Champagne victory!

I really wish everyone had been there – this victory was downright Aesopian!

(Aesop told of a fox trying to charm a hen off the roof of the chicken house, saying the rules of nature had been repealed, then abandoning this gambit when the farm dog arrives. In the blog post at hand, the dog had been waiting three or four weeks for the fox to appear.)

Lest this blog series appear to be one long brag about my coaching victories, this is not the case. This post appears now for two reasons: 1) it completes a trifecta; and 2) it’s the last victory I can remember! The end of the story here is more characteristic of what will follow.

And, although this triumph did not result in a championship and has minimal significance in the annals of sports history – paled light years by Red Sox manager John Farrell’s­ decisions to keep light-hitting strong-defending players on the field in the playoffs and World Series, the payback being seven of those produced game winning hits – it is the one instance in my career where champagne would have been an appropriate celebration.

It’s the second week of the season, I’m in my first year managing 10-12 year olds in the “Major Leagues.” The opponent is a sometimes intimidating veteran – not the chief of the league, but the guy who always dictates the decisions. My team is off to a decent start, his is having problems. We’re tied after four innings. Darkness is looming. He suggests to the umpire that we end it there, meaning by rule we’ll have to start the replay from the beginning. The umpire says there’s still some daylight, keep playing.

My team is up first, and we get a couple of base runners. Now the rule says an inning in progress, if suspended, must be resumed from the point of suspension to game end. Darkness arrives, and the ump declares the suspension. Postponed and suspended games are supposed to be concluded by the weekend. Opposing manager says it’s not that important, it will be Mother’s Day weekend, let’s defer. I agree.

Along the way, I’m aware that the opposing manager might at any time declare let’s finish this game now, and I had better be prepared.

Also, along the way, my team has a five run lead in the bottom of the last inning against a different opponent. I check my scorebook and see that, if we have a bad inning, the eighth batter will be Tommy, a top player, who could be the winning run. We did, and he was.

The takeaway was that, when things got antsy, I needed a “fireman” – an older term for a pitcher you could bring in to put out the fire. (Now we have no fireman, just a “closer” – someone who’s supposed to come in at the end of the game and make sure no fire breaks out.) I told my gutsiest pitcher, Mickey, he was now my fireman – he wouldn’t start games, just come get us out of trouble and maybe finish. This wasn’t a tough decision, because any time my team was in trouble and I went to consult with the pitcher, even if the bases were loaded, nobody out, and a 3-0 count on the batter, Mickey would join me on the mound from shortstop and say, “Give me the ball.” From then on, I did.

For the challenge at hand, I also needed to assure that Mickey didn’t use up his allocation of six innings pitching in any given week, and also that he didn’t pitch the day before Saturday, which would be the probable day of the resumed game.

My team remained okay, but the fox’s team went on a hot streak, and needed to win the last game, and the suspended game, to be division champions.

Guess who is the opponent for the last game? Yup. As throngs gather for the showdown, including the manager who would be champion if my team could take one of the two games, we are to complete the suspended game, then play the regular season closeout game.

The fox and his team, with hordes of supporters, arrive anticipating conquest. We meet at home plate with the umpires, and Manager fox says, “I misplaced my scorebook, but I think I remember where everyone was on the field.” Manager dog responds, “We can use mine, it shows exactly where everyone was at the suspension.” Manager fox doesn’t say thank you.

My players who were on base return to where we left off, and we score, I don’t know whether it was one run or more, but now we’re ahead. When we take the field, I send Mickey to the mound. Manager fox says, “Hasn’t he pitched already in this game? Hasn’t he pitched six innings this week? Didn’t he pitch yesterday?” Manager dog responds, “No. No. and No;” but doesn’t add, “I’ve been waiting three or four weeks for this moment.”

I don’t remember if the opponents put runners on base or not, but, with two outs in the last inning, tooling to the field on his bicycle, arrives the strong twelve-year-old slated to pitch the final game for Manager fox, who had told him just relax and show up to win the championship if necessary. Immediately, Manager fox sends him up to pinch hit. The new guy is not eligible to return to the game at this point, but Manager dog, selectively forgetting the old scorebook, does not challenge, because – the batter he is replacing is well known to Manager dog.

Eleven-year-old Michael had played for my nine-year-old team. He was impulsive, erratic, and strong. Two years ago Mike had hit what should have been a home run, but was sitting on the ground after being called out for missing third base, and crying about the mean coach who would appeal his homer. I tried to console him by saying it was the savvy nine-year-old third baseman who had called for the appeal play, and,“Michael, you missed all three bases!” Michael always hit well against my team. I preferred we pitch to the new guy.

New guy steps to the plate; Mickey throws three pitches, new guy doesn’t swing, umpire calls “Strike one! Strike two! Strike three!” Game over. Manager fox rues bringing in a cold (no warmups) player. Manager of the newly minted championship team thanks Manager dog for helping, Manager dog responds, “Didn’t do it for you, just respecting the game.”

Then comes “The Fall.” Playing the now inconsequential last game of the season, Manager dog’s team jumps to a seven to zero lead over the deflated Manager fox’s team. Figuratively lighting an early victory cigar at the start of the last inning, Manager dog changes pitchers and moves some players to new positions. New pitcher gives up hits and walks, new centerfielder muffs a ball the original would have had, new shortstop misses second base (according to the umpire!) on a sure game-ending double-play grounder, Manager fox’s team comes away with a consolation victory. Manager dog is no Red Auerbach, or John Farrell.

Embarrassed to the max, aware he blew the sure victory, Manager dog, rather than reviewing the game as usual on the bench with his players, inexplicably tells the team, “See if you can catch me!” and starts running into the infield, zigzagging around the outfield, pursued by all his players, then drops exhausted out in right field to end the season (except for the ice cream to follow). No review of the game. Manager dog’s parents happen to be at the game, and comment that the finale was a brilliant move. Manager dog still doesn’t understand why.

Some analysts say any sporting event is a game within a game. They are correct.