7M is a fairly talented baseball player, the latest installment in the line of my sons who have played with some decent level of skill. He played for a team this summer which was composed of 7th and 8th graders, Mostly 8th graders. The same group of 8th-grade boys, from various Catholic schools around Our Town, has been playing together since they were 9 or 10 years old. Last year, as 7th graders, they took their lumps, winning roughly half their games in a 7th-8th league. This year, they did much better, winning their league championship with only a single loss during their season. Such is the difference between being younger than most of the other teams, and being older.
7M was one of the better players on his team. He was one of the main pitchers, and batted either 3rd or 4th in the lineup all season. I don't know what his batting average was; in fact, I didn't get to see very many of his games, since my commute usually got me home late enough that his games were about half-over by the time I got back to Our Town. As the season wore on, I made more of an effort to catch such bits of his games as I could, since he really appreciated it whenever I could come. So, often as not, Jen would bring my supper to the ballgames, and I would eat it in the bleachers while I watched.
We developed an odd, and frustrating, pattern, wherein I would arrive at the game, and as I walked up to the ball field, the other parents would greet me with, "Oh, you just missed 7M's hit - he really crushed it!" Then, when he came to bat again, he would get walked, or hit by a pitch, or some other less-dramatic thing than The One I Didn't See.
(*sigh*) Alas. . .
Last week, 7M's team played in a tournament (it had nothing to do with the league they'd played in all summer; it was just one of those tournaments that any team can pay the entry fee and play). As is common with baseball tournaments, it was double-elimination, meaning that every team plays until they lose twice. Once a team loses their first game, they drop into the dreaded Loser's Bracket, where they keep playing until they lose a second game. Aside from the name, one of the major downsides of the Loser's Bracket is that you end up playing a LOT of games. If you keep on winning, you can earn the right to play the team that stayed in the Winner's Bracket all along, without ever losing. And you can even win the championship, if you beat that team. . . twice. But of course, they win by beating you only once, since you already have a loss.
7M's team lost a game fairly early on, thereby dropping into the Loser's Bracket. The upshot of which was that they had to play (and win) two games on Saturday just to stay alive. And Saturday, in these parts, was what they call a scorcher, with a high temperature around 93F. And when they succeeded in winning both of their Saturday games, they were set up for a brutal gauntlet of games on Sunday, starting at 9:30 AM. On Sunday, each game they won earned them the right to play again, a half-hour after the end of the previous game. So, when they won their 9:30 game, they got to play again at noon. When they won their noon game, that made them the champion of the Loser's Bracket, and they got to play the Winner's Bracket champion at 2:30. And if they won that game, they got to play the same team again at 5:00 for the championship.
I missed the 9:30 game, since I had some, uh, liturgical responsibilities at church (and obviously, the tournament organizers were not remotely worried about how the players and their families would be getting to church). So I called Jen, who had gone to the early game with 7M, to find out how the early game had gone. When she told me they'd won, I changed into ballgame-watching clothes, filled as many water bottles as I could lay my hands on (Sunday was, if anything, even hotter than Saturday had been), and headed to the ball field.
I parked the car and as I walked up to the field, I was met by a chorus of my fellow-parents regaling me with, "Oh, you just missed it! 7M hit a home run!" Sheesh; again? But as I said already, they duly won their game (over the team that had sent them into the Loser's Bracket in the first place), and the right to play for the tournament championship.
At that point, I expected that they had Gone About as Fur as They Could Go, since the mercury had climbed back into the 90s, and they were playing their third game of the day, against a fresh team that had cruised through all their games up to that point. In fact, it was a team 7M's team had played last year, and been soundly beaten by. Badly, even. We hadn't seen them yet this year, because they had moved up to a more-competitive division. They had a couple of really top-notch players, including one young man who was built like a plow horse, could run like a thoroughbred, and threw bullets (sort of like a 14-year-old Kirk Gibson, with a better arm). I figured that we were about due to have the heat catch up with us, and anyway, the team we were playing was probably just better than us, anyhow. And the idea of getting out of the solar furnace was not, I admit, unattractive, either.
But, lo and behold, it seemed that, by virtue of playing two earlier games, our boys' heads and bodies were in full competitive baseball mode, whereas the other team, having stepped out of their parents' air-conditioned SUVs, seemed to be more affected by the heat. They committed a few early errors, and their bullet-throwing pitcher got frustrated, started over-throwing, got wild, and ended up getting pulled. And the other pitchers we saw were all more eminently hittable. Before we knew it, we were ahead 7-0, and by the end of the 5th inning, we were ahead 15-3, so the 10-run mercy rule was invoked. It was the other team's first loss all season. And I'm guessing those kids had never in their lives been on the losing end of the mercy rule. So, against all odds, we were set to play our fourth consecutive game, this time for the championship.
I had no illusions as to how easy it would be to win that last game. At some point, I figured, the heat, and all those games, would catch up to us, and we wouldn't catch the other team back on their heels again. Plus, by playing four games in a single day (and six over the weekend), we were running out of pitchers. 7M had already thrown 11 innings over the two days, so he wasn't available even for relief duty.
But lo and behold, we came out even stronger in the second game than we had in the first, amassing a 10-0 lead by the end of the 2nd inning. Our bats were incredibly hot. Even the kids who didn't normally hit a lot were having bloopers drop in, and the big bats were sending big drives over the outfielders' heads. 7M hit a triple, and as he stood on third, I called out to him, "I saw THAT!"
We held that lead for the next couple innings, but in the 3rd and 4th innings, it all seemed to come apart. I don't know if the heat, or plain exhaustion, started kicking in, but we made a bunch of errors. And you know how it is, that when the first error happens, somehow, it just makes the next one that much more likely, and pretty soon, it's like nobody can think straight. By the end of the 4th inning, we were behind, 12-10. Somehow, though, our boys collected themselves and scratched out three runs in the 5th, taking a 13-12 lead. The other team scored a run in the 6th inning, tying the game, and it stayed that way as we came to bat in the bottom of the 7th (and nominally final) inning.
7M led off the inning, with the other team's bullet-thrower back on the mound, now himself recollected, and throwing incredibly hard. But 7M got around on one of his pitches, and drilled a double over the left-fielder's head. The next batter, a lefty, hit a similar ball to right field that the right fielder was able to run down, but 7M was able to tag up and advance to third base. So we had a runner on third, with one out, and a pair of decent, if not quite super-stellar hitters coming up. The opposing coach intentionally walked both of them, though, setting up forces all around, and bringing a young man named Will to the plate. Will is a gritty little ballplayer, but - how shall I say it? - he's a gritty LITTLE ballplayer. And a 7th-grader, to boot. He had come to bat against the flame-thrower kid earlier, and hadn't come close to getting around on his stuff. I would be disingenuous if I told you I wasn't thinking that we were headed to extra innings.
The big kid went into his windup, and suddenly 7M broke for home, running full-speed down the line. The pitch came home, little Will turned and squared, and dropped the most beautiful bunt you ever saw, between the pitcher and the third-base line. But it didn't matter. By the time the ball landed fair, 7M was already across the plate with the winning run. Incredible. . . I told our coach afterwards that he's got some pretty big ones. And honestly, it was a pretty genius move, since Will was unlikely to do any damage any other way, and he's probably the best bunter on the team. . .
So, 7M and his team ended up playing six games over two days, and four in ten hours on Sunday, all in 90+ degree heat, winning every single one of them, on the way to winning the tournament championship by handing an excellent squad their first two losses of the season.
I never would have thought that I could ever remotely be 'baseballed out', but today I'm pretty close. Somewhere in there, I figure that Jen and I must have earned some kind of 'Parent Points' for sitting for that many hours in the scorching heat, watching our son play baseball. And by the time the last game finally ended, and the trophies were well and properly handed out, it was nearly 8 o'clock, and the last mass in town was just ending. Sheesh.
But. . . wow. . . just Wow. . .