You really had to be there – and about fifty people were – two nine-year-old baseball teams and their coaches and families. But they didn’t see the game the way I saw it. In terms of “highlighting poignant vignettes,” this is gold at the end of the rainbow, first on my brainstorming list of memorable sports moments.
Except for winning a championship, there is no greater feeling than knocking off the undefeated team, and this team was a juggernaut. Our odds were zero to infinity.
Their team was stacked – good players at all positions. Most teams play “strong up the middle (second base, shortstop, center field, pitcher, and catcher), add a good right-fielder (because nines hit more to right field than to left), and someone who can catch at first base, and just get by at third base and left field. My team was one player short of standard.
Most teams had three adult coaches – this one had four, all standing outside the dugout, intimidating me, if not my players. I always coached from the base nearest the opponents, trying to deflect their control of their players on the field, and make it look like “it’s just a game.”
I had coached eights and nines before, and been successful at getting players to develop the baseball motions needed to play the game. Then I had coached in the “Major Leagues” – the veteran tens, elevens, and twelves, but came back to nines to coach my youngest son. This time, I had not been successful with two players, Erin and Mike. Erin could throw (she had even pitched once or twice), but couldn’t catch or field. Mike could field, but couldn’t throw.
Mike was a gamer, but he couldn’t hit at all. He was a thin, frail-bodied diabetic, also the fastest kid on the field (hence, “jackrabbit”), and ran the bases very well, courtesy of walks. But he had the most peculiar batting stance – crouching with bat held high and head directly over the plate, maybe sometimes in the strike zone. (So he could have been hit in the head, and the ump could call “Strike!” – but, luckily, that never happened.) I feared lawsuits every time he came to bat.
My best strategy against the juggernaut was to pitch our two toughest-minded nines three innings each, or, if things got out of hand early, use three pitchers two innings each to minimize psychic damage. Five minutes before game time, I’m told the starting pitcher is sick, so pitcher two and three are promoted to one and two, for three innings each. So much for game plan.
I can’t find my old score book, and I have no memory of how we reached the last inning tied with the juggernaut.
We’re the visitors, up first in the last inning. It wasn’t a swing, it wasn’t a bunt, but somehow Mike twisted his body a little, the bat made contact with the ball, and Mike outran the ball to first base. I can’t remember whether this drove in the lead run, or advanced the runner who would score the lead run, or Mike became the lead run, but he had his first and only hit of the season, and – win, lose, or draw – this was worth the price of admission.
Bottom of the sixth, now we’re ahead by one run. We were required to allocate playing time equally, and my sixth inning lineup kept second base strong, had Erin at third base, and Mike at shortstop. (I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not what happened!)
I don’t remember how we got the first out, but, with one down, they have runners on first and second. A force play at third is a possibility, also would be a miracle. A double play with this configuration, out of the question.
The batter hits a grounder to Mike at short. The runner from second, running at contact, is three steps ahead when Mike scoops up the ball. Erin stands at third anxiously, glove hand outstretched high at a forty-five degree angle between head and shoulder. Mike – chases down the runner and tags him out! Now it’s worth twice the price of admission.
Two outs. When the ump called strike three on the batter, the Hindenburg had exploded. (I know the feeling from the other side – in a later post.) Thrice the price of admission! Pure Jackrabbit! Pure bliss from a winning coach’s perspective.
This is merely a post-story story. I received a degree of compensation a few years later. Mike had moved to the next town. I was in that town, top row of the bleachers, when my older son was playing on our varsity baseball team. Our third baseman, a very strong player who sometimes had a bad day (I had coached him when he was an advanced eight-year-old), had made three errors. Opposite side of the bleachers, a fan of the other team yells, “Hit it to third base.” Third base’s father sits fuming, can’t respond. I sometimes interject when adults show juvenile sportsmanship. I respond, “Root for your own players, leave ours alone!” The other fan challenges me. Sitting next to him is Mike’s father – I get a pass!
What a life! You rock, coach!