At that moment, everything we worked for was on the line. After the gut punch we just took, the easiest thing in the world to do would be to fold. Honestly, it seemed inevitable. But that’s not the attitude that got us here and wouldn’t be the way we were destined to leave.
It was July 9, 2010, in what was likely the most exciting game I’ve ever coached, especially considering the stakes, the All-Stars District Championship.
You may think this story is about baseball, but like most things in life, there’s more to it. While it may revolve around a game that ended long ago, it’s really about instilling life lessons that will last long after the playing days are over.
The game itself was a back-and-forth affair, featuring moments of decent pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting – intermixed with brain cramps and bad judgment – just what you’d expect to see in baseball at this level. We were playing at the home park of the opposing team, facing a loud, hostile crowd. In a fortuitous bracket benefit, we happen to be the home team for this game (which I’m sure they hated). 🙂
We jumped out pretty quick with a bloop and a blast and finished the first frame with a two-run lead. We extend it with an insurance run in the 3rd, and we’re talking about having a little Lady Mo on our side.
Famous. Last. Words.
We get a little nonchalant and fail to close the door. They plate one in the 4th, and two more in the 5th, and all of a sudden it’s knotted at 3. We’ve let them back in it. And now Lady Mo is not so sweet on us anymore. You can feel us tighten up, we need something, and we need it now.
We thought we got just that with a three-up-three-down defensive gem in the 6th. Now we simply needed to manufacture some runs and close it out. It’s never simple, is it? We *also* went three-up-three-down in our half-inning. So after back-to-back defensively dominating half innings, we’re heading into the 7th, of the District Championship, tied at three.
The game is about as close as my rapidly developing ulcer can handle.
As we prep to hit the field, the talk is about shutting them down and getting back to the dish. The guys seem focused. I feel better.
Uh oh. That right there should have been a red flag. It’s youth sports, big fella. As is written in the Youth Sports Coaches Handbook, you have the right to feel better *only* after ALL of the following have occurred;
a) the umpires have left the field,
b) they’ve turned off the scoreboard,
c) you have exited the dugout,
d) you’ve loaded gear into your rig,
e) you’ve pulled into your driveway at home,
(note: if you can pull into your garage at home, you aren’t a real coach as your priorities are out of whack… you obviously have room for more gear!), and,
f) you wake up the next morning and confirm the game actually ended with a win as you remember.
Seriously, it’s all written there in the handbook. 🙂
So we head to the Top of 7, game tied at 3. We’ve brought in our closer, and we get two quick outs. Now I feel better (oh no!!). Sure enough, the wheels came flying off. A couple of seeing-eye singles, a walk, and an error (walks and errors, errors and walks… I’m telling ya, that’s what turned me gray early!) All of a sudden, before we can get back to the dugout, let alone to the dish, we’re down 6-3. The guys are dejected, exasperated, you can feel the frustration. They think they’ve let it slip away.
I knew we had the ability to bounce back, but the mood in the dugout didn’t feel like they knew they had that ability. And I’m not foolish enough to think a bunch of 13 and 14-year-olds who have just had their world rocked by giving up three in the 7th were going to just take my word for it. I somehow needed to prove it to them. So in the few minutes we have as we were getting ready to bat I rifle through my scorebook. Ah ha. There it is. Proof, in writing.
I walk up and down the dugout, telling anyone who will listen – showing them the book – that I counted seven (SEVEN!) different times that we plated three or more runs in a single inning – in this tournament alone. I’m not just some old dude with rapidly graying hair and a rebelling ulcer blowing rah-rah smoke, look at the book. It’s there, in writing. We can do this. It’s only over if we say it’s over.
I can’t tell if it made an impact. Honestly, I don’t even know for sure they hadn’t just tuned me out completely, they do that often at that age. All I know is we needed to start somewhere. And the proof that we had done this before was all that I had to go on… but was it enough?
We just needed that first hit. Hitting is contagious. And then it happened… a bloop single falls in. Now we just need to keep the line moving. Then we draw a walk. Two guys on, tying run at the plate with no outs. All of a sudden I can hear some dugout chatter, the guys were starting to believe. Then boom, back-to-back doubles, and we are TIED! The guys are out of their minds. They are simply willing this to happen. An infield out keeps the guy at second, but then a short single to left advances him to third. Oh my. The winning run is now on third, with one out.
Have I referenced my developing ulcer?
Our next guy hits a shallow (emphasis on shallow…) fly ball to right-center, and our runner tags from 3rd, setting up an extremely close (emphasis on extremely AND close… ) play at the plate. He is…
SAFE! With four runs in the bottom of the 7th for a 7-6 walk-off win, the Hazel Dell Juniors are 2010 District Champions. And I get the most satisfying ice bucket bath I’ve ever had. 🙂
Baseball may be just a game to some, but to me, it’s so much more. It’s about learning – and in some cases teaching – the lessons we will need over and over again throughout our life, long after our time playing the games has passed.
For example, understanding that self-fulfilling prophecy is a real thing. Either believe you can do it or believe you can’t… you’ll be right either way. And this applies to believing in others as well. People feed off others who believe in them. Your belief in someone may be their first step to truly believing in themselves. Just imagine what they can accomplish.
And finally, as I battle this insidious, terminal disease that is ALS – which is, unfortunately, batting 1.000% in taking the life of its opponents – I need to fully embrace, for as long as I can, a couple of important thoughts.
I can never, never, ever give up… because it’s not over until I say it’s over.