The temperature hit 103 degrees yesterday. So I take back all that bullshit about being too cheap to turn on the air conditioner. We had that sucker cranked to eleven, and the inside of 20 Prospect was like a meat locker. It is days like this that I am reminded that Mrs. 20 Prospect insisted on 2 things during our house search; a 2 car garage, and air conditioning. She’s a wise lady, despite her obvious lack of judgment in choosing a husband.
But while it may have been hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, it was not too hot for baseball. So we filled a cooler with Gatorade for the boys, and headed out to the field after dinner. It’s never too hot for baseball.
The sun beat down on the infield dirt, and the wind whipped across it, churning up clouds of lunar dust. We went about our warmups as the parents set up their lawn chairs in the shade of a distant tree. We had played our opponents once before, losing an excruciatingly long affair, and the promise of two plus hours of watching grass grow was not thrilling. As the visiting team we had the dugouts facing into the stinging, dusty wind. Squinting like a Bedouin I surveyed my lineup, making last minute adjustments to account for the kids who hadn’t shown up, trying to strategically position the 3 kids capable of catching a baseball for maximum effect.
The game began with a walk, and then a funny thing happened. We got a hit. Then another. By the end of the 1st inning we had put two runs on the board. Who was this team? Where had these kids suddenly learned how to swing a bat? Maybe, just maybe the six weeks of beating our heads against a wall trying to teach them was finally starting to work.
We took the field and promptly gave two runs back with throwing errors, and all around clueless play. Sigh… maybe the spell had been broken after all. Yet we were still tied at 2 heading into the 2nd.
We scored again, and this time retired the opposing batters 1-2-3. We were in the lead! OK, it was only one run, but for the first time all season we were in the lead! And with our pitching ace, 20 Prospect Jr., due to pitch the 3rd & 4th innings, there was hope!
We plated 3 more runs in the 3rd inning, and held them scoreless again. Now we were winning 5-2! Like for realz! The boys were buzzing with excitement. They were running the bases like jack rabbits, and making catches and throwing runners out. We had a chance at winning this thing.
The opposing pitcher struggled with control, and we broke the game open with 5 more runs in the 5th. This was turning into a blowout, and for the first time we were on the winning end of it. It was the bottom of the 4th, and already it was approaching 8 o’clock. Chances were strong that we would only have to play 5 innings before we reached the time limit. With a 6 run rule in place, if we could just hold them scoreless one more time the game would be over!
Then the unthinkable happened. Suddenly, for the first time in 2 years of pitching little league, 20 Prospect Jr. began to struggle with control. He walked 2, then gave up a routine pop fly to left field, which our left fielder watched as he pirouetted in circles with his glove over his head. The ball landed in fair territory, and two runs scored. 20 Prospect Jr. looked to the bench, and it was clear he was wilting in the heat. We only have 2 kids that can pitch with any accuracy, and he is one of them. Like it or not, he had to stay in the game. More walks followed and they scored again. Then I saw it. 20 Prospect Jr. set his jaw, and dug into the pitchers mound. He stared down at the batter with steely determination, reared back, and threw it with all he had in him. He struck out the last 2 batters and we got out of the inning still clinging to a 5 run lead.
It was now 8:15 pm. The 5th inning would be the last one. If we could score 2 runs in the top of the inning we could end it right here. So of course we struck out swinging, 1-2-3. On to the bottom of the 5th.
We were now onto our 3rd pitcher. A sweet harmless 4th grader capable of either throwing fireballs right down the middle of the plate, or bouncing them off of the backstop. It’s a 50/50 thing. He walked the first batter on 4 pitches. Then he walked the 2nd batter on 4 pitches. When he finished walking the 3rd batter without having thrown a single ball anywhere in the vicinity of the strike zone, I called time.
What should I do here? I hated to break the kids confidence by calling in another kid to pitch, but the team had played their hearts out and really deserved a win. I wanted them to have a chance. Even if the other team hit the ball out of the park it would still be better than walking in 6 runs to lose a game. So I went to the “bullpen”, the only other boy on the team that could throw the ball from pitchers mound to home plate. He’s a shy, quiet kid that is one of our best fielders, but is deathly afraid of being the center of attention. I called him over from first base, put the ball in his hand, and told him to forget about the score, and just throw the ball over the plate. He took his warm-up throws, and with the sun rapidly sinking behind the school the game reached it’s climax.
His first pitch sailed over the catcher and hit the umpire in the facemask.
OK, things were going to get interesting.
He walked in one run.
Then he got a gift when the next batter swung at a pitch 2 feet over his head. He followed up with a strike and the count was 2-0. Then he bounced the next three pitches in the dirt to run the count full. I could barely stand to watch, but the next pitch was right down the middle for a strike out.
He promptly hit the next batter in the leg to let in another run. It was now 10-7, with one out and the bases still loaded.
The opposing coach kept telling his batters “Don’t swing! Make him throw you a strike!”. They were at the bottom of their batting order now, and the kids at the plate had no hope of hitting the ball anyway. All we had to do was throw it over the plate and we could get out of here.
The next batter stood like a statue with the bat on his shoulder as we walked him on 6 pitches.
Then our pitcher suddenly found the strike zone. Another strikeout! We were rolling now. One more and the game would be over.
The next kid walked on 4 pitches.
10-9. Base loaded. Two outs. I turned to the Dad keeping score for us, and said “If you’re not a praying man, now would be a good time to start.”
I closed my eyes and said “Please God, Please! These boys have played so hard. Let them win one game so that they can experience what it feels like.”
Then a ball.
Then a foul ball. Strike two!
Then two more balls.
Full count. This was it. This was the pitch. It all came down to this moment. In the gloaming dusk of the hottest day in 23 years, a skinny, bespectacled ten year old boy stood on the pitchers mound. All eyes on him. The parents on the hill holding their breath. Each second stretched like an eternity.
Over on first base, 20 Prospect Jr. pounded his glove, and chewed away on his wad of bubble gum. In right field the outfielder was swatting at bugs with his glove. The 3rd baseman stood in idle conversation with the baserunner, and the shortstop worked intently on the sand painting he was scuffing into the infield.
The pitcher started his windup. The roar and chatter of the opposing team’s bench seemed to fade into the background. His arm came forward. High above us an airplane traced a pink contrail through the sky. The batter leaned his weight onto his back foot. The ball spun through the air. The world turned on its axis. The batter stepped toward the plate, and the bat became an aluminum blur as it cut through the air. Somewhere a rooster crowed. Then the catchers mitt exploded in a cloud of dust.
cue the theme from Carmen
The parents cheered. The boys looked around confused. I called out to them. “Boy’s, that was 3 outs. Come on off the field.” They trotted towards the bench. The coaches gave them high fives as they came off of the field. “You won!”. “We did?”. “Yes, you did!”. “Really?”. “Yes, really!”
At 8:47 pm on June 7th, 2011, the most amazing and unthinkable thing happened in a weedy lot behind a middle school in Moundsview, Minnesota. The Ritalin Rangers won their very first baseball game.