Captain Clutch

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I couldn’t watch today’s game: I was busy coaching a team of eight-to-ten year olds, en route to a 10-1 loss.  But that was an obligation, so I had no choice but to get by on nothing more than a few seconds on the radio here and there, and a peek now and again at MLB at-bat.

We watched another game before our own started, and, being two veterans of the league, my dad and I couldn’t help commenting on the quality of play.

“Someone should write a book about little league,” he said, as the first baseman, quite surprisingly, caught a throw, “and call it, ‘Spasms of Competence.’”

Pretty much what Eric Campbell was currently going through, I interjected.  Everyone agreed that “spasms of competence” fit well, both lyrically and semantically.

I was listening on the radio as Granderson homered to lead off the bottom of the first.  I called out the news to my brother and his friend, both preparing to play their game, both eight years old.

At first, they didn’t hear me.  They were having a loud, shouted, happy conversation about Alejandro De Aza.

My influence has rubbed off, and I couldn’t be more proud.

They were arguing about de Aza versus Campbell — who was better?  De Aza has more home runs, the friend said.

“De Aza doesn’t have any home runs,” I replied.

“Yes he does,” said my brother.  “He hit one in Cleveland.”

Repeat: I couldn’t be more proud.

I was still listening, although not as intently, when Ramon Flores — what is it with guys named Flores? — somehow managed to homer off deGrom.  My co-coach, also a Mets fan, was listening too.  Fortunately, the game hadn’t started yet.

We both hung our heads.  Later on, over the course of a ten run loss, we’d remain chipper and upbeat.  But some things are serious.

After that, I barely even got the radio on.  I was maintaining a dugout filled with hyperactive young baseball players who couldn’t decide between watching the game, playing with the water fountain, and tackling each other: the occasional check of my phone was all I had time for.

And to make matters worse, my phone was dying.

I was doing fine on battery power when Cespedes came to the plate in the sixth as the tying run.     A few pitches later, the game was tied.  Coaching third, my dad had just seen the same thing.  I turned to the third coach.

“Cespedes, two run bomb,” I said.

“Ha, ha,” he responded, thinking that I was making a joke about our hitter, who had just swung at a pitch that had bounced in the dirt in front of home plate.

“No seriously,” I said.  “Cespedes, two run bomb, tied at four.”

He looked at me, and understood.  “Oh!” he said, grateful beyond words for a respite from the incompetence of little league.  “That’s fantastic!”

Communication between coaches on the field is difficult, especially when you’re in the field, attempting to maintain the same focus that you’re drilling into your players — not that they maintain their focus at all — and also need the other team to think you’re up to something.  We’ve got dozens of tricks up our sleeves, ready to deploy at any time; when you’ve drawn up a play called the Guggle Muggle, you know you’re ready for anything.  So it helps to keep opponents on the edge.

So, when Addison Reed finished off the eighth inning with a strikeout, stranding the go-ahead run on second, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate it to my dad, the third base coach.  I waved to get his attention.  I gave a strikeout signal.  I pointed to my phone, indicating that I was referring to the game that I’d been using it to follow.

He picked up his phone, thinking that I was saying that I’d sent him something.  Ah well.  As he himself said, mere spasms of competence.  But he understood it eventually, when I called out, so that the commissioner watching from beyond the outfield fence couldn’t hear, “Reed got the out!”

Then came that crazy ninth, and wouldn’t you know it, we were batting again, so we Mets fans, father and son, were separated, first and third, 90 feet apart (a reduced-size field, if you know your little league rules), barely able to communicate.

First, Campbell got a hit.

“Campbell got a hit!” I called out.

“Really???” My dad asked.

“It was a slow grounder deflected by the second baseman,” I said.

“That makes more sense,” he responded.

It was fitting, I suppose, in that Campbell was the player in whose context spasms of competence had been first mentioned, and now, in the ninth, we were enjoying a bit of competence of our own.

Then, Plawecki walked.

“Familia’s up,” I said.  Then, a realization hit me.  “THEY’RE GOING TO PINCH-HIT MATT REYNOLDS!!!!!”

Sure enough, Reynolds came to the plate.  Still looking for his first big-league hit, he settled into the box.  Would he do it?  Would he record his first MLB hit in walk-off fashion?

No, he wouldn’t.  That’s not the kind of player he is.  He was asked to bunt.  He’s been languishing in the minors for years, doing nothing but perfecting his fundamental hitting.  Of course he would get the bunt down.

Then he fouled the first two attempts off.

“I don’t like the bunt here,” my dad said.

Then, with the bunt still on 0-2, he got one down perfectly.

“I suppose it’s something,” my dad amended himself.

“Granderson can win it with a fly ball,” I called out, now speaking to the diamond at large.  Then I saw ball one.  Pretty far outside.  And then I checked the pitch listing.  They were walking him.

I relayed the information to everyone around me.

“Them’s fighting words,” my dad said.

Wright stepped into the box.  I watched the screen, seeing only numbered circles but heart thumping nonetheless.  Meanwhile, we continued our offensive futility.

(At one point — this is true, although not strictly related — we had a play that started as a ground-out, and turned into two runs, with the batter being one of them.  There were three errors on the play.  For those of you scoring at home, it went 5-3-3-7-2-7-5-2).

The opposing team’s first baseman, it turned out, was also a Mets fan.  He’d heard me giving rudimentary play-by-play, but wasn’t clear on the situation.

“What’s happening?” he asked me.

“Bases loaded, one out,” I said.

“Who’s up?” he asked.

“Wright,” I responded.

“Nice!” he said.

David Wright hasn’t had a star-level season since 2013.  This year, his struggles have been mighty.  But even fans born just as Shea Stadium was coming down know what he’s capable of.  That, alone, should say all that needs to be said about David Wright’s contributions to the franchise.

As I watched, the game on the field barely snagging the corner of my eye, Michael Blazek threw ball one, then ball two, then ball three.

“He’s going to walk in the winning run!” the coach on my side said.

Almost simultaneously, Gary Cohen, in the SNY booth, said, “Blazek might walk in the winning run.”

And then a blue circle appeared.  MLB at-bat users will know the feeling: that brief, half-second moment when you can’t tell whether it’s runs or outs.  Then you look down at the pitch description.  And you find, sure enough, that it’s in play, run(s).

I pumped my fist, and ran the length of the dugout and back.  “Wright did it!” I shouted out.

“What did he do?” my dad asked.

“Won the game!” I shouted.

“How?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” I explained.

Spasms of competence indeed.

I would later learn that Wright had shot a line drive to the right-center field gap, classic captain, just like he used to do it.  I would later realize just how surprising it had been that Wright had been given the hit sign 3-0 — or, as he later explained, that he’d swung, unsure whether he’d gotten the hit sign or not.  I would later watch the highlight about six times, smiling unconsciously as my childhood hero won my ball club a game.

But for now, I was content just to watch, as both the dugout and the playing field, both filled with players, burst into celebrations, all suddenly Mets fans, all aware that the Mets had pulled out another victory.

A David Wright walkoff hit, driving a field full of kids to celebration…could there be a more perfect picture of what baseball is all about?

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