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