Eleven year old son -- the sporto in the bunch -- had his final summer baseball tournament of the year this past weekend, and it was memorable for a variety of reasons, all of them good.
Our team finally played up to their long-rumored potential and ran roughshod on the first day of play, winding up the #1 seed after Saturday's "pool" games. Come Sunday, it's single-elimination, with the road to the trophy requiring three wins in one afternoon.
Over the course of those three games, we saw our shortstop lay out airborne and grab a linedrive fast on its way to the gap for a would-be double. We saw a pair of perfect double plays -- one of the classic 4-6-3 variety, and the other a far trickier play where a onehopper to third was fired to first for the force, and then the first baseman fired back across the infield to cut down the runner trying to advance from second behind the throw. We saw three or four diving stabs in the outfield.
We saw an opposing right fielder streak deep into the corner and lay out for a full layout grab on what would have been a game-tying double, and then in a later game we saw an opposing centerfielder make an unbelievable play running full-out AWAY from the infield to dive and catch a ball just inches short of the fence.
We saw one of our pitchers gut out a complete game win in 105 degree heat when we told him "we need you to eat up as many innings as you can so we can save pitching for the finals." We came back from a 4 run deficit to win the semis going away, the capper being a cannon shot HR 30 feet over the centerfield sign.
In the finals we went into the final inning trailing 8-1, and with two outs mounted a rally that brought us to within a single run. Our best player was stepping in to the batter's box with the bases loaded when the opposing manager called time to go calm his pitcher. I trotted down to talk to our batter.
"Yeah," he said. His nervous eyes told me all I really needed to know about his emotional state.
"Yeah," I said. "Right now I can feel sweat all over my neck, my heart's running 200 beats a minute, and it feels like I have a rabbit doing backflips in my stomach. Kinda feel sick, in fact."
"Yeah, me too."
I patted the top of his helmet, and he looked up at me.
"Feels kinda neat, doesn't it?"
"I dunno. I'm pretty nervous."
"Dude-- come on! This is the good stuff! THIS is why we play! A trophy on the line, bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the last inning. This is storybook stuff. You're the best hitter we have, and there's nobody else I'd rather have with a bat in his hands right now. All we can ever ask for is a chance to win, and lookie lookie-- here we are."
He looked up at me, still clearly nervous. "This is why we play," I repeated. "To get this feeling. The guys who stay scared of this feeling quit playing. The ones who learn to like it are the ones on baseball cards. This is why we play -- to see which kind we are."
Now, I'd love to say the kid went on to rip a tournament-winning double, but that would be just the afterschool special version of the tale. In reality he hit a hard shot towards the second base hole, and the fielder made a nice pickup and a good enough throw to beat my batter by one step.
The batter crumpled to the dirt after a headfirst dive towards the bag, the umpire called the final out, and with that a summer of baseball ended.
All he seemed able to do was pound the dirt and cry at coming up one step short of enduring glory. I sat in the dirt with him for a second and put a hand on his back.
"You know, this isn't going to mean much to you right now, but I'm going to say it anyway. When we suit up and compete in any contest, all we can ever really hope for is to be in the middle of the action when it matters most. To be the guy with the bat in his hand when the last pitch is thrown. One team is going to win, and one team is not, and after it's all over, it's pretty damned sweet to know that you left everything you have out there in the dirt on the field of play."
"But I wanted to win," he sobbed.
"Me, too. But here's a cool secret, dude: any jerk can win. Winning is easy. It takes a man to fight to the end of a loss and then walk away with his head up high. So, come on -- get up and trot over to line up at third. We need to shake hands with these guys."
After the game, we were cleaning up the dugouts and getting ready to head home, the season well and truly over.
"There at the end, when we were trying to come back, I saw you coaching first base and you laughing and smiling. What was that about?"
"That was the most fun I've had coaching in years. Game on the line, nerves jangling and rattling, stomach in knots. All I could was think how lucky we were to be right here, right now."
He nodded understanding. "It was weird -- I was terrified and happy at the same time."
I offered my fist and we knocked knuckles. "Exactly. This is why we play, baybee. This is why we play."