Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Youngest Son gets an opportunity; his parents get ulcers

(I know I promised a Mother's day post. But, bear with me, Bee; today's post is a necessary prerequisite to the Mother's day piece.)

Youngest Son has worked hard at his baseball up at South Janesville College (we're not as certain about his academic achievements) and he was rewarded with a start in the first game of a possible two game championship series this past weekend. This year, the conference tournament was held at some school way the heck on the other side of Iowa.

We didn't know he'd be starting. He told us he might see some action in the tournament but he thought he'd most likely come out of the bullpen.

Problem was, although the team won their first game Friday, they got hammered in the second. Baseball people will understand how a double elimination tournament works; for everyone else, this means SJC would have to win three games on Saturday to claim the conference crown and the trip to the NCAA Regional. And that meant they'd need an extra starter.

We didn't go to the tournament -- five or six hour van trips to watch your kid warm up in the bullpen aren't really how I'd choose to spend my time. And we couldn't really afford either the time commitment or the hotel. But there was a modern, high-tech alternative: The games would be shown -- TV! -- online. The camera angles weren't great; they had one in the press box that covered the lion's share of the game action and another in the third base dugout that they used between innings, just to relieve the monotony. If my son had been the third baseman, I would have been less than thrilled -- but the camera angle was ideal for watching the pitcher.

Well, Youngest Son told us Friday night about his possible start, so I had to figure out how to put up the online broadcast during Saturday's first game. And it was a thriller. SJC was cruising to an easy victory, but the other team forgot to read the script, battling back from a 5-0 deficit. The game was tied 6-6 going into the bottom of the ninth. Long Suffering Spouse and I were gathered around the computer in the den living and dying with every pitch -- and it wasn't our kid out there. Not yet. If SJC didn't pull this one out, our kid wouldn't get his chance at all.

And so disappeared Saturday morning. Long Suffering Spouse wanted to get to the grocery; I was planning on doing that blog post I told you about yesterday and I had a bunch of other stuff lined up behind that. And Younger Daughter had warned me that I needed to get fitted for my wedding tux by close of business Saturday, too.

SJC scratched out a run in the bottom of the ninth to eke out a 7-6 win.

Youngest Son would take the bump in a half hour's time. We choked down lunch. My heart was still pounding.

I know it sounds antisocial, but it's just as well that Long Suffering Spouse and I weren't out there in Iowa. This is Division III college baseball; seldom does anyone get a chance to move on to the next level. When the last out is recorded in the season's last game, baseball ends for the team's seniors. Sudden, sudden death.

The emotions that pour out in that moment are raw, sincere, and overwhelming. And it's not just the kids who are caught up in the terrible finality of that moment; it's their parents. I know. I was one of them just a few years ago when Middle Son's baseball career came to an end. If things went well, it'd be great to bask in the gratitude of the other parents -- but if things went badly....

Six of the eight position players in this game were seniors, their whole future in the hands of a largely-untested freshman, going up against a team that had won its first two games by scores of 12-0 and 14-0 (SJC had been the recipient of the 14-run drubbing.) The other team was not made of supermen; SJC had split its series with them during the regular season. But they were starting the day fresh and needed to win only this game to advance; SJC was coming off a cardiac special of a game, without an opportunity to rest or regroup.

You know where this is going, don't you?

Hollywood endings make great movies because they help us escape from reality.

The reality is that baseball is a game of failure: The batter who fails to get a hit in 7 of 10 chances will probably earn a plaque in Cooperstown. The freshman pitcher who has worked his tail off and who would do anything in his power to extend the baseball lives of his senior teammates is going to put everything he has into his game.

But if he had enough already his coach would have been an idiot for only using him sporadically during the year.

Youngest Son walked the leadoff batter on four pitches. It wasn't even close. I could scream at home and get up and walk around to burn off nervous energy. Long Suffering Spouse could yell "no walks!" and bury her head in her hands. We didn't have to fend off the death glares of the senior parents.

Somehow he got through the first without any damage.

In the top of the second our center fielder hit a screamer over the left field fence: The seal was broken. They could be scored upon! SJC scratched out another run besides, staking Youngest Son to a 2-0 lead.

Reality intruded in the bottom of the frame. Their leadoff hitter sent another rocket over the left field fence. 2-1.

Then things got really interesting.

The top of the order came up in the bottom of the third. That kid Youngest Son walked on four pitches in the first? He walked again. Then Youngest Son uncorked a wild pitch; he was trying to keep the ball down, but he threw it into the ground about 10 feet in front of the plate. Now rattled, Youngest Son hit the next batter. Two on. Nobody out.

Then it looked like Youngest Son had righted the ship: He struck out the next man. He got the guy after that to fly out to center, not deep enough for either runner to advance. Two out, two on.

But now Youngest Son was facing the kid who'd taken him deep in the last inning. This time he hit a shot to left center, driving in a run. The ball was fielded cleanly, so the batter had to stop at first, but with two outs the runner at first had no trouble making third. Tie game.

Here came the only note of controversy. Youngest Son faked a throw to third, then turned and threw to first. Chicagoans may remember Sox pitcher Jack McDowell used this pickoff move all the time, with fairly good results; he was so identified with it here that a lot of us still call that the "McMove." MLB is talking about making this move illegal, but it isn't yet. Youngest Son's McMove didn't pick off the runner at first, but it sent him diving back.

Then the other team's coach hollered "balk!"

The home plate umpire thought about it for a second and made the signal. The runner at third trotted home. The runner at first moved to second. Youngest Son's coach exploded out of the dugout and protested vehemently, but to no avail. Youngest Son tells me the other coach -- the one who'd planted the fatal suggestion in the umpire's mind -- later admitted to Youngest Son that he hadn't balked. Whether this was meant as consolation or cruelty is a matter of speculation; Youngest Son chose to accept it as almost an apology.

He walked the next batter, but induced a groundout to first to end the third.

Meanwhile, back in front of the computer, Long Suffering Spouse and I were making all the noises that a human mouth can make -- groans, sighs, shrieks, shouts -- no, it wouldn't have done for us to have been in Iowa at all, where we'd have to sit much more quietly. I might have exploded from the strain.

The first tournament game against this other team had really gone south in the fourth inning. Here, the pattern repeated. Did the third baseman fail to get in front of a grounder, expecting the ball to bounce up into his outstretched glove, only to wave at it, like a matador, as the ball went by? Did the outfielders misplay a fly ball that dropped in when it should have been caught? Was the wild pitch in this inning really wild, or did the catcher make an insufficient effort to smother a curve ball that was supposed to have been thrown in the dirt? The scorebook says that all four runs in this inning were earned; I think that this may have been the only gift that Coach had left to bestow on his senior fielders. Youngest Son was lifted with two outs, losing 7-2. My heart ached for my son. My heart ached for all those kids.

There would be no Hollywood ending. No come-from-behind win. No redemption. A couple of late rallies produced only one additional run. The final was 12-3.

It was a long and tearful bus ride home.

Youngest Son texted me from the bus: He'd have to come home tomorrow. Could we get him around 3:00pm or so?

You do know it's Mother's Day tomorrow, don't you? I responded.

Well, we have to leave tomorrow, Youngest Son responded.

How about 10:00am? I countered.

He called when the team stopped for dinner. I have to pack, he said. And we won't be back until very late.

We eventually compromised on noon.

So it was that a new item got added to the Mother's Day agenda... and we hadn't done any of the preparatory work we'd intended.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

awww the poor guy! sorry. oh, and i read a sports post! i get a point!

smiles, bee

The Curmudgeon said...

Two points, easy.

landgirl said...

Oh I don't even know what balking is, but I am sorry about the baseball thing but so glad that you have such a loving family. Losing anything is easier when you ghaevsomeone/place to come home to.