11-4 win in our Little League playoff game. I was proud of them until their over-enthusiasm at the postgame pizza from Little Caesar's. -- From my Twitter feed, May 30
In our six-team division, the top two seeds earned first-round byes. This meant that my A's -- the number three seed -- played the sixth-seeded Cardinals in the first round. During the regular season, we went 3-0 against the Cards and outscored them, 48-26. (Oh, don't look at me like that. I didn't keep the stats. I simply lifted them from our league's website. They're the monsters who've distilled the wholesome spirit of Little League baseball into "who won" and "by how much". I'm just sippin' the illicit liquor, I didn't make it.)
My kids were criminally overconfident coming in to this game. There were intermittent chirps of "...the Cardinals are the worst team in the league..." and "...we'll beat them, easy..." throughout our pregame warm-ups. Before my team took the field in the first inning, I gave them the "any team can be beaten" speech with two obvious references that, admittedly, might not have resonated with 11 boys born in 2003-2004. (However, my eight-year-old son Jalen knows who Kirk Gibson and Jose Rijo are and, more importantly, why they're both bad, bad men.)
Our inconsistent offense blew a few scoring opportunities early, but after two innings we'd put five runs on the board. Unfortunately, Garrett -- my best pitcher -- surrendered four runs of his own before pitch count and next-game availability concerns forced me to replace him mid-inning in the second with just one out. We got out of the inning when my next pitcher struck out the next two hitters -- with the bases loaded -- on just seven total pitches.
At the start of the third inning, I brought in Jalen to pitch. Although my previous pitcher, Jeff, was efficient and overpowering, I'd seen enough of him all season to know that riding his arm was a lot like a blackjack table. His hot hand could go cold at a moment's notice. Better to leave the table a few chips up than down. Plus, the ultra-early hook meant he could come back and pitch in our next game just 48 hours later. This strategy made perfect sense to me, but when Jalen took the mound, I could hear some parents behind me offering unsolicited, critical opinions of my move. Even the home plate umpire called over to me, "You know your last kid only threw seven pitches, right?"
Thankfully, Jalen saved my reputation's bacon with his best outing of the season -- two scoreless innings, three strikeouts and one unfortunate hit-by-pitch in the ribs of best friend at school, Joseph. I've previously written about this boy. He's the one who'd wave to Jalen before each of their hitter/pitcher match-ups. Jalen gets a little intense when he's pitching and didn't immediately apologize. I was going to talk to him about it after the inning, but as he toed the rubber to make his next pitch, he stepped off, turned to first base and asked Joseph, "Are we still friends?" Joseph nodded. "Sorry about pitching inside", Jalen said. "I just wanted to back you off the plate."
I suppose if African-Americans are going to take any societal morals from the 1950s and 1960s, it might as well be professional pitching philosophy.
We effectively put the game away in the bottom of the third. With two out and the bases loaded, our last-place hitter stepped to the plate. By my unofficial count, he'd recorded just two or three hits all season. The score was still 5-4 and the potential for a big inning was just three strikes from slipping away. Instead, on the first pitch, he lined one down the left field line for a two-run single. I screamed "TWO! TWO! TWO!" as the ball skipped into the corner. Seemed like a sure double. Instead, I turned to find my batter barely halfway to first base. I put the brakes on his glacial pace, satisfied with a single.
A five-run third inning gave us the cushion we needed and the A's won going away, 11-4. Mediocre, barely-edible pizza for everyone! As I reached for my first and only slice -- the last slice left among the six pies purchased -- my #3 hitter yelled, "I want it!" Sure, I thought. You took two called strike threes tonight. You've earned it!
2nd round Little League playoff game tonight w/o our best hitter. "A family event", I was told. I assume "funeral", but even then... -- From Twitter, June 1
After our first round victory, we were slated to play the Padres -- the two-seed in the tournament, the best offense in the division and the team that hung 20(!) runs on us the last time we met. I didn't learn that we'd be without Jeff, our best hitter, until the morning of our game. I was...disappointed, but opted to take the high road. I've heard directly from other coaches who, when hearing that one of their better players will be unavailable, ask why he can't make it and try to guilt the kid's parents into bringing him to the game anyway. I never want to be THAT guy.
We got off to a phenomenal start. Jalen moved up to the leadoff spot and contributed to a five-run first inning. Garrett, my starting pitcher, held the Padres to only one run in the bottom of the frame. Alas, there were a few more frames to be played. The Padres' pitching held us to just three more runs the rest of the way, while Garrett and Jalen threw 50 pitches each, but couldn't keep the Pads from scoring five in the second inning and four in the third. Trailing 10-8 in the top of the last inning, we sent the tying run to the plate. He also happened to be our...uh, "least productive" hitter of the season. Called strike three. Ball game.
Still, our first playoff loss wasn't without its moments. For the first time all season, Jalen was hit by a pitch. This was unquestionably Jalen's biggest fear involving the jump to live pitching. During the regular season, when a pitch was in the vicinity of "inside", Jalen would drop his bat, flail his arms and melodramatically bail out.
In the second inning, J was at the plate and facing a burly eight-year-old named Daniel. In all seriousness, he's probably the biggest and strongest kid in our division. His first pitch to Jalen sailed inside and caromed loudly off the backstop. Initially, I hadn't realized that Jalen was hit. The umpire immediately signaled for J to take first base, but he was lying face down in the batter's box.
I raced from the first base coaches' box and could hear the speculation from the parents behind the Padres' dugout that J might've been hit in the face. When I turned my son over, some of the dirt from around home plate had completely adhered to his sweaty face. The streaks of tears were the cleanest parts of his visage.
Me: "It's alright, son. Where'd you get hit?"
Jalen: [sobbing] "In the hand."
Me: "J, the ball went straight to the backstop. It would've ricocheted if it hit you square in the hand."
Jalen: [still sobbing] "What's 'ricocheted'?"
Me: "Jalen, if it DID hit you, it just grazed you. Go to first base."
Jalen: "It DID hit me!"
As we walked up the first base line together, my son and I continued our debate. To the Padres' parents on the first base side, the villain in this discussion was clear.
"Aw, give the kid a break, coach!"
"You need to get some ice on his jaw, coach!"
"Why are you keeping him in the game when he was just hit in the face?!"
Thankfully, Jalen broke the ill-informed tension a few moments later, as he looked up at me with infield dirt still caked to his face.
"Dad...I think I swallowed some chalk."
Little League season over after walkoff loss. Team in tears. Walter Matthau sprayed the Bad News Bears w/cheap beer to cheer them up, right? -- From Twitter, June 4
The remainder of our team's tournament games would be played within the boundaries of the bluntly-titled "losers' bracket". The double-elimination set-up meant that our season would end after one more loss. Our path to the championship required my A's to win games on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then defeat the sole survivor from the "winners' bracket" -- twice -- during the following week.
Our opponents on this gloomily overcast Monday afternoon were the Pirates. My hitters struggled early, but we pushed a few runs across in the middle innings. On the mound, Garrett and Jalen were constrained by pitch counts, but collectively kept the Pirates within reach of a rally. Entering the top of the last inning, the score was tied 5-5. We then scored four and took a 9-5 lead ahead of the Pirates' last-ups.
Jeff came on to pitch in the previous inning and snuffed out another bases loaded threat with another strikeout. He was popping the catcher's glove with his fastball and even mixing in a pretty good change-up. One of my coaches remarked, "This is the best he's looked all season."
And, then, it wasn't.
Leading off the inning, he walked the first batter on four pitches. This would start a bizarre chain of events, beginning inside the Pirates' dugout. The opposing kids switched to "rally mode" -- superstitiously flipping their caps backwards and shouting encouragement to the next batter. They were loud. They were more than a little obnoxious. They were kids. But, after Jeff went 2-0 on the next batter, he shot an icy glare into the opposing dugout and held it for two or three beats.
Intentional or not, the kids in the Pirates' dugout soon tweaked the timing of their hooting and hollering. They synced it with Jeff's pitching wind-up and delivery. A few moments later, their vocal support devolved into time-released screeches and shrieks. To be clear, they weren't breaking any rules. But, I think they knew what they were doing...and I know their coach did.
With two runners on, one of the Pirates' better hitters came to the plate. As the cascade of screams increased, Jeff put one square in the batter's back. It was the sickest sound I've ever heard on a ball field, as the batter was down for several minutes before taking first base. Not surprisingly, the hit-by-pitch quieted the Pirates' dugout, somewhat. Jeff even battled back to strikeout the next batter. But, his control never really returned. He eventually walked in the winning run and the A's lost 10-9.
As Jeff left the field, he was understandably inconsolable. I met him at the first base line. I wanted to apologize for leaving him in, explain my reasoning and let him know there wasn't anyone else I would've wanted out there. But, before I could fumble around for the first words, he looked up from the glove that was smothering his face and choked out, "I'm sorry I let the team down." Before I knew it, the whole team was shuffling towards me -- some of them obviously disappointed, the rest openly bawling.
My voice cracked about halfway through my final postgame speech to the team. The kids' chorus of sniffles and sporadic gulps of air reached a crescendo just as I finished up. The final 30 minutes of my 2012 Little League managing career were accurately captured in this artist's rendering. Despite the unbelievably kind and encouraging words I heard from the parents after the game, I know it was me who let the kids down.
As usual, Jalen and I were the last ones to leave the field. All of the equipment was packed snugly in my car's trunk, so we plopped down on the bleachers -- a sad, shared attempt to extend our baseball season for a few more minutes. As the field lights automatically switched off, we made our way home. I could hear Jalen weeping softly from the back seat. I could still see my team's tears as I drove along the pitch-black path from the park to our house. And, then I heard Jalen again.
"Dad, are you crying?"
"It's OK, dad. I won't tell mom."
Jalen was in reasonably better spirits by bedtime. The next morning, I spoke to Jeff's dad and found out that Jeff wore the resiliency of a typical kid. One week after our playoff defeat, the team got together for the traditional end-of-season party. As I entered the playroom at our local Round Table Pizza, I witnessed 11 kids gleefully clinging to one of those mechanical pony rides intended for a single preschooler. I could hear gears grinding as it slowly lurched forward. Unless that painted steel horse was sentient, there would be no tears here.
A few days later, Jalen and Jeff were among the four A's players chosen to play in their division's all-star game. And, whaddaya know? One of the managers even invited me onboard to coach.
I savored every moment of that game and was unapologetically more "parent" than "personnel". Jalen went 1 for 3 at the plate and late in the game he was brought in to pitch to the best two hitters from the team that went on to win our division's championship. He struck out the first hitter and induced a pop-up to short on the second.
Our season officially ended with a 12-12 tie. It's kind of a long story involving clutch hits, shaky defense, a late-inning comeback and a bunch of stuff that happened AFTER Jalen recorded the second out of the inning. It was a good game. It was an ugly game. It was a great way to end the season.