It’s the pitch, and not the out or the hit that defines baseball. The pitch is the basic unit of measure. Throw the ball, consider the results. That’s baseball. Throw it hard, paint the black swing and miss. Throw cheese down the middle, it gets hit. Be accurate, ball four becomes strike three. Make the barrel of the bat misses by 1/16 of an inch and a line drive drops into the shortstop’s glove. Everything else depends on the singular pitch.
It’s June, end of another baseball season and the improbable is happening. The nine to ten-year-old team (mostly nine) from the Southwestern Area Baseball Minors division that finished last in the regular season is playing for the league championship. The run through the playoffs has been an improbable, memorable weaving of plain old- fashioned good baseball, fortunate breaks, and blind luck. It’s a team that takes a whole season to realize that you can win games if you play hard and well and never give up, two playoff games won in the final at-bat. In this championship game the young, resilient team surprises everyone, including themselves, and leads the better team for most of the game.
But, because fortune and blind luck only get you so far, the better team ties the game in the last inning. They have a runner on third with two outs, and their best player at the plate with a chance to win the game in dramatic fashion. Every pitch is a cliff-hanger as the underdogs try to find one more out in a long season.
One pitch of a baseball, sometimes that’s the difference. One pitch, in this case thrown by a nine-year old arm to a good batter waiting forty-five feet away, preceded in a season by a hundred others, followed in a lifetime by thousands more. In this game it’s my son, Ben, who’s on the mound trafficking in the basic unit of the game, one pitch at a time. With a one-one count he forces a soft grounder to second base, but there is very good speed at the plate. The ball trickles agonizingly through the infield. Our second baseman looks impossibly small as he moves to field it, his glove big and awkward on his hand. He can’t quite find the clean handle, can’t quite make the exchange to the throwing side, and can’t quite catch up with the runner sprinting down the line.
Base hit, run scores, game over. The improbable yields to the predictable, the inevitable. One pitch, and no matter the odds coming into the game, a team of underdogs (especially their pitcher) has their hearts broken, for a few hours anyway, by life and the game of baseball.
Flash forward to June and Ben’s team is a year older. They are much better at baseball, more reliant on skill and less so on lucky breaks, and Sunday hops. In fact, they win the league, make it through the playoffs, and back to the championship game. As fate must have it, it is a rematch from the year before, against what is still a very good baseball team. The game is heading in our favor as the team plays solid baseball. They lead by a few runs in the middle of the game when Ben comes in to pitch.
There is a ten-batter rule in SWAS house league baseball. The rule states that a half inning shall consist of either three outs or ten batters, whichever comes first. It is a good rule, meant to keep bad things from happening defensively to fickle, nine to ten-year-old arms, and gloves and umpires. With Ben pitching in the fourth inning of this second consecutive championship game there is a slow-motion, tormenting race between the third out and the tenth batter as the runs for the other team start to pile up…a death march of walks, timely hits, and untimely errors. Suddenly, stunningly, ten batters later, the dust settles and we are down a run. The half inning feels like an underwater tooth extraction that ends in a train wreck.
In the fifth inning we put no runners on and the game drags towards hopelessness. We have the bottom four in our line-up due up in the sixth and final inning. The dugout is quiet, the opposing pitcher is throwing very well, and we are staring at another fall and winter of discontent. Ben is completely inconsolable. He has, in his young eyes, single handedly lost back-to-back championships for his team. There is nothing to say, nothing to do but watch the game slip quietly away. In the last half of the last inning of the season for both teams, our first batter strikes out according to script. The next batter doubles, but he is impossibly far from home plate. The next-to last batter also strikes out. Two outs and our least experienced player walks to the batter’s box. All the air has been vacuumed from our side of the field and moved to theirs for the second year in a row.
And then, something happens.
A ritual for fathers of little league baseball players (probably for fathers of all baseball players) is to plot two numerical, non-parallel lines in the offensive frame of each innings. One line represents the number of outs. The other line is the batting order. When the two lines intersect at two outs and your son, that father says a quick prayer to the Baseball Gods and mentally rehearses how he will either console his son, or share in a triumph depending on the result of the at-bat. When those lines meet, your son sits at the apex of success and failure, heroism and misery. Only the most stoic dad could remain unfazed and unmoved. This is so especially in a close game, exponentially in a championship game, and astronomically in a game where your son just let the other team take the lead for the second year in a row.
Our last batter draws an unlikely and inspired walk. Now runners are on first and second with the top of the order due up. Ben bats third. I watch the non-parallel lines move closer, hoping beyond hope that they converge and my son gets a chance to turn that one pitch in his favor. Ben has struggled on the mound, usually at the most inopportune times, but he can hit!
An infield single and another walk and the improbable is happening again before our eyes; bases loaded, game tied.
If the pitch is the basic measure of a baseball life, the base hit is the next denomination, and the hit that drives in the winning run in the championship game the jackpot. Ben’s 27th hit of the season (in 32 at bats) is a jackpot. His second swing of the bat catches that perfect, elusive 1/16th of the barrel and falls in a narrow space between third base and left field.
Base hit, run scores, game over. The improbable gives way to the miraculous .One hit becomes a redemptive turn-around for a young baseball player; a winter of content, and a lesson that anything can happen in life and baseball if you give it a chance.
It’s June of another season and the improbable is happening. The eleven to twelve-year-old team (mostly eleven) from the Southwestern Area Baseball Majors league has made an inspired run through their playoffs and is playing for the league championship. It’s a young team that takes a whole season to realize that young kids can win games if they play hard and well.
In this league championship game Ben’s team will lose in the last at bat of extra innings to the number one seed. Ben doesn’t give up the winning run this year, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier to swallow, and a team of underdogs are heartbroken, at least for a few hours, by life and baseball.