Or teach school. Or mentor kids. Or be a parent or grandparent. Or invest ourselves in any number of capacities in the lives of kids.
My brother and I rowed this morning. Not very far. We’re not in all that good of shape. I swear we do more talking than rowing. We’d no sooner got off the water than he checked his texts to see how the youth he used to coach – he retired just this year – were doing at Nationals in Georgia. They were winning. Not only were they winning but individual members were qualifying – in this sport of flatwater canoe and kayaking – to represent the United States.
To hear and see my brother recount the results just posted of kids he’d personally coached – and cajoled, and chastised, and prodded, and applauded over the years – his voice broke and there were tears in his eyes all accompanied by the widest of grins on his face.
We compared notes.
The Tillicum Crusher’s – the 9-and-10-year-olds, all but one this year from Tillicum Elementary School – most recent baseball game was chock full of highlights – including their teachers coming to the game – though none compared with what happened in the dugout after it was over.
We’d played this team before and lost – big time – 14 to 3. In that game we struck out nine times and were out-hit eight to two. After three games in this young season we had a total of four hits. Four. Consequently at our last practice, hitting was all we did. We hit whiffle balls; we hit from a newly acquired and borrowed ‘L’ screen twenty feet from the plate; we hit off a tee. Then we rotated and did it all again. And again.
We’re even collecting bottle caps. ‘Here, hit this!’
The payoff? Three of our four batters coming to the plate in the bottom of the first struck out. Stay with me here.
In the top of that same first inning, starting pitcher Gauge struck out the first batter and the third but the second batter walked, stole second, stole third and then, in one of the outstanding defensive plays of the game, tried to steal home but Erick ripped off his mask, chased after the carom off the backstop and returned in time to tag out the sliding runner at the plate.
Top of the second. Gauge strikes out the first two batters, walks the third and is replaced by Jacob. With our next game only 46 hours away, Gauge had reached the maximum number of pitches that would allow the required rest time.
Jacob does his job and strikes out the only batter to face him that inning for the third out.
Three Crushers come to the plate in the bottom of the second and all strike out. About-the-batting-practice thing? Stay with me here.
Jacob nearly returns the favor in the top of the third, striking out the first two. The third batter hit a single to short then stole second and third as Jacob walked the fourth. With runners at first and third however, Jacob got his third strike out to end the threat.
Amber, first up for the Crushers in the bottom of the third was hit by a pitch, stole second and would end up scoring on an errant throw of her steal of third. Malachi flew out to first and back-to-back strike-outs ended the inning but the Crushers were up 1-0.
Not for long.
First batter up in the opposition’s half of the fourth stroked a sharply hit grounder wide of first but the ever fleet-footed, excellent ball-handler Gauge hustled to his right, gloved the ball, and won the foot-race to the bag for the out. Another hard-hit ball skidded across the infield to second where Shawn neatly fielded it and softly and accurately threw to Gauge for the second out. Coaches high-fived in the dugout.
As if by counter-clockwise edict, the grounder to first was followed by the grounder to second which was then followed by a grounder to short but it was this one that would ultimately result in a steal of second and third.
Jacob had now also reached his pitch count and reliever Derek was called in to hold the Crushers’ fragile 1-0 lead. While it wasn’t to be as the first two to face Derek both walked to load the bases and one would eventually score, Derek then bore down and with the count full, got the batter looking at a third called strike.
With the score tied at one apiece, Claudia, first up in the bottom of the fourth for the Crushers, hit to short but was thrown out at first. Jacob walked and would get as far a third but the next two Crushers struck out.
A single to Jacob at third began the opposition’s fifth and though the next batter would strike out, the runner would steal second and third. A slow dribbler between the mound and the plate was fielded by Derek who threw home to Gabriel, now playing catcher in place of Erick, but the throw was high and the Crushers were down 2-1. Derek would walk two but then struck out the next two.
Gauge, first up in the bottom of the fifth, down 0-2 in the count, sliced a grounder by first and safely slid into second on a close play. Derek and Brandon followed with walks but not before Gauge’s father, coaching third base, sent Gauge – who had stolen third – toward home on a passed ball. It was a gutsy move and a very close play but Gauge slid in under the tag and the score was tied at two.
Chris got hit with the first pitch and the bases were loaded. There was joy – or at least hope – in Mudville.
A hope that almost instantly disappeared as the next two Crushers would strike out.
To reset the scene: the score is tied at two. The bases are loaded. There are two outs. It’s the bottom of the fifth of a regulation six-inning game.
Gabriel strides to the plate.
The Crushers desperately need to take advantage of this opportunity. They do. Coach Will gambles again sending Derek from third. Gabriel jumps out of the box. Derek slides. He’s safe. The Crushers are up 3-2.
Gabriel runs the count to two-and-two.
Two years ago, when the Crushers first formed a baseball team of 1st and 2nd graders, all from Tillicum Elementary School, most had never played organized ball before being but seven-and-eight years old. Gabriel, if memory serves, would make history in becoming the first ever batter who would score a home run, mostly because he simply never stopped running.
Now, from the dugout along the first base line, I state the obvious to Mike, our head guy coaching at first: “We really need an insurance run.”
Mike heard me. I don’t think Gabriel did. I’m not sure anybody hears much of anything what with the fans hollering encouragement, the coaches shouting instructions, everyone clamoring for this-or-that to be done.
It’s just way too much pressure and anxiety. That’s why I hide in the dugout. I can’t handle it. I don’t know how these third-and-fourth graders do.
This is how they do it, or at least how Gabriel did it.
Having watched a second called strike and having been reminded over-and-over again in practice that we do not stand there with the bat on our shoulder and watch a third strike be called without making a valiant attempt to destroy the ball; to rip the cover off if at all possible; to send it ‘out-of-here’ while shattering the stadium lights in the process sending down a shower of sparks while we round the bases in glory ala “The Natural”, Gabriel in fact made that valiant attempt.
Did I mention we practiced hitting?
Gabriel lofted the ball over shortstop and into left field scoring Brandon and though a strikeout would end the inning, the Crushers had their insurance run.
Now if we could just hang on.
The players gathered in the dugout. ‘This is it Crushers. Shut ‘em down. Bring you’re A-game. Let’s go.’
Top of the sixth. The first batter reached second – whether on a hit or a walk followed by a steal, I forget. I’m so nervous I failed in my play-by-play responsibilities. I do remember that the runner was narrowly missed by Shawn’s tag in a nearly-out-of-the-baseline escape. A steal of third and Shawn, fielding a grounder, would throw home from second base in what was to be an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the run.
Four to three.
Two more walks and the bases are loaded. Derek strikes out the fifth batter coming to the plate for the first out.
Then the gamble.
Derek goes into his wind and fires the one-and-two pitch. It’s wide and outside. Too far outside for Gabriel catching at home. The coach at third sends the runner. Cries of “Coming! He’s coming!” are screamed at Gabriel. Derek sprints toward home in the desperate hope that Gabriel will get to the ball in the far corner of the backstop in time to toss for a play at the plate.
The ball never got to Derek.
Gabriel found it and took it himself to greet the runner and following a great collision that might have been heard by someone, somewhere except for all the fan noise, when the dust had settled Gabriel looked up to see the ump’s right arm raised, hand clenched, voice blaring.
Out number two.
Derek struck out the third and final batter and the Crushers had come back from a crushing defeat at the hands of the same team April 15. But that was then and this was now and tonight, this night, they had stood toe-to-toe, inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch, play-by-outstanding-defensive-play. And won.
But the highlight of the game? It was after it was all over. The Crushers are celebrating, the coaches are congratulating, Crusher fans are on their feet cheering, and Gabriel is sitting on the bench taking off his catcher’s gear.
Then he looks up with the biggest of grins as he removes the catcher’s mask and helmet that hides his wild black unruly curly hair and says to anyone who’s listening about the guy who’d flown in from literally the other side of the world where he works an extended employment:
“My dad is in the stands!”
That’s why we play baseball.