We are well into this year's baseball season. The Nationals are on fire, as are the Mets.
Baltimore is not. Where is someone like Cal when you need him?
I love the game of baseball.
Like motor coaching, baseball has many metaphors for life, however, I have loved the game much, much, longer than I have loved the rving lifestyle.
I have been to a number of major league games. My first one was a weekday night game in late spring of 1989. It was the first home game of the Cincinnati Reds after the Pete Rose Scandal hit the news. There was another big story about him on the day of the game. Although he was a player as well as the manager of the Reds, he never came out of the team's dugout the whole night.
The Reds were playing the Mets that night. The highlight of the game for me was a high and hard Darryl Strawberry foul ball that landed a few rows behind me, bounced off an empty seat then careened off the left arm of my seat and landed in a bucket of popcorn belonging to a young lady a few levels below me.
I still regret not catching that ball that the young lady never saw coming. I know she never knew what hit her by the volume of her scream as the ball knocked the bucket off her lap while scattering popcorn over everyone seated next to her.
I would have liked to take that ball home to Joel, my four year old son.
Nine years later, Joel, then thirteen, my oldest daughter Christine, her then husband Brent, Diane and I were sitting just above the left outfield wall at Yankee Stadium. We were munching on hero sandwiches and drinking ginger ale as the Yankees played the White Sox.
We got a kick out of the Yankee fans heckling left fielder Albert Belle, at that time the highest paid player in baseball.
The sound of "ALbert...ALbert!" coming from some forty thousand voices at the same time made it pretty obvious that he was not popular in New York.
We got a bigger kick witnessing then Yankee Darryl Strawberry hit not one, but two, two out-two strike home runs.
The shouts of "DAR-RYL DAR-RYL!" from the same forty thousand voices made it obvious that he was very popular in New York.
The Yankees won that night. You got to love the Yankees. You got to love their fans even more. Some may argue, but I believe the Yankees have the best fans in the world.
Two days earlier we were at a night game in Philadelphia.
The Phillies were still playing at the old hot and stuffy Veteran's stadium. The Braves were in town and I swear there were more fans rooting for them than for the Phillies. After watching the way Philadelphia played that night, I understood why.
In 1998 it was hard to love them Phillies.
In 1997 Joel, Diane and I attended a Baltimore Orioles game and watched Cal Ripken keep his teammates entertained during a rain delay. The Orioles were playing Oakland. Mark McGwire was a member of the A's then and what a batting practice display he put on that day. In just a few weeks he would be traded to the St Louis Cardinals and go on to lead the majors with 58 home runs that year.
Before the game Joel and I visited the Babe Ruth Museum. That is a place you should not miss when in Baltimore.
In 1998 I was at an Arizona Diamondbacks home game and watched Randy Johnson, throwing a lot of nasty side arm sliders, strike out fourteen Padres in a row and hit a standup double. It goes without saying that he won that game.
May 24th 1998 Diane, Joel, Christine, Brent, and I were sitting in the mezzanine section of Shea Stadium watching the New York Mets play the Milwaukee Brewers. At eleven that morning the game was sold out. It was the first Mets sell-out since the last time they were National League East champs ten years earlier. The reason for the sellout was that this was the first home game of the newest Mets player...Mike Piazza. History says that it took some time for Mets fans to warm up to their new catcher. Not so. They loved him from the first moment they saw him on the field just taking questions from news people. The first time he came up to bat, the place went berserk. It was the beginning of a seven year relationship that included two playoffs, one pennant and a World Series against the Yankees. And I was there with my family when it started.
All these games were great. A couple of them had some real history being made. But none of them were as exciting to me as a game that I was at one hot Saturday in June of 1996.
It was the game between the Phillies and the Giants. Not the big league ones. This game was a battle between the Phillies and the Giants of the Churchland Little League.
Joel, my son, was on the Phillies.
I was the manager of his team.
I had some experience coaching a team before I took on the job of managing the Phillies. I found out that some experience was better than none but not a whole lot. The part I didn't know about was that managing was a full time job even when you have a full time job. I spent many evenings at practice, putting together my lineup, calling parents to remind them of the Saturday game and where it would be and at what time and most importantly; making sure of who would be there. All this was in addition to giving my son individual Dad time. I threw a lot of batting practice pitches to him in the big grassy church lot next to our house. I also caught a lot of pitches from him in our back yard.
I tried to be a pretty laid back coach. Winning was not the most important thing to me. Helping my players do their best and make their best better was my goal. I figured if I did that then we would win, hopefully a lot, of games as a result.
I had four rules for my players.
Be on time for practices and games.
Trust the coach.
When behind don't give up.
When ahead don't let up.
That was it.
I thought that with those rules that all involved would have fun.
I had to pick up players, drive them to practices and to the games. This was the part of managing that got to me the most. Chris, my catcher, lived with his single mom. She worked very long hours and so it fell upon me to drive to his home, pick him up, take him to practice, and bring him back to our house for dinner. If I didn't do that he would end up at home, alone, eating Fruit Loops or something just as healthy.
Chris was twelve years old, tall for his age, with bright blond hair, blue eyes, and a handsome face that turned red quick from exposure to the sun. He had a fast swing and a faster temper to go with it.
Chris resented being on the Phillies. He really didn't like being "down here with the little squirts" to use his words. He gave the impression that the only reason that he was playing was because his mother wanted him to. I didn't believe that to be the only reason. I could tell that he loved the game, although he felt he was out of the league he should have been in.
You see, Churchland Little League was divided into three divisions; T-Ball, Minor League, which was comprised of teams made up of mostly eight to ten year olds, and the major league, which had ten to twelve year old players. The idea was that the Major League players were ones with a bit more skill. From the major league teams came all our All Stars. The All Stars would make up the dream team that would play in the district tournaments and then if successful go on to the Little League World Series.
That is the way it was supposed to work, but in reality the coaches sons, and players that coaches really liked, or friends of the coaches sons, or sons of the coaches friends, you get the picture, ended up in the majors. From there it was on the All Star teams no matter how good they were, or were not. Every now and then an "exceptional" minor league player could get called up to one of major league teams if a spot became available.
Chris was a good player, better than most, but he had no one to go to bat for him. He had no father to be seen. His mother moved around a lot so even though he had played some organized baseball before, no one in Churchland knew him, so he was never considered for the majors, and being that this was his last year of eligibility to play he was unlikely to be called up.
As I said, Chris was a good player. He had no fear of the ball at all. Most of my players would back out of the box as soon as the pitcher released the ball. They rarely swung at a pitch. Right handed Chris crowded the plate. His size scared the opposing players, especially the pitcher. Chris gave a look that dared any pitcher to throw it anywhere near the plate. If they did he would quickly smash the ball. He would smash it long and high over the third base side into the outfield. Unfortunately it was the outfield of the T-ball field which made that screaming hit a foul ball.
The coaches of the T-ball teams didn't care for unseen round white orbs raining down on their dirt kicking outfielders. More than once they told me to do something about it. I asked one coach if he would like me to shout "FORE-LEFT!" when Chris comes up to bat. He called me a wise guy.
I did want to do something about it believe me.
Over dinner I would try to coach his attitude, tell him to not crowd the plate. He had a long reach. Give the pitcher some room and he would get a good pitch to hit.
I moved him back in the box and told him to wait before swinging and to go for the outside pitch.
When Chris hit one into fair territory, it was usually a line drive that went like it was shot out of a cannon right at third base, or to the shortstop position. This hit sometimes resulted in an injury to the unfortunate kid who tried to knock it down and extra bases for Chris.
Soon the pitchers for the other teams, on coach's orders, all started pitching away from him. This frustrated Chris even more and he started swinging at junk, hitting more fouls and finding himself in many 0 and 2 counts. I told him to take more first pitches. He would try, and he could get the count to 3 and 2, but a sharp pitcher would take advantage of him. He would end up with a backwards K next to his name on the score sheet.
After hitting two fouls, looking at three balls, looking at a third strike, he would turn even redder in the face. If he could have he would have broken his aluminum bat in half.
He wanted more than to just hit the ball. He wanted that big major league home run. He wanted to prove that he should be up there with the big boys.
He wasn't the only one.
Joel was my closer and played second base and shortstop when needed. He batted right handed in the forth position so he was my clean up man in more ways than one. He was patient. Joel would drive the other pitchers crazy because he instinctively sat back in the box and waited. He would take pitches that he knew were balls and foul off the pitches that he knew were borderline. Chris was doing great to get six pitches. Joel would get eight, eleven, or more and still walk, but most of the time it only took one to get on base.
If the ball was close to the plate, Joel was swinging for first base. He would take the knob to the ball and punch it where the infield defense was the weakest and then use his speed to beat it out to first. He was so fast that the infielder would rush, juggle the ball, or make a bad throw, and Joel would usually end up at second, if not third.
Soon pitchers tried to throw around him as well. But it didn't matter, Joel walked when he wanted to and if the pitch was reachable he used his great bat speed to take it to the opposite field. If it was an inside pitch, he tucked his hips in, leaned back and then pulled it to left.
They could not keep him off the base paths when he got on. His attitude was two bases are always better than one.
When it came to pitching, Joel was one of the most accurate pitchers on the mound, major or minor. He threw strikes. Worse yet for the batters he faced, he threw inside strikes. The problem was, that chased the batters out of the box, which caused young umpires to lose their reference and call a ball. This bugged Joel. He knew the umpires up in the majors would not do this to him, but he learned to adjust. He would throw low to the back corner of the plate and get the batters to chase, and if they were not swingers, just throw hard and fast right down the middle.
Most of the time Chris was his catcher and he knew how to catch a pitch and make it look pretty.
Both of those boys could have played with the big kids.
We won a lot of games as the season progressed. Three games we lost by one run. The third game of the season was our first loss. We got killed thirteen to nothing. For some reason, I think it was a muddy field, we had to play on the T-ball field with a bad pitcher's mound. Unlike the other team (The First Place Mets) we could not adjust.
My team was upset with that loss. I was upset because they gave up on me three innings in. I did not scold them. Instead I had them all over to my house on practice night for some Nintendo Home Run Derby. My plan was to get some bats moving that usually stayed still.
It worked. The kids had a great time. They competed against each other. Boys who had poor timing found out that they could swing and hit a virtual ball. I told them that if they could hit what the computer tossed at them, they could hit what a pitcher threw. They just needed to decide to do it. I also reminded them of rules three and four. To make it easier to remember, those rules would now be rule one and two.
Before each game I would give my little pep talk about teamwork and strategy and then ask my two questions.
"What's rule number one?!"
"DON'T GIVE UP!"
"What's rule number two?"
"DON'T LET UP!"
We won our next six games.
Many years later, after one of the other coaches of the Mets became a next door neighbor, I found out that the Phillies had a reputation for being relentless. I was told that other coaches thought we were mean because we pounded the other team. We never let up on them. Well, we didn't. I told my boys that life is like baseball or vice versa; play fair but play hard. Don't cheat to win but make the other guy beat you, and NEVER surrender. When you lose, and you most likely will, you still have no reason to feel bad if you did your very best. My team took all that to heart and always played like we were one run ahead, or one behind.
By game fourteen out of sixteen, we were 11 and 3.
Game fifteen was the Phillies against the Giants.
I didn't know it then, but this would be Chris's last game. His mother would move again before the month was out.
Chris still wanted that big home run.
The rules of Churchland Little League state that all players who show up for the game are in the batting line up for the whole game. Substitutions in the field are unlimited and pitchers can throw for three consecutive innings only, but they can play other positions.
For this game I had ten players out of thirteen show up. A couple of them, including TJ who normally batted first, arrived late so I shifted my line up one place. Joel was batting in the third slot and Chris in forth. TJ was in the tenth position. I hated not having him at the top of the order during our first at bat. He didn't hit a lot but he didn't flinch either, so he tended to get a lot of walks. Matt, my leadoff man and my starting pitcher, and CJ were both good hitters. Together they gave Joel a really good chance to hit in some runs.
The day of the game we were the visitors.
I can see it in my mind, not like it was yesterday, but like it is right now.
I watch my players arrive. When the Ump gets there I give him my lineup and a copy to the Giants' coach.
We do some warm up exercises. Since we are visitors we hit the field for some quick infield practice first.
After we are done, the Giants take the field for some quick drills and then the starters take their positions.
It is time to play ball. My summer boys are up first.
Matt leads off with a first pitch double to center field which he tries to stretch into a triple and gets thrown out. CJ strikes out on a 1 and 2 count. Joel comes up to bat with nobody on and two outs.
This is not the way I want to start out against the Giants.
Pitch comes in and Joel takes it to the far right field and runs for first like his life depends on it. He doesn't stop until he is standing on third. His pants are still clean.
Now it is Chris's at bat. I don't know what to expect. I know that it could get ugly. Joel, standing on third, had better keep his eyes open and not get hit by a rocket.
Chris takes a vicious swing at the first pitch and misses so hard he spins like a top. The pitcher grins at him. Chris turns a bit redder. Next pitch and Chris knocks an ankle breaker back to the mound. It bounces off the rubber and flies past second as the pitcher jumps. Chris makes it to first, Joel scores.
Little Jeffery comes up to the plate and manages to take it to a full count before he goes down looking.
Bottom of the first: Phillies 1 Giants 0
The Giants are a pretty fair team so I am going to play my normal game but take nothing for granted. Before Matt heads to the mound, I tell him and Chris to be smart, no fancy curve balls, just play catch.
The Giants leadoff batter and Matt get into a classic battle of hitter and pitcher. It goes to a full count with a bunch of foul balls. Matt walks him.
Okay, he will shake that off. I hope.
The next two batters both hit to my second baseman. CJ makes two great throws to first.
Matt now has two outs and starts to get a bit anxious for the third so he throws one in the dirt that Chris can't smother. The runner who was on third makes it home.
The batter goes down looking with a full count.
Man, my players sure know how to make a coach anxious.
Top of the Second, score tied 1 to 1
Shawn leads off for us. He does not like to stay in the batters box. I cured him by laying bats on the ground behind his heels. If he steps backwards he steps on the bats and takes a fall. I know this seems like a mean technique to cure bat fright but it works. This day he stays right there, never takes a swing but ends up on first.
Jonathan, Zac, and WC are my next three batters. All three of them strike out. Jonathan and WC go down looking at the third strike. The Giants's pitcher throws nine strikes and three balls. Three of those 12 pitches end up at the backstop allowing Shawn to work his way from first to home.
Bottom of the second Phillies 2, Giants 1
Matt walks the lead off batter after a 3-1 count. I am hoping that he will settle down a bit. Chris jogs out to the mound to talk to him.
I don't know what he said but it works.
Matt strikes out the next batter, and then takes the second one to a full count before getting him too. The third batter goes down with a backwards K on four pitches.
Top of the Third we are ahead 2 to 1.
TJ, last in the lineup, leads off with big stand-up double on a 1 and 0 pitch.
Now we are back at the top of our batting order.
Matt takes a ball and then puts a hard grounder back to the mound. He gets thrown out on a not so close play at first but advances the runner.
CJ is up. He is a smart hitter and almost always takes the first pitch. He does just that this time as well. It is a ball. He smacks the next one to third base, it will be a long throw to first and he beats it out. It is a bad throw that scoots out to right field, CJ pushes it all the way to third while TJ makes it home.
All my parents are screaming now. Things are getting hot.
Joel is up, and everyone is yelling at him to bring CJ home. Joel works it to two balls and two strikes and goes down swinging hard.
Two outs, with a man on third.
Chris is up and the pitcher just stands there looking. Chris takes a couple of hard practice swings.
Chris gets five pitches. Two of them are foul balls, one of which takes off behind our dugout, into the woods, never to be seen again. The other one scares the poop out of the T-ball parents sitting in the bleachers on the third base side of the T-ball field. They have their backs to our field and never see what drops from the sky. He takes two balls that are so outside even he doesn't swing at them. The third one that he doesn't swing at is a strike, in the opinion of the umpire anyway, (who, in my opinion must be drunk or blind).
Chris is really red now. I tell the boys to hit the field.
Bottom of the Third
Phillies 3, Giants 1
Again Matt walks the first batter. This is getting monotonous.
I once asked my pitchers and players this:
"What is the most important first pitch in baseball?"
I got all kinds of answers.
"No-fastball, its gotta be a fastball!"
I told them it is a strike. The answer should be obvious. Pitchers need to throw first pitch strikes. I don't care if the batter looks at it, swings and misses it, or fouls it off. I just want the first pitch to be a strike. A pitcher still has the mental advantage, even with a three two count, if the first pitch is a strike.
Matt has the advantage with the second batter. He throws two strikes and then three balls but the sixth pitch freezes the batter.
One out, two to go, play is at second.
The third batter is the same sad story with one different player, another walk. Now the Giants have runners on first and second.
Hot and Cold Matt, you never know which one is throwing next. The hot one hurls the next five pitches. He gets another one looking.
Two down, one to go and we are back at the top of the Giants order.
After the next three pitches, I know Matt is trying to kill me. They are all balls. The batter has the brains to take the next pitch. Matt fires it down the middle for strike one. Next pitch is off the corner on the outside. Chris never moves his glove. The Ump calls it a ball. It looks just like the last strike he called on Chris. As the batter is trotting to first and the bases load, I am reminding myself that it is against the rules to kill an umpire.
Matt throws a high ball to the next batter, and Chris stands to get it. He tosses it back to the mound while my parents and players are yelling encouraging things to Matt. I could use a few good words myself about now.
Matt throws a low outside pitch. The batter golfs it back to the mound and it makes this high bounce straight up off that darn rubber. Matt can't field it. Runner is very safe.
The Third Base runner scores and we still have bases loaded.
"Play is at any base!" Joel, at short, yells to the rest of the infield.
My outfielders are asleep, because nothing has gone out there yet.
Matt fires off another pitch, inside, at the knees of the batter. He hits it right back to Matt who gets it on one bounce and throws to first.
Thank God, inning over. Joel needs to start warming up.
Top of the Forth
Phillies 3, Giants 2
Little Jeffrey is up again. I can count on one hand the number of times Jeffery has been on base. He plays outfield and I am lucky if he is looking at home plate when the batter hits the ball.
Today, however, he seems to be getting into it a bit more. I just wish he would swing the darn bat.
He hits the first pitch. It spins high up on the first base side and smacks the bleachers right next to his dad...You would have thought it was a home run. Every one rooting for the Phillies starts yelling like they have lost their minds.
I think the noise must have unnerved the pitcher because he throws four straight balls. Jeffery struts to first base like he owns the world.
Shawn is next. He takes the pitcher to a full count then goes down looking.
Jonathan stands by the plate and glares at the pitcher while he takes three balls, two strikes (in some kind of order) and then stares at the last pitch, a pretty strike.
Two down. Man the bottom of my order doesn't help me very often. Zac is my last hope.
Sometimes things are hopeless. Five pitches later, Diane my scorekeeper draws a backwards K next to Zac.
Three down without trying to foul off the last strike, come on, give me a break guys!
Bottom of the Forth
Phillies 3, Giants 2
Joel is nice and warmed up. I watch the players as they move out on the field, grinning as they run. They believe in Joel. He rarely walks a batter. He makes them work for it. I hear the Parents saying "We got em now."
Maybe, but I don't want to let up. Joel knows that and he reminds his team not to let up as they run past him. "Good boy," I think to myself.
Joel wastes no time. He hurls at the Giants number 4 hitter, three inside fastballs waist high. He freezes the guy in his cleats. His bat never moves.
The Second batter takes a swing at all three pitches but gets nothing but air.
Two down, one to go.
The next batter up catches everyone by surprise. He bunts to the first base side (it could have been an accident) on the very first pitch. WC, now catching, can move pretty fast when he wants to, scoops it up and throws it to the stretched out TJ at first, just in the nick of time.
The forth inning is over, pretty darn quick if you ask me.
Top of the fifth and my summer boys are up again. I look though the dugout fence at their hot and sweaty faces. I tell these great kids of mine that Joel needs some protection. Get him some runs.
Chris yells "What's rule number 2?!!!"
"Don't let up! Don't let up!"
WC leads off.
WC is a short stocky kid who doesn't like batting in the bottom of the order. Most of the time I put him in the ninth spot. He can hit and he can get a walk. The only bad thing is that he has a habit of throwing his bat. The first time the umps will issue a warning, the second time they will call him out. WC throws his bat at least once a game. If he gets a hit and controls himself, meaning he lays down his bat, he can get us back to the top of our order. When that happens WC will usually score a run. Today WC is not batting at the bottom but we still need him to do his magic.
WC likes to swing his bat, so he fouls a few pitches and makes the pitcher work until the count is three and two. On the next pitch he sends a blooper over the third baseman's head, runs three steps, softly drops his bat and makes it to first base. It is obvious that he likes the sound of his team's cheers.
TJ comes up. TJ gets more walks than anyone on the team. He knows that it his job to get on base so he is an extremely patient batter.
He forces the pitcher to go to another full count but comes out on the losing end, this time.
Ian, who came to the game during previous inning, is up now. Ian is my youngest player and is scared stiff of the ball. If he stays in the batter's box, and gives the pitcher any kind of challenge, we will be doing good. He manages to get a piece of the second pitch. It is the first time he puts the bat on the ball during a game. I am proud of him even when he misses the next two.
Two outs with one on, but we make it back to the top of the lineup.
As Matt steps out of our dugout, I stop him, and call Joel over.
"What do you guys think of the pitcher?" I ask.
"He's throwing a lot of pitches, most of them balls. He looks nervous or something," is Joel's response.
Matt nods in agreement.
"We will try to make him work a little harder." I look over at Matt. "Play with his head a bit, step out between pitches, fix your gloves, or adjust your helmet, make him think about his next pitch longer than he wants to. Got that?"
Matt walks over to the plate just as my friend the ump impatiently yells "Batter Up!"
Maybe Matt didn't get it, I don't know. He hits the first pitch for a single. Okay, I'll take it anyway I can get it.
CJ is up next. He fouls the first pitch and then takes the next two. The count is 1 and 2 when the next pitch comes straight at him. I know he's going to duck, but he turns around and takes it right in the middle of his back. He drops his bat, bends his back one direction, and then the other, groaning and moaning. The ump asks CJ if he his okay. CJ says he can still play. He hobbles to first. I swear he gave me a sideways grin as he passes me.
That did it. We now have the bases loaded with two outs. Joel is now in the box. He has that look in his eye. He wants more than just a base hit, he wants extra bases, as many as he can get. I know what he wants. He wants the biggest home run you can get. Joel wants a Grand Slam.
Sometimes you almost get what you want.
The Giants pitcher was just too nervous. His first pitch is in the dirt, the catcher scrambles, and WC steals home, while Matt and CJ advance a base.
We have a two run lead with one inning to go, plus there is a time limit, but at this point that is way off yet.
The Giants coach calls his pitcher over to the third base path.
I can guess what he is saying: "It's okay; this is still anybody's game. Just go out there and throws strikes."
Yep, that's what I would have said with all the confidence that I could muster, while hoping that it works.
It does for awhile, sort of.
Joel looks at two close balls, then fouls off two pitches in a row. He looks at one more ball. It's a full count. Joel hits the next pitch hard down the third base side, where at the last second, it curves foul.
I think to myself that the pitcher better not throw one there again. He does.
Joel kicks and slams it hard. It's a rope over the third baseman's head and keeps going until it rolls into the farthest point in left field that it can go. Joel does not look where that ball lands. From the moment he makes contact his feet start to move toward first. He glances at the first base coach, who yells at him to keep going. Joel flies around second, all the time watching TJ's father who is coaching third base. His arm is spinning like a windmill and Joel gets the message.
All of us are yelling at him.
"Run Joel, Run!"
He rounds third into foul territory and keeps on pumping for home. I see the throw being relayed from the outfield and it is going to be close. Joel looks at me for the slide sign. I give it to him, better safe than sorry.
He slides across the plate with an inside the park home-run, beating the throw by, well, quite a bit. His teammates are yelling at the top of their voices. It is quite a moment.
The score is now Phillies 7, Giants 2
"Don't let up!"
"Don't let up!"
I did not remind them of rule number two. Chris or someone started that cheer themselves. I don't stop them. They know it is still anybody's game to win.
I look over at the Giants dugout and almost feel sorry for the coach. The pitcher looks dejected but not defeated. That is good, after all the game ain't over till it's over.
I herd all the guys back to the dugout as Chris heads to the batter's box. Chris is really pumped up. I can see it in his face. The first pitch comes in low and outside.
The pitcher winds up, lets go and the ball follows the same path.
Chris steps out of the box, glares at the mound, takes a swing and steps back to the plate.
The pitcher throws a high breaking ball. It looks like a softball pitch.
Chris gets red in the face and yells.
"Come on, give me something to hit!"
I have to do something and do it fast.
The ump calls time and I motion for Chris to come over.
I lean in close to him.
"I want you to show a bunt."
"I don't want to bunt." He responds.
"I want you to show a bunt, and if the pitcher puts it down the middle, pull back and kill it. Can you do that?"
"Fake a bunt? I don't know coach."
"Hey, batter we don't have all day." Blue reminded us of that fact.
I push Chris back towards the plate...the ump wants to go home.
Chris steps back in the batter's box. The throw is a fastball outside. Chris drops his bat and heads for first.
"Hey batter, that was a strike."
Slowly Chris turns and looks at the Ump like he is out of his mind. The pitcher starts laughing at him. Chris's face becomes as red as a tomato.
He goes back to the plate. He takes his stance. Then something clicks. He squares off for a bunt. He shows this great big and very ugly wiggy-waggy bunt. The pitcher looks at Chris like he has gone crazy, winds up, and fires a fast one right down the fat part of the plate.
I know what is coming next. I can feel it in the air. The hair on my arms stands up as Chris gets this unmistakable look on his face. It is the look of complete victory. He pulls back and smokes the ball harder than he has ever hit one in his life.
That ball heads for dead center field, climbing the whole time. Every eye, both on our field, the T-ball field and the major league field, where the sound of the bat hitting the leather can be heard, is following the path of the ball. They watch it as it bounces off a car in the parking lot way beyond our center field fence.
Chris makes his victory lap around the diamond. My team is going crazy. They meet Chris at home plate, slapping his back.
Chris finally has his Major League Home run.
Phillies 8, Giants 2
But it ain't over till it's over.
It was an amazingly (is that a word?) fun thing to watch that ball zoom over the fence, but I, we, still have a game to win.
Chapter 2 The Last Inning
Once again, I have to corral all my players back into the dugout. They are still whooping and hollering and Chris is really pleased with himself.
"Did you see that coach, did you see that? Blam! Right over the fence. Sorry I hit your van, coach."
I hadn't noticed that the ball bounced off MY car!
"Hey, that's okay," I said. "I'm just glad that you hit it out of the park, it was great. Now take a seat and let's win this game."
Chris ducks inside of the dugout, but before he sits down he grabs the wire fence, gives it a good shake like a caged animal and yells at the Giant's pitcher.
"Hey Pitch! That's what you get for laughing at me!"
The whole park hears that outburst.
I can't let that go, so I turn around.
"That is not necessary, Chris. We don't gloat. It is not good sportsmanship. You will apologize to the pitcher now."
"Sorry Pitch!" Chris yells again.
"Coach, you need to get your team under control!"
"No problem Blue, I am taking care of it."
I ask myself, "What is the ump's problem? He seems to be a bit slow today."
"Chris, after the game you make sure you shake the Pitcher's hand. Understand?"
Chris, looking a bit deflated, sits down.
The ump walks over and hands something to Chris.
It is the home run ball.
"Great hit, kid."
Chris's face lights up.
The ump nods and says "Batter up!"
I send Jeffery to the plate and tell him to go get a hit.
Jeffery, grinning, jogs over to the batter's box.
"Play Ball!" yells the ump as he pulls down his mask.
Jeffery stands there and takes six pitches, three are strikes, without moving his bat a bit.
Bottom of the fifth
Phillies 8, Giants 2
I do not want to let my team relax too much. This is Little League. Earlier in the season the Cubs scored seven runs on us in the top of the first. We beat them 20 to seven. We could have scored more if the 13-run mercy rule had not stopped us. Things can happen, so I just want to shut the Giants down and end this.
As Joel heads out to the mound I tell him to keep on pitching the same way he's been doing it. He nods at me.
The Giants leadoff is a big lefthander. Joel throws the first pitch a bit outside, and the batter fouls it back. Joel throws to the same spot. This time the kid looks at it.
Chris, who is now catching for Joel, shifts and gives Joel an inside target. Joel throws; the batter swings and takes it for a base hit over CJ's head to right-center field. Both Jeffery and Ian make a mad dash for the ball.
I swear, because they argue over who is going to get it. By the time they figure it out, the runner is way past first.
Ian tosses to CJ, who turns toward third, but there is no play.
The leadoff is safely on third.
"Shake it off Joel, no big deal, just get the batter!"
Giving up a triple does not faze Joel. He throws his next three pitches for strikes. The batter goes down looking at the third one.
One down and two to go. Play is at first but we have to guard the plate.
The next batter goes for the first pitch. He hits a high pop over the first base line. Chris is on his feet in a second, follows the ball and catches it in front of the bleachers. He turns and looks at the third base runner.
Two outs and one to go.
I don't know how Joel is doing it, but he bears down and throws three hard inside fastballs. He makes the batter look like a deer caught in the headlights. Three pitches, three strikes, backwards K.
The Inning is over.
That triple was the best hit the Giants have had all day and Joel made sure it counted for nothing.
Top of the Sixth
The Score is still Phillies 8, Giants 2.
Shawn leads off. He fouls the first pitch (good for him!) and then takes four straight pitches, all balls.
Jonathan is up next. First pitch is a ball, second pitch outside for ball two. The third pitch hits my batter right in the helmet. It doesn't bug him a bit as he jogs happily to first.
The pitcher and Zac get into a bit of battle. Zac fouls off the first two. The pitcher throws two for two balls. Zac fouls off another one and the pitcher heaves two more pitching errors. Zac heads to first.
WC virtually repeats Zac's at bat and earns a walk with no place to put him.
Shawn comes home.
Phillies 9, Giants 2
TJ walks on five pitches, and Jonathan scores run number 10.
Ian, well Ian just stands there and swings and misses the last pitch he gets, the third one.
The Giants have one out on us. They are now facing the top of our order with bases loaded. Not good for them. Not good at all.
The Giants pitcher knows things are not good and that knowledge must make him really nervous. His first pitch hits Matt in the side, and he reaches first as Zac crosses home plate.
Phillies 11, Giants 2.
Matt is on first, TJ on second and good ole WC on third. CJ, who is on deck, moves to the plate.
I am standing behind the backstop just in front of the first base side dugout. I can see WC on third base and I am watching him and my other runners. They are set and ready to run on contact.
CJ can hit and I know he wants this one bad. He fouls the first pitch. He hits the second one to the outfield past first base but it lands foul.
Everyone on my side of the field is yelling so loud it hurts my ears.
The next throw is in the dirt. The catcher scrambles for the ball. The pitcher runs in to cover the plate.
My third base coach is waving WC home, but he hesitates.
What is he waiting for? Run!
WC breaks for home but that seconds hesitation may cost him.
The catcher throws the ball to the pitcher, who steps in front of the plate just as WC runs into him. They go down together. The pitcher comes up showing the ball.
"He's out!" Yells blue.
WC gets up and starts arguing with the ump.
"He was holding me!"
I walk over as my third base coach comes running in, grabs the umpire and points back to the Giant on third base.
"Ump, he grabbed my runner's shirt! WC would have been safe!"
The Giants coach is now out of his dugout and we have a real "situation" here.
"Come on, Ump, this is crazy."
My base coach is not going to take this.
"Ump, I am telling you. My guy was interfered with."
The Ump looks at everyone.
"I didn't see it. The runner's out!"
WC looks very unhappy. He pulls off his helmet and tosses it toward third base.
The Ump takes one look at that and tosses him out of the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.
My base coach just shakes his head. My parents and players are booing the umpire.
I tell everyone on the bench we still have one out left and the bases are loaded.
I tell WC that he did great the whole game, but he should not throw his helmet or his bat.
He tells me he is sorry.
I was feeling bad about the Giants situation, but after treating WC like that, I have lost my sympathy.
First base is open, with two outs.
I grab CJ.
"Look, it's 1 and 2, with two outs. Get on first anyway you can."
"You got it, Coach."
CJ is a team player. I know he wants the big home run, but now he settles down to business.
The pitcher doesn't. He throws three straight balls. CJ is on first, bases are loaded again.
"Way to watch em CJ!"
Joel is up. He wants to round the bases and he will wait for the pitcher to make a mistake again.
It is a battle, but Joel has the first pitch advantage. It is a ball way outside. The second one Joel fouls off. He fouls off the third. The count is 1 and 2. The fourth pitch comes in, low and inside, ball two.
Joel steps out of the box. He adjusts his gloves, takes a couple of swings and steps back in. Here comes the pitch, way high for Ball three.
The Giants coach calls time. His pitcher walks over to the base path. I can't hear what is being said but both the coach and his player look agitated.
They don't want another walk, they only need one out, so they need to put the ball in play and get the easy out.
Here we are again, 3 and 2. Pitcher throws and Joel fouls it. Pitcher throws again, same result.
The tension is thick in the air, spectators on both sides are yelling to their players. Everyone is on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next pitch.
This game is really fun. My son is up to bat. What could be better than that?
The next pitch is slow and hangs over the plate. Joel hits it and runs for first. My base runners take off at the same time. It is a long, slow fly into left right field. It lands between the two outfielders; both are running for the ball. By the time they get there Joel is halfway to second base. TJ crosses home plate. The Giants second baseman is frozen on the base path. Joel pushes him out of the way and crosses second. Matt, between second and third, needs to pick it up or Joel is going to run into him and CJ. I see the throw coming in as the second baseman wakes up. He takes a couple of steps into the outfield to catch it. Joel is almost at third. Matt and CJ make it home.
My players start pouring out of the dugout.
The Giants bench is yelling to the infield.
"Throw it home! Throw it home!"
Joel rounds third. He might not make it! The throw comes in but it is way too high. It sails over the catcher's head.
The Phillies rush home plate and surround Joel as he crosses it. The folks in the bleachers are jumping up and down. The guys practically carry Joel off the field.
Phillies 15, Giants 2.
We have a 13-run lead. Mercy Rule is in effect. The game is over.
Not quite yet.
The Giants coach rushes out of the dugout yelling at his catcher, who has retrieved the ball, to tag the plate. He is claiming Joel didn't touch home. Joel says he did. Joel's team was all around him, so I couldn't see the plate at all.
The Ump just stands there.
"Blue, I'm telling you he didn't touch the plate." says the Giants coach.
I am thinking that I would never pull this kind of stunt on his team. There is no way that the ump is going to call out a kid who just scored an inside the park grand slam.
"Runner's out!" The Ump yells.
"Come on Ump, he ran all over that plate and everybody knows it!" My third base coach is getting mad.
The Ump has made his call.
Back in the dugout I lean down to Joel.
"You did step on the plate didn't you?"
"Yea coach, I did. I know I got a home run ... but its okay, we are having fun, let's just play ball."
"So what you are saying is; let's give them one more at bat and show em what we are made of?"
"Yea, coach, we don't let up, Joel will get em!" says Matt.
I am very proud of my team and we are having fun.
What could be better than that?
"Okay. Phillies hit the field!"
They run out of the dugout with a yell. A couple of parents come over to me, including Diane.
I walk with them back to the bleachers and shrug my shoulders at the parents.
"Hey coach, what are going to do about that?" one father asks me.
"Nothing, the guys want to keep playing."
They did. With his team yelling the whole time and the Phillies fans adding to the noise, Joel worked three Giants batters, including two from the top of the order, to a 2 and 2 count before he struck them all out. The last two went down without swinging. With the last out the team gives Joel a hugh cheer.
The game between the Giants and the Philles is now officially over.
Phillies win 14 to 2.
The scorekeeper from the Giants walks over to Diane to compare scores.
Diane looks at him.
"I don't know how you are scoring it, but my son got a grand slam."
"Yeah, he did and he also got three up and three down, quite a kid you have there."
"Thank you" is her smiling response.
Joel got his grand slam (off the record), and Chris got his big home run. I coached a game that, obviously, I would never forget.
Years later, a few days after Joel was graduated from William and Mary, Diane, Joel, Nickolas and myself were staying in our motor coach at the Stone Mountain RV Resort outside Atlanta, Georgia. One day, during our stay, at around 5 p.m. Joel and I were sitting just above first base at Turner Stadium (named for my old boss) in Atlanta. We were watching the Braves take on the Florida Marlins. It wasn't a very exciting game but it was a beautiful June night. Like that time from years before, I was at a baseball game with my son. We were having fun.
What could be better than that?