offensive categories, and carrying us on his back, we might not have won a single game. He was that good a hitter back in the day. And without his willingness to take on the responsibility of the team, I'm not sitting here today typing this.
(Funny story that I love: Years later, as Ron and I were sitting around after a game and reminiscing, we got to talking about that first tryout. His previous team had been called the Bowdoin Bombers, mostly - maybe all - black. He said he got out of his car at the tryout and his first thought was, "Who are all these white guys?" Until he brought on a pitcher from his previous team, Jimmy Jackson - who threw some great ball for seriously bad teams, and whose win-loss percentage was always better than the team as a whole - Ron was the only black player, and our coach to boot. I will never give him anything less than major props for taking on that role. That he has since gone on for 20 years, with myself and then Jack Atton as his coach, without ever - not once - voicing a complaint or doing anything less than being a team guy, speaks volumes about that man's character and class.)
Time to wrap this up. Everybody on the team this year did something worthwhile and valuable to get us the championship, from Dave Nutter, who played one game, to Jimmy and Billy Botting, who played every inning of all of them. I mean that sincerely. But three guys deserve just a little more praise, so here goes.
Big Jay Atton was our ace for a long time. He almost singlehandedly carried us across the finish line in 2010 when we were short five of our best players in the finals. This year, he was injured for most of the season and couldn't play. But, the one time we needed him badly, in the final regular season game, he pitched one of the guttiest games I've ever witnessed. We needed a victory to clinch first and Cheeks was unavailable that week. Jay stepped in, tossed us to a 6 - 4 victory, and we finished first. As we've since found out - and he didn't know it that day, either - he was pitching with a blood clot in his lung. Utterly exhausted - he couldn't even tie his own shoe at one point and had to have Pat Atton do it for him - he gave us everything he had that day and then collapsed on the bench afterward. I'm maybe making it sound melodramatic, but it's the truth. I've never seen a player leave more of himself on the field than I did that day.
Cheeks was a monster all year. That he didn't get a victory in every game he pitched (he had one loss and one tie in his 13 decisions) was our fault, not his. Every single time a game was on the line, he got better. In addition, he continually got big hits and fielded his position superbly. That I got to catch 10 or 11 of his gems is a career highlight for me.
Finally, Jack Atton.
What can I say? He made all the right moves as manager, made some clutch contributions when he played, and never let his ego get in the way of his decisions. He recruited the players we needed, made sure everybody knew they were a valuable component of the whole, and did all the little things that a team needs but sometimes takes for granted (managing the money, toting the equipment, designing and buying the uniforms, knowing the rules, negotiating with the commissioner, a full cooler of Gatorade for every game, and so forth.) Here's to you, Jack, you handsome bastard!
So, to get back to the question at the beginning of this, now what do I do? I'm not sure, but I know I've been doing a lot of smiling since yesterday. Maybe that's all I need to do.
Soon, with more better stuff.