Friday, January 22, 2021

He Had a Hammer



Henry (Hank) Aaron was the first legendary athlete I remember learning about. I don’t know how Black History Month is taught in elementary schools today, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the teachers made it feel like a begrudgingly obligatory lesson plan for a few fleeting afternoons. Every year, the cardboard cutouts of a lone snowflake or a “Happy New Year” sash symbolizing January on the classroom corkboard gave way to hearts and cupids for February. Over in the corner, though! – That’s where the sun-hastened aging of the images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman were stapled aloft for the umpteenth time.

Back then, there were only two or three athletes who your local school board might elevate to the exalted time-killing status of “biographical worksheet”. Althea Gibson was one because (a) she deserved it and (b) for the box she allowed teachers to check in the nascent days of the modern gender-equity movement. Henry Aaron was the other – presumably due to the recency effect over Jackie Robinson and the fact that the deification of Muhammad Ali – at least by a certain demographic – was always inversely proportional to the state of his health and the base in his voice.

Of course, Aaron’s life – as taught to us from that generation – was wildly whitewashed and distilled down to “born in Mobile, Alabama”, “played for the Braves” and “broke Babe Ruth’s home run record”. Sadly, today, even with the benefit of both societal hindsight AND actual insight from the man himself, the abhorrent racism that rained down upon him is wrongly viewed as something Aaron “ignored” or “overcame” and not the steadfast Faustian Bargain of being a black man in America.

After hearing the news of Aaron’s passing, I thought of my grandfather. When I was five-years-old, he got me one of those rickety plastic pitching “machines”. It might’ve been this one for all my memory can recollect these days. He put it together, we headed to a vacant lot – which hadn’t yet gone extinct in southern California – and before long all the neighborhood kids were playing a pick-up game. A couple of years later, I remember my grandfather watching a KTTV broadcast of his beloved Dodgers and going on and on about Houston Astros’ star-crossed fireballer J.R. Richard. My parents hated baseball, so my love for the game is mostly my grandfather’s fault.

Like Aaron, both my grandfather and father grew up under the tyrannical tenets of the Jim Crow south – America’s offspring of her Original Sin. And, neither the “National Pastime” for Aaron nor the decades of military service for my pops and grandpa were enough for large swaths of this country to consider beyond the color of their skin. (I won’t get into the unspeakable indignities my grandfather withstood from his white countrymen in the U.S. Navy, but my pops once told me that “Don’t salute no n*gger” was an acceptable unwritten rule in the Marines when he enlisted in 1968 and lasted…well, you probably don’t wanna hear about that.)

Of course, I thought about my 16-year-old son Jalen. I’ve shared his entire life with you guys – first in my old Bootleg music column from before he was born through an assortment of social media platforms today. He’s a high school junior. He’s driving. He can eat three pounds of chicken wings in a single sitting. HE WEIGHED THREE POUNDS WHEN HE WAS BORN.

He’s also a baseball player. He’s my favorite baseball player.

And, there’s a direct line from Henry Aaron to the opportunities afforded every black ballplayer who took up the fight out of obligation and chased their dream out of love and desire.

Jalen Cameron is a black baseball player.

Those opportunities are so precious, friends. And, always be mindful of who you’re entrusting with their dreams. The best advice I ever received was from another baseball dad who had a son a few years older than Jalen. “Get that boy around black baseball coaches whenever you can”, he said. “He needs to learn shit from dudes who have seen shit.”

I guess that’s why Aaron’s death has hit me so hard. The Hammer bludgeoned those ghosts of the not-so-distant-past so men like Tracy Sanders – who clubbed nearly 200 professional home runs – could impart hitting wisdom to my son since Jalen was five-years-old. And, then there’s Kennard Jones – a third-round draft pick of the Padres in 2002 – who also has worked with J at the plate and mentored him to fight to stay behind it for as long as he can, knowing that black catchers are cruelly considered anomalous.

As we approach the second year in the grip of this worldwide pandemic, I wonder – and worry – how many games my son has left to play. I wonder – and worry – about the world my wife and I are about to send J into after his baseball gear bag is inevitably buried in our backyard – a noxious disembodied essence left to haunt our neighbors’ open windows on warm summer nights. In that same world, Henry Aaron was objectively the best of humanity and endured the worst of it. When I think of my son, I know Henry’s hammer is in good hands.

Again, thank you, sir.




Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Little League Team That (Might’ve, Probably, Kinda-Sorta) Saved Me


Anyone remember 2013?

Seven (hundred) years ago, I was not in a very good place.

“Worse than our current apocalyptic pandemic hellscape?”, you might skeptically ask?

“Shaddap and enjoy this f-ing uplifting AND FREE goddam material”, I gently reply.

You see, I didn’t realize it at the time, but like a lot of people from a certain historically underserved and/or outright ignored demographic, I needed baseball.

I’ve written about the reasons why on other social media platforms, but I was recently reminded of the 10 young men who pulled me through the first few months of that year. A week or so ago, my inbox was served an innocuous slice of spam from a Shutterfly account I created way back when. Like today’s other photo-centric medium, the Shutterfly folks offer infrequent reminders of the “memories” you’ve made along the way.




The picture in the body of the email featured the 2013 Rancho Bernardo Little League A’s sprinting towards the outfield after completing the postgame handshake line. Since I’m closer to 50 than 15, it took me a minute (or thirty) to retrieve my old password to access my account…and then create a new password when I got locked out of my account…and then IM through to a solution with customer service when I screwed THAT up.

And, after feeling like the world’s oldest doddering negro through that technological ordeal, the dozens of pictures that I could now access from our family’s recent history took me back to a time and place that pushed me past a lot of pain.

Those A’s were born on a rainy Saturday in January. The other “Minors” division managers and I met to draft our teams. One weekend earlier, we’d collectively braved one of those southern California “winter” mornings that starts out at 38 degrees and ends up around 88. Tryouts are a trip, man. Grown men in lawn chairs positioned precariously at the lip of where the infield dirt kisses the outfield grass. We’re armed with clipboards, notepads and perpetual poker faces – lest ANYONE betray their emotions on that seventh-round sleeper you hope slips to you.

(Before we proceed, I need to ONCE AGAIN remind you guys that Little League Baseball EXPLICITLY prohibits discussing “draft room” information and the release of such privileged information can result in discipline up to – and including – the loss of the local league’s charter. So, pretend I’m WHISPERING the next couple of paragraphs, people.)

I drew the short straw, so I picked last in the first round. The upside, though, is that (1) I’d have back-to-back picks throughout in the “snake” draft format and (2) I’d have first choice in team name. Heh.

My first pick was a kid named Jack. He’d become one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. Aside from his off-the-charts athleticism, he was the son of a Marine, so instead of “coach”, he called me “sir”. I followed that up by taking Michael. I didn’t know anything about him beforehand, but I soon learned that I’d chosen wisely when, after the draft, two other managers approached me and made trade offers for him.

The manager’s kid is always designated as the third round pick, so be sure to derisively remind Jalen that he wasn’t a first or second-rounder next time you see him. Each manager can claim one of his coach’s kids as a fourth round pick. This, for me, landed Bennett – the son of two NCAA Division I athletes who exuded confidence for days. All of the days, actually.

In the fifth round, I selected Jordan. He was an 11-year-old who played in the Minors division the year before and – surprisingly – was not drafted into Majors (the highest Little League level for age-eligible players). I explicitly remember the order of my first five picks, but the specifics of the next five are a bit fuzzy. In fact, we actually had to redo the ENTIRE draft a day later because the league president erroneously allowed a geographically ineligible player in the original pool.

While sportsmanship is ostensibly the heartbeat of Little League, its main arteries regularly leak with the congealed drip of gossiping. Not long after the draft, I was told that Jordan’s spot on my team might be in jeopardy. He and his family were understandably disappointed that he wasn’t playing in Majors. I didn’t have the frame of reference to determine whether or not he deserved to play a level higher, but from the perspective of a prepubescent’s pride? It’s loosely akin to being held back a grade.

To his credit, Jordan showed up at our first practice. He was at least a full head taller than anyone else and – I can now say – he should’ve been playing at a level higher. Ten minutes in and it was clear he was the best player on the field. I’m not sure what happened at tryouts, but the entire upper division whiffed on him. I pulled him aside after that first practice and asked him to be the leader of this team. I genuinely empathized with his earlier disappointment and he seemed to appreciate that. Jordan accepted my request with a terse “Sure, coach” and added, “Anything you need”.

Jordan’s maturity belied his age and I was fortunate to have two such kids on this squad. Early on, Michael established himself as the team’s starting catcher. Around this time, my son Jalen had asked to get some reps behind the plate, too. Today, if you ask Jalen, he’ll tell you that I openly doubted his ability, determination and fortitude to play the most physically demanding position on the field. (And, I did!) Who knew, though, that Michael would take J under his wing and show him the techniques behind the “tools of ignorance”?

Even at this juvenile level, players are fiercely protective of their positions. And, here was Michael – with his own catcher’s gear and just a year older than Jalen – taking time during practices to mentor the player who might cut into his playing time. Hell, Michael’s dad Jason – who was my other assistant coach – even supported my son. I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude to these two for their selflessness. At the infinitely more competitive travel ball and high school levels – where J now plays – parents actively (and not always secretly) root against anyone who might usurp their son’s spot. If y’all ever see me in these streets, ask me to tell you about the time last year when Jalen was on the bench and his back-up [REDACTED].

Aside from the above, my fondest memory of those preseason practices was the “boot camp club” that Jack’s mom started. Several of the other A’s moms – including Mrs. Bootleg – would be working out just beyond the outfield wall while their sons sweated it out for two hours under the sun. And, lest you think everyone in the Cam Fam was exercising except me, I can assure that the ONLY shade to sit in was alongside some trees that were located a short WALK and UP a slight INCLINE from the field. And, have any of you have ever tried to sit on an upside-down orange bucket from Home Depot? Woo, lawd, those booty indentations.

Believe it or not, I don’t remember EVERY moment from every Little League season. But, I do remember a few:

In our first game, we played against m’man Andy and his Diamondbacks. We lost something like 11-4. During the game, one of my players – a sweet, soft-spoken kid named Joe – was on first base and on a ground ball, he headed towards second. He got there safely, but actually ran THROUGH the bag. No, not towards third base. He ran through it as if it were first base. Next thing I knew, he was standing in short left field. Spoiler alert: he was out.

Our first win came a few games later. I told this story in my post on the 2014 Little League All Star team I managed. We were down one heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. Michael led off with a double and up came Bennett. I implored him to not be nervous and get a good swing. He calmly replied, “I’m never nervous” then tripled in Michael before Jordan singled him home for the walk-off win.

Speaking of Jordan…I don’t have the old scorebooks anymore, but at the end of that season I calculated that Jordan pitched roughly one-third of the total innings we played that year. At around the midway point, his mother emailed me to let me know that Jordan was experiencing arm soreness. Like any caring coach, I remember replying with legitimate concern and one question: “Just to be clear, is it his throwing arm?”

Another important pitcher on our team was Abhi. He finished the season with an ERA under 3.00, but every pitching appearance was a wonderfully turbulent roller coaster. Abhi didn’t throw hard and he’d give up a couple of hits in each inning, but then he’d always buckle down and drop a loopy off-speed pitch or an almost-fastball at the knees to get the third out. Of all the kids I’ve ever coached, Abhi probably was the closest comparable to my son’s competitive streak. Once, after Jalen had pitched a mercy-rule-shortened shutout, Abhi calmly raised his hand in our postgame meeting, stood up and calmly pronounced, “I should be pitching more, coach.” Chutzpah!

I mentioned earlier that Michael was our catcher. He was also our leadoff hitter. And, during a game against a team from neighboring 4S Ranch, Michael slapped the first pitch of the game, one-hopping it straight to the centerfielder. Then, in something never seen before or since, the centerfielder threw Michael out at first base. It was a scorching hot Saturday afternoon and the 60-feet sprint left Michael almost asphyxiated. “What the hell happened?”, I asked. “Coach”, Michael said breathlessly, “I’’m…just not that fast…”

Before going any further, I gotta mention Sam. In one of our early practices, Sam stood in the batter’s box against Jalen. As a pitcher, J was famous for two things: (1) his “three-finger” change-up and (2) inadvertently hitting every third or fourth batter he faced. And, GUESS where this is going! After Sam got stung between the shoulder blades, he spent the first few months of the season bailing out in the batter’s box.

He never abandoned his enthusiasm, though. In the penultimate game of the regular season, he notched his first hit – a booming double to the wall. Sure, Sam forgot to step on first base (no one else noticed!) and while he was standing on second base, grinning ear-to-ear, one of the coaches on the other team called out to his son, who was pitching, and bellowed, “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!” Sam later came home on a double, but forgot to step on third base (this time, someone noticed!)




Early in the season, Jalen was struggling at the plate. Back then, when J was in a slump, he’d become borderline uncoachable. I don’t know WHERE he got his obnoxious stubborn streak from, but let’s just say his momma’s the same way. On this evening, we were facing the Nationals. Their starting pitcher would go on to make the All Star team that spring. I pulled J aside before he strode to the plate. “You think you can get a bunt down?”, I asked – mostly out of desperation on behalf of Jalen’s desperation. “You mean a drag bunt, like for a hit?”, J replied, as he tried and failed to contain his excitement at the idea.

On the first pitch, J laid down a bunt that rolled jaggedly over the poorly-manicured dirt and up the first base line. The pitcher barehanded the ball and threw it away (although, Jalen has been pointing out for seven years that he would’ve beat it out, anyway), allowing J to run all the way to third. The poor pitcher wouldn’t record another out that inning, as he was pulled several batters later.

We finished the season with a respectable record, but our team got hotter’n fish grease during the postseason. We won our first three playoff games and made it to the championship. One of those games manages to live in infamy between me and the other baseball dads. After building up a big lead early, our opponents started chipping away – turning a 9-1 deficit into a 9-8 nail-biter. In the bottom of the 5th inning, Jalen came to bat. He fouled a pitch straight down, then the ball ricocheted right off his face.

Now…to hear SOME people tell it…I sprang from the dugout and was cradling J in my arms before he hit the ground. Obviously, that’s IMPOSSIBLE (try as I might). As a nice-sized mouse was swelling under my son’s eye, my wife sprang into action and commandeered my M*A*S*H unit. We’d hang on to the win the game, with J – and his one operable eye – selfishly begging me to put him back in at catcher for the last out.

Sometimes, though, the Cinderella story has a sh t ending.

Poor Jordan gutted it out for his team, but after three months of me Billy Martin-izing his arm, he didn’t have much left in his right wing. It was a double-elimination tournament, so we had one more shot, though. Bennett cut short a camping trip – driving more than four hours back to San Diego – JUST to make the start on the mound in our final game. He pitched great and left with a lead, but my bullpen turned it from 3-2 us into  5-3 them.

It was a disappointing end, to be sure, but I still look back fondly on those knuckleheads. About half the team would go on to play high school baseball in the ridiculously competitive San Diego County confines. (I didn’t mention Alex above, but he was named Freshman Pitcher of the Year at his high school.) A couple of kids walked away from the game for greener pastures in other sports. Still others left sports behind for good. But, like I said…I needed baseball that spring. And, those ten boys gave that gift to me.

Thank you.

(A's on three! A's on three!)



Friday, February 7, 2020

RBelieve! The Story of the Greatest Team That Almost Was…Until They Weren’t


It was time to go home.
 
Or, so they probably thought.

It was the sixth game of the 2014 Little League season and I was managing the Minors Division A’s. Our record was 4-2 and we had won our first four games by a combined score of 57-15. My then-10-year-old son Jalen was the starting pitcher on Opening Day and when he wasn’t pitching, he’d settled in as the team’s primary catcher. I’ve often celebrated J’s baseball IQ, but on a gray, damp Saturday morning in March, he ran us out of an inning by getting tagged out at third base on a groundball to short.

Later in the game, one of our better players – an eight-year-old who was good enough to play up with us – got caught in a rundown between first and second. After a few moments, he simply stopped running between the bags – becoming half-boy/half-badminton net – as the spherical shuttlecock sailed back and forth over his head several more times before the opposing manager – one of our families’ dearest friends – finally shrieked, “JESUS CHRIST, JUST TAG HIM”.

The ensuing 13-3 beatdown was the first time one of my teams had lost by “mercy rule”. You see, friends, in Little League, the game is over if one team is up by 10 or more runs at the end of the fourth inning. I’d been managing since 2011 and had never before felt that shameful white flag fluttering in my face.

One of my players couldn’t contain his excitement. “My mom brought donuts for after the game!”, he declared. Each insufferable prepubescent syllable was an assault on my ears and an insult to my soul. It was our second straight loss and the worst game we’d played to that point and…it was only 9:45 AM. “We have the field until 10:30 AM”, I may or may not have told the team between big-ass bites of a monstrous maple bar. “You guys get donuts when we’re done.”

For the next 45 minutes, I put the team through an impromptu practice. Parents who wanted to resume their weekends were grumbling behind me, just beyond the first base dugout. As the boys returned from a scenic 400-foot roundtrip romp from home plate to the centerfield fence – while carrying their bats above their heads with both hands – I felt the first fissures. This was all supposed to be fun, wasn’t it?

And, it was…

…until it wasn’t.

I’d never butted heads with players or parents before that season. Our team had several talented, coachable kids…except for the ones – talented or otherwise – who ignored the adults. The players’ parents were understanding and supportive…except for the ones who complained about everything from my defensive positioning to my weekday practices. Towards the end of the season, I’d even run afoul of the league president.

(That, however, was a COMPLETE misunderstanding, as the volunteer teenage umpires were struggling to maintain even C.B. Bucknor’s baseline level of incompetency. To that end, the league president called all five division managers to her house and told us to stop conveying the umpires’ awfulness through what she called our “constant argumentative harassment of minors”. HOW ELSE WILL THEY LEARN THO)

Like every other adult-driven administrative decision in Little League, selecting the managers for All-Star season is unnecessarily political and exists only to reward self-absorbed pomposity. There were three of us in contention for the gig and we’d have to state our case in front of the Little League board in late spring. All three of us were actually on the board, so the politics effectively cancelled each other out. And, with “self-absorbed pomposity” as the de facto tiebreaker?

Now…one of the few sacred rules of Little League Baseball is that managers are expressly forbidden from revealing ANY details regarding preseason player drafts or postseason All-Star selections. So, before I do, you guys have GOT to promise to keep this between you, me and this lightly-read blog. Cool? Cool.

The five division managers gathered at the league president’s home around Memorial Day. Each manager may nominate up to three players from their team. From that pool, the managers vote via secret ballot to select an initial All-Star roster of 12. After 12 players are selected, the All-Star manager may select up to three more players at his sole discretion.

 
My nominees were an easy call – and only kinda-sorta controversial. Jalen hit .500 during the regular season, struck out only five times all year, led the team in both plate appearances and innings pitched and possibly nepotism. Tyler was our slick-fielding shortstop who batted .375 and covered more earth than what’s left of the ozone layer. Finally, there was Ty…who happened to be moving to Virginia after the first game on the All-Star schedule.

I needed Ty on this team even if it was only for one game. Of my three nominees, he was the most natural athlete – playing centerfield and pitching, primarily. His regular season numbers made him deserving on merit, but word had gotten out that he was moving away. The year before, there was another particularly talented military kid whose family was shipping out to the east coast. When one of the managers deliberately leaked that he was moving away – which was against Little League rules – that opened up the 12th and final slot for that manager’s son.

And, with a year of illicit manipulation already under my belt, I’d have to ensure Ty didn’t fall off the ballot from lack of support. After more than a dozen votes, there were still one or two roster spots left. Another manager surveyed the list of remaining nominees and asked, “Isn’t Ty moving away soon?”

“He’ll be here for All Stars”, I replied – emphasis on 80% of the second syllable. If any other manager in that room knew the truth, they kept quiet. Maybe they wanted to give Ty one last game with his buddies. Maybe they loved his family as much as my wife and I did. Maybe they knew that I held their kids’ playing time in the palm of my hand.

All Stars were formally announced on the morning of June 1 and one of the local traditions is for the manager and coaches to drive around the neighborhood the night before, placing yard signs out announcing the good news for each player. Little League rules dictate that this cannot be done before midnight, which is how one of my coaches, Andy, was nearly shot by a father who saw a shadowy figure on his property and promptly pulled out a pistol.



My other coach was a guy named Vince. He coached in All Stars the year before and inadvertently participated in one of my favorite Jalen pictures ever (above). Both Andy and Vince had kids on our team. Andy’s son Colin was a slight second baseman who batted leadoff. His then-squeaky voice was famous among the moms and dads – and will come into play later. Vince’s son was also named Vince – a soft-spoken old soul who everyone called “Pops”.

We’d have three weeks of practices before the festivities of “All Star Saturday” and our first game. I mention the former not just for the pomp and circumstance of player introductions, the presentation of All Star pins or the old popsicles from the snack bar sold at a 750% markup. I had my eyes on the District Skills Competition – a variation of the age-old “follow the ball” drill in which each team throws the ball from home plate to third base to second base to first base and back home with each successful catch counting as a point. Most points in 60 seconds wins.

Our practices were…incredibly fun, actually. Andy and Vince were terrific instructors, their attention to detail only matched by their enthusiasm. While they weren’t officially coaches, two or three other dads set up a hitting station off to the side and worked to ensure that every kid was engaged. I mostly clapped my hands and stayed out of the way – basically, a butterscotch shade of Jason Garrett.

As All Star Saturday dawned, I just…had a feeling about this team. Our practices were loose. The boys were building chemistry and camaraderie. Maybe it was the sight of their psychedelic orange camouflage uniforms that was eliciting my hallucinations, but I believed in these boys. They were flawless in the skills competition. And, since coaches weren’t allowed on the field, I stood behind the chain-link fence channeling a traditional African folk dance. Our squad held off a pair of late challenges and won the Skills Competition Championship for the first time in our Little League’s history.

With our first game right around the corner, it was time for an uncomfortable conversation. We were carrying 14 players, which meant that five of these boys wouldn’t be starting. One of them – Ben – was a solid little pitcher who’d suffered an unfortunate foot injury a few weeks earlier and would be unavailable for most of All-Stars, anyway. Another – Justin – was openly more interested in a club soccer tournament that ran concurrent to Little League’s postseason. This allowed me to anticipate 40% fewer tears. Thankfully, they all took the news well and I was relieved to know that playing time – the source of most conflict between youth sports coaches and players’ parents – wouldn’t be a problem on MY team. Nope. No, sir. Not. At. All.

Game #1: Rancho Bernardo vs. Rancho Santa Fe – It was a 30-minute drive to Encinitas for the first game. It was a 90-minute drive for my wife, because our son left his catcher’s gear bag at home and she graciously agreed to retrieve it. So, with my blood pressure good n’ elevated, I posted the starting lineup on the dugout wall. No sooner had I turned around to begin nervously pacing when one of my players burst into tears. It was one of the five boys who stoically reacted to the “uncomfortable conversation” in the paragraph DIRECTLY ABOVE THIS ONE. And, this is why Coach Morris Buttermaker invented the boilermaker.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but the RSF team was managed by former Major Leaguer Mike Sweeney. In his 16-year career he batted .297 with 215 home runs and – are you sitting down? – his son was on the team. RSF’s roster also included the sons of erstwhile Seattle Mariner Bret Boone, NFL first-round draft pick Rick Mirer and the great-grandson of ageless Phillies arm Jamie Moyer – it was a middle school Murderers’ Row.

Sweeney, it should be said, might be the nicest man you’ll ever meet. My son remembered him from an otherwise execrable Oakland A’s team in 2008. I introduced him to Jalen and Sweeney couldn’t have been more gracious. Moments later, the home plate umpire had some fun with me, “Now, I know that the two of you have combined to hit 200 home runs in the Majors, but I’M the man in charge. HAW!” Sweeney put his hand on my shoulder and said, “None of that matters today. I can tell we’ve got our hands full.” Was he patronizing me? Was he trying to psych me out? Was it probably neither? “We’ll see about THAT”, I thought to myself. Wait, what?

Our starting pitcher was a burly, but baby-faced kid named Daniel. He had a fierce lil’ fastball, but also threw a mysterious off-speed “Frisbee pitch” that could spit-shine your spats. He labored through three innings, but left with the lead – doggedly retiring the last two batters on guile alone. I brought in CJ to start the fourth inning. He was going to be my starting pitcher two days later, so he could only throw 35 pitches to come back on one day of rest. He pitched well for 1 2/3 innings, but got into trouble with two outs in the fifth, loading the bases.

I called for Camden – an all-around awesome athlete who, a couple of years later, would survive a horrific car crash, then play quarterback and shortstop for our local high school. Up 8-5, he threw one pitch. The next sounds I heard were the sweet shrieks from our second baseman, Colin, “BALL, BALL, BALL, BALL, BALL!” Camden pitched a perfect final inning for the win.

Game #2: Rancho Bernardo vs. Valley Center – Our second game might’ve been decided in warm-ups and maybe I should’ve listened to my coach, Vince. “They’re shook, man”, he said to me before the game. “Who’s shook?”, I asked. “Valley Center”, he replied. “Look at their faces while we’re taking warm-ups. They ain’t never seen nothing like us.” I was skeptical…and ESPECIALLY superstitious. “Man, don’t jinx this shit.”



We jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning, capped by Jalen’s two-run single (above). We got some late insurance when pinch-hitter Austin – who I just this moment realized is strong enough to be nicknamed “oxen” – drove in our fifth run with a booming double off the outfield wall. CJ, meanwhile, was single-handedly incinerating the Valley Center kids. As he reached his age-mandated 75-pitch limit, he’d gone 4 2/3 innings, struck out 11 and hadn’t given up a hit.

I went to Bennett for the final four outs. He’s the son of two D-I college athletes and exudes confidence out the wazoo. I managed him the year before and he came to the plate in a tense, late-inning situation. “Relax. Don’t be nervous. Get a good swing”, I advised. “Coach, I’m never nervous.” Moments later, he tripled off the wall before scoring the winning run one batter later.

Bennett quickly got the first out, but walked the leadoff hitter in the top of the sixth. Down 5-0, the runner tried to steal second base only to get gunned down by Jalen. The cacophony of incredulity from the Valley Center parents was such a gloriously profane (“Why the f ck are we stealing down FIVE runs?!”) moment. Three outs later, we’d thrown a combined no-hitter.

Game #3: Rancho Bernardo vs. Escondido National – After all these years, I look back at this game as the turning point for our tournament run. Oh, we won 10-0. Mercy-ruled them, even. But, we played particularly sloppily. We were also down a few players by this point as Ty had moved back east, Austin was out of town on vacation, Ben was still injured and Justin left to play soccer. Our next game – the very next day – was against the consensus best team in the district in the tournament semifinals. With almost six years of hindsight, perhaps I should’ve proposed a pre-dawn practice. Oh, relax, I’m only 70-percent serious.

Game #4: Rancho Bernardo vs. Encinitas – As a spectator sport, baseball moves at a languid – occasionally glacial – pace. It’s arguably the game’s most romantic characteristic. But, don’t be fooled. Like, the hippo, the white rhino or the New England Patriots’ whi…, er, wide receiver corps, it’s got that “deceptive speed”. And, the sport is never swifter than when bad sh t happens, friends.

For a few brief moments, we held a 2-0 lead with runners on the corners and one out. One pitch later, both runners were inexplicably thrown out during the same play. In the bottom of the first, Encinitas hung a four-spot on us. It was the first time we’d trailed in the tournament. Our boys battled like hell to keep the score 4-2 through four innings. I could tell they were feeding off of my mistake-free leadership and that alone would steer them to…

Home plate umpire: “Can I have word, coach?”

Me: “What’s up?”

Ump: “You didn’t announce that defensive replacement in left field.”

Me: “…”

Ump: “In accordance with rule number ‘1-dot-1-dot-dumbass rule’…”

We only had 10 players at the start of the game and my failure to make a royal replacement proclamation to his goddam majesty meant we were down to nine for the rest of the game. The timing couldn’t have been more terrible, too. With the smaller roster, I was able to interchange the speedy Johnny with the more bat-centric Charlie. More importantly, they were finally getting playing time after riding the pine for the first week. The look on his face when I had to pull [REDACTED] off the field and explain my mistake was bad enough. “So, I’m not even going to get to bat?”, he asked.

Yeah…that was worse.

Remember “Homer at the Bat”? That seminal episode of The Simpsons in which nuclear power plant owner C. Montgomery Burns hired nine ringers to win the company softball championship? At one point, Mr. Burns mused:

“There’s no way I can lose this bet…unless, of course, my nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes. But, that will never happen. Three misfortunes? That’s possible. Seven misfortunes? There’s an outside chance. But, NINE misfortunes? I’d like to see that!”

In the time it took you to read that reheated – and TBG-obligatory – Simpsons quote, Jalen went down with an injury. While catching, he took a foul ball off his collarbone. He’d sneakily had a crazy-productive tournament, throwing out 3 of 4 attempted base stealers and leading the team in RBI. Now, he was flat on his back, writhing in pain and grimacing straight into the face of a cloudless sky. Before I even asked about his health, there was something slightly more important to tell him: “I f cked up a substitution, son. We’re down to nine players.” He opened his eyes slightly, still holding his shoulder and said bluntly, “Oh, COME ON, dad”. J stayed in the game.

By the top of the sixth, we were trailing 10-2 and one out away from our first loss. Jalen Cameron – the kid with one clavicle – was due up. “It REALLY hurts to swing the bat, dad”, J said. “We’re down by eight runs, son", I responded. "You don’t need to swing. We’ll be done soon enough.”

So, of COURSE, he walked on four pitches.

Game #5: Rancho Bernardo vs. Carmel Mountain Ranch – It was a double-elimination tournament, so we dropped into the losers’ bracket with a chance to play ourselves into the championship game. The year prior, we eliminated CMR on a scorchingly-hot June afternoon. On this day, we took the field on a cool, gloomy evening in July that was virtually dirge-worthy. And, right on cue, CMR helpfully finished our epitaph. We trailed 6-0 after the first inning. As we headed to the fourth inning, we were down 10-0.

Down to our last out, Jalen came to the plate. His shoulder remained sore, but his pride was in the pink. He swung at the first pitch and hit a harmless pop-up that plopped helplessly between the first and second basemen. The official scorekeeper kindly exhumed our corpse to gift us with our first and only hit. I pulled back the next batter and sent Ben up to pinch-hit. He spent the last month-plus dutifully rooting for his teammates at practices and in the dugout during games while his foot was in a cast and, at last, he was out of it. He struck out to end the game and our season.

There were tears among these young men. As I held court with one of my comically-long postgame soirees, I made sure I told the team how proud they’d made their families, coaches and community. The kids soon scattered to finally start their summer vacations. After signing the scorecard, I sat down in the dugout next to my son who was solemnly packing his gear.

Jalen: “Well, THAT sucked.”

Me: “You saying you didn’t have ANY fun during that ride?”

Jalen: “Yeah…when we were WINNING.”

Momentum is a myth. It’s there until it isn’t. And, when you lose it, you might never find it again. Hell, the tighter you grip it, the easier it’ll slip through your fingers. My advice? Don’t ever think about it. Just enjoy it while you can.

J picked up the studio apartment that stored his bats, gloves and catcher’s armor and rolled off towards his mom. I stole a few more moments looking out at the field before joining my family.

It was time to go home.



Top row: Coach Andy, Camden, Charlie, CJ, Daniel, Ben, Justin, Coach Aaron, Jalen, Bennett, Coach Vince; Bottom row: Johnny, Tyler, Colin, Ty, Pops, Austin


Me and Jalen at 2014 All Star Saturday
 
 
 
Me and Jalen at the end of the 2019 RBHS season