Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bottom Of The Ninth

Tonight's our last game of the season and we're hoping to go out on a high note. Tuesday we had a scare, falling behind early to a team we'd beaten handily a few weeks ago. Our opponents had gotten better and our heads weren't in it. Fortunately, after a couple of spotty innings we got our act together.

By the bottom of the second-to-last inning we'd clawed our way back to a narrow 10-9 deficit, thanks in large part to a bruising two-run double by one of my son's friends. When he came back to the bench after scoring himself on another boy's hit, I picked him up and told him if he got another double, I'd adopt him myself. He looked surprisingly unenthusiastic, although his dad seemed intrigued.

While the five-run rule can be your friend, it can also put you in a bad spot. This was one of those times. We were visitors, so the other team had two more chances to get some runs, and we only had one.

Coach P. looked at me and said, "You know one of our guys is going to miss Thursday's game."


"Tonight's the last time they're all here."


"I want to win this damn game," he said.

"So do I," I replied.

We walked over to the bench and huddled with the boys.

Coach P. looked at them. "Guys," he said, "I'm going to do something I haven't done all year. I'm going to tell you the score."

Most of the kids usually have a pretty good idea whether we're winning or losing, but we'd made a practice of not talking about it until the games were over. At the beginning of the season we'd told them having fun was the most important thing and that's a pretty hard thing to believe if your coach is always going on about the score. Besides, the boys put enough pressure on themselves; they don't need everyone at the game thinking about the consequences of screwing up.

Coach P. continued. "I haven't done it before because it really doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter now, either. It's just that tonight's the last night you're all going to be playing together and I want you to know what you need to do to win. We've got to hold them and we've got to score some runs."

The team nodded solemnly and went out to their positions. A couple of good plays made for a quick 1-2-3 inning and our team was back on the bench, getting their batting helmets on, knowing they needed at least two runs to take the lead.

And they got them. Kids who haven't always been on base a lot came through in the clutch. My son got a double and so did Coach P.'s and before we knew it we were ahead 14-10 and it was time to let the other team have its last at-bats.

Our pitcher was so nervous I thought he was going to pass out on the mound. The first batter hit a long fly ball that one of our outfielders ran down and caught just before it got into the gap for extra bases. This was the heart of their order, though, and soon there were two runs in, two men on base, and two outs.

Their batter advanced to the plate while his teammates screamed, "A home run will win it!" The pitcher delivered and he connected, a hard ground ball at our second baseman, a sweet, quiet boy whose dad tells us he's having the time of his life, and I cringed waiting for it to skitter into the outfield, but he got his glove on it and made the throw to first for the final out.

The others mobbed him and they poured off the field, celebrating their victory as they've celebrated others, far more of them than we would have guessed when the season began. They gathered around and said their goodbyes to the boy who's going to miss tonight's game and Coach P. told them how proud we are of them and as he talked I thought about what a privilege it's been to be a part of this.