I’m standing in the dugout, watching, powerless, as our season falls apart.
The kid on the mound is trying his best, but he just can’t get it done. We had a 6-1 lead at the beginning of the inning; now, it’s 6-4, and two men are on, with only one out in the bottom of the third.
We are the Sliders, of South Riverdale Little League, minors division, ages 8-10. It’s the semifinal — win this, and we’re in the championship. Quite something, considering we entered the playoffs as the eight seed, out of eight.
As I watch, the batter takes a mighty swing. The third baseman is playing off the line, and the ball skips right over the base and into left field. The crowd comes to life. The coaches begin jumping up and down, gesticulating wildly and yelling barely coherent instructions.
I just watch hopelessly. The ball evades our outfielders, and both runners have already scored by the time the shortstop takes the cutoff throw. The batter is rounding third, heading for home.
“Home! Home!” our entire dugout shouts. The shortstop unleashes a throw. It’s a valiant effort, but it’s too late; three runs score. A Little League Home Run, they call it.
We’re now down 7-6. Six have scored in the inning — that’s the mercy rule.
“Run it in, boys,” I call out from the dugout. I’m cool, calm, controlled — I’m a model coach. But on the inside, I’m just as angry as the players are.
How did we get here? Well, there’s a question.
It hasn’t been easy. We entered the playoffs as the eight seed, the last-place team, the easy opponent.
We got the one seed, the league leader, in the first round, the quarterfinal. They’d beaten us three times during the regular season. We didn’t like them — especially not since they’d seen one of our pitchers go a few pitches over his limit, and used that to get both the player and one of our coaches suspended a game.
They thought they had an easy win in the first round, and who could blame them? As an opponent, we don’t exactly inspire intimidation.
We’ve got two pitchers: they’ve kept us going. We’ve got our fair share and then some of solidly mediocre players. We’ve got two Russian brothers who had never played baseball before.
So, during the regular season, we won — to the best of my knowledge — one game. When I returned from school midseason, I assumed co-coaching duties. I don’t like to gloat, but upon my arrival, the team seemed to take things up a notch.
We got ourselves going, as the playoffs started. The night before our first game, we held our best practice of the year. Going in, we were reasonably confident.
So were our opponents.
“Can I pitch?” I heard one of them asking their coaches, as we prepared for the game that Saturday morning.
“Depends on how many runs we score,” the coach chortled.
We’ve got two pitchers: one starts, the other finishes. The starter, I’ll call Nolan: he’s got all the velocity he needs, but occasionally finds himself lacking in control. The reliever, I’ll call Bart: not much velocity to speak of, but great control, and a cunning pitcher’s mind.
Bart, I should mention, is my brother.
Nolan started, and was brilliant from the beginning. We wanted him available for our next game; thus, he had 65 pitches.
Those 65 took him through three innings, plus an out in the fourth, all scoreless. Bart entered. He’s younger than Nolan: he’s only got 50 pitches.
Those 50 took him through the remaining 2.2 innings with ease. All scoreless, as well.
Meanwhile, we struck in the first inning. Bart — he also bats leadoff, and plays shortstop when he’s not pitching — walked to start the game. Adam — our big, hulking, lefty first baseman who doesn’t make much contact, I’m sure you get there reference — sent a grounder down the first base line. It kept on rolling. 2-0 in our favor, two batters in.
We scored three more in the third. Meanwhile, our pitchers, first overpowering and then calculating, held our arch-rivals, the Smashers, scoreless. After six shutout innings, we had a 5-0, league-shaking shutout win.
“We’ve got to practice again,” said one coach to another, still dazed by the win, as we cleaned the field afterwards.
So we moved on to the semifinals, and to the two seed. The Animals, they’re called, sponsored by the local veterinarian.
This time, our pitching situation would be more complicated. The championship was scheduled for Saturday — that meant, from Wednesday, two days rest. Our pitchers could throw 50 pitches each, otherwise they’d be unavailable for the biggest game of the year. And we would need both of them.
So Nolan started, but immediately, it was clear that he wasn’t at his best. It was as you’d imagine, with Nolan Ryan: the velocity was there, the control not so much. He did his job though: 1.2 innings, one run.
With a 2-1 count on his batter, Nolan reached his 50 pitch limit. In came Bart. Two strikes later, we were out of the inning.
But in the third, we had to gamble. We needed Bart to be able to finish the game, under his pitch count. So, for the third, we went to a different pitcher — a real D.J. Carrasco type. Well, better effort and less dejected body language, but still, not much of a pitcher.
So, six runs later, we’re down 7-6. We’ve got three at-bats left to score. In the fourth, we go down scoreless. To end the frame, Bart strikes out looking. It’s not a good pitch, but Bart is a small kid. The ump has decided to expand the strike zone a little bit. I don’t much agree with it. I don’t like my brother striking out.
The sudden deficit, combined with the strikeout, has Bart in tears as he takes the mound. As I warm him up for the bottom of the fourth, he’s barely reaching the plate.
“Your team is counting on you,” I tell him, before the inning starts.
He shuts them down 1-2-3. Now it’s the top of the fifth, and we’ve got the heart of the order coming up.
Sure enough, we get right to work. Adam (Dunn), the two hitter for some reason, singles. The three hitter strikes out, but the next two reach. As do the next two. Two walks, and we lead 8-7. The crowd, which consists of three or four parents, is going ballistic, but containing itself.
“It’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings,” says one mother. “No, not me, I’m not the fat lady. It’s an expression.”
Bart heads back out to the mound for the fifth, considerably happier. He shuts down the side again. The Animals are out of pitchers. In the top of the sixth, with the mercy rule removed for the last inning, we score six runs.
Bart goes back to the mound to seal the win. He’s got 20 pitches left. If he goes over, we have no idea what to do. He’s facing the heart of the order.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” a fellow coach says to me.
Bart strikes out the first hitter on three pitches.
The second batter singles on the first pitch. Sixteen pitches left. The next batter hits a hard grounder. Bart stabs it.
“First,” I call, not displaying even a hint of raised heart rate. He throws it over. The first baseman stabs it. Then, he throws the ball away, and the the other runner comes around. But it’s no biggie.
“Doesn’t matter, guys,” I call out. Bart takes the ball. He can barely conceal his excitement.
He throws one strike, and then another. And then that looks like a strike. But the ump’s been squeezing us all day. 2-2.
“Stay calm out there,” I say. Bart is calm. He’s ice under pressure.
“Get the music ready!” he calls out. The spectators behind us erupt into laughter.
Seconds later, Bart delivers. Strike three called. Ballgame over.
So, we’re headed to the championship, Saturday at noon. I won’t be there; my work begins shortly before, and it’s too late to change anything.
The coaches tried to gather the team around after the victory field rush, to deliver a message of inspiration, pride, perseverance, whatever it is.
They wouldn’t hear of it. The players, after the handshake line, returned to tossing the ball, jumping up and down, and tackling each other. The victory, it was clear enough, was its own reward.
We’re a last-place team that’s knocked off the top two teams in the league, and now, we’ve got one more game to win. We’ve got two pitchers who have worked pitch to pitch all year. Now, they’re available, for as far as they can go. Already, we’ve begun strategizing, creating lineups and debating positioning, thinking about who we’d rather play or in which order our pitchers should go.
But no one was thinking about that, as the players piled onto Bart after the win. It was all about celebrating the fun of a well-played game and a well-earned win.
How can they say the National Pastime is dying? Isn’t that just about as American as it gets?