Friday, September 10, 2010

A League of Their Own (Wes' season)

This last and final baseball entry is about Wes and his season. I entitled it 'A League of Their Own' because Wes' team was one of those special teams that you hope to experience in your sport's career. I am going to do my best to describe it.

We prayed and prayed that Wes would get on a good team with a good coach for a couple of reasons. One, Wes had been on a team the prior year that had really struggled and we were hopeful he might be on a better one this season. Two, while all of our boys love baseball, Wes takes the cake. He is about as fanatical as they come for an eight year old.

Every spring afternoon, Wes would spend a couple of hours, at least, practicing baseball. As I would do the dishes, I would look out the kitchen window and see Wes out in the back yard practicing running the bases. As I homeschooled the others, I would hear him throwing the ball up against the side of the house. While I made supper, I could hear him in the garage doing hitting drills. No, I am not kidding. Joshua is pretty disciplined about practicing, but I think Wes even beat him out on hours of practice. I started referring to Wes as Mr. Baseball.

So, you can see why we were hopeful he would get on a team with a coach that took it serious. Well, did God ever answer that prayer...

Wes was put on the Pirates. From the first five minutes of his first practice, we could tell that Wes had a great coach. Eric came home from that practice and said,'this guy really knows what he's doing. He sure can teach the fundamentals of the game.' Now, I am not one to like to sit through watching practices; in the past I have considered them a bit boring. But, after watching one Pirate's practice, I was hooked. This guy (Coach Matt) could even make practice exciting to watch. Pretty soon, Eric and I were fighting over who got to take Wes to practice!

Coach Matt was one of the most efficient coaches I've ever seen. He was completely on top of every drill they did. He had a knack for getting every bit of talent out of each of the players he coached. He was hard but he also really cared about the boys and made it fun. It was kind of like seeing tough love in action.

He was every bit as efficient off the field as he was on. He sent out detailed emails letting us know exactly what was going on when. Not only that, but you would have thought these boys were on an all-star team, as he had us order two different pair of baseball pants for the boys with black belts and black socks. One pair of pants were black and white pin striped. The other pair were gray with a black stripe down the side. He then gave us a schedule of which pants to wear for each game. He also bought black Pirates batting helmets for them to wear when batting. For himself, he bought the traditional black Pirates baseball hat and shirt to wear to each game. Whether or not we would be any good was still out on the table, but we sure were going to dress the part. All of this extra effort on his part made the anticipation mount; we anxiously awaited opening day. And I thought, 'Mr. Baseball (Wes), meet Mr. Baseball (Coach Matt).' Yes, our Mr. Baseball had met his match!

We needn't have worried about whether or not our talent was going to be able to match our attire. The Pirates won their first game 20 something to 0. It was a bit of a blow out and I started to feel badly for the other team and hoped they would at least get on the board.

Every game began to be a repeat of that first one. Now, you would have thought it would have started to get boring--to win every game by so many runs. The interesting thing is, it didn't. It got more and more exciting. There was something special about the chemistry of our team. As my mother-in-law said, 'there is just something magical about them.' I was amazed at the defensive ability of these eight and nine year olds. That is basically why our opponents couldn't get many runs on the board; they couldn't get much by them. We saw them turn several double plays. We saw some amazing catches. And we saw these boys instinctively know at what base to make the play. Many of the teams had difficulty stealing second because our catcher could get them out at second. We heard Coach Matt say more than once, 'defense always beats offense. Always.' Now, the boys could really hit the ball too, but it was their defense that made them stand out and made them truly fun to watch.

Coach Matt is 100% Italian...if you can picture 'Cake Boss' except in the world of baseball, you've got the picture. He could be--well--intense. He has that typical Italian personality. He doesn't hold back what he is feeling when he is feeling it. So he culd be explosive one minute and encouraging the next. The thing is, for every bit of his toughness, he was equally praiseworthy over a good play. Not only that, the time and effort he put into these boys was unbelievable. He took them and paid for ice cream for the team after several games. He reserved and paid for batting cages for batting practice for the entire team at least twice. He offered to meet with the boys individually outside of practice and work on hitting or fielding. And when the season was about midway through, he sent out an email inviting the entire team and families to an end of season cookout and swim party at their community pool. He really put his all into this team.

Well, at the end of the regular season we were undefeated. I think the closest anyone ever came to beating us was within six runs. We were excited to play in the tournament. We had been playing National League teams all season...but their were two teams in the American League that we would eventually face that were going to be hard to beat. They were both good hitting teams and pretty good defensively. We would have to be playing our best to beat them.

The tournament began. We won our first three games easily by several runs. At this point, we advanced to the semi-finals. There were four teams left and it became double elimination. The next team we faced were the Blue Jays. In my opinion, they were our toughest competition. It was going to be pretty evenly matched and our boys would have to fight through the game and give it their all if they were going to beat this team.

This game was the biggest nail biter in history. Not to mention, Eric had stayed back for a couple of days in Murray, KY to be with his grand-dad (his grandmother had just passed away), and it was just me and Owen, my three year old, at the game. AND, Joshua's team was playing a few fields over at the same time in their tournament game, which was also a nail biter. What's a mom to do? I was running back and forth like a chicken with its head cut off, dragging Owen with me and cheering like a crazy woman. INTENSE, to say the least! I earned a few more gray hairs that night, for sure.

Basically, it was an extremely close game, resulting in it being tied 6 to 6 in the last inning. This was the first time we hadn't scored several runs in a game because this was the first time we had ever played a team that could stop us in the field. The Blue Jays had some amazing catches in the out field to say the least. Also, our defense played an impeccable game that night. To be honest, it was close to perfect--the best defense I had seen them play yet.

Tied 6-6, we went into extra innings, with the Pirates having the home advantage. That flip for Home probably won that game for us. We got a couple of runs in, making the score 8-6. They then got another run in, making it a one point ballgame. They had some players on base, yet we were able to hold them and win the game. YES! Coach Matt praised the team that night for their defense and warning them that we would see the Blue Jays again. You see, the Blue Jays were now in the losers bracket; they would play the loser between the Rays and the Marlins. However, most likely they would win that game, resulting in them playing again. We would play the winner between the Rays and the Marlins (are you confused yet? I know! But hold tight, even if you don't really get who's playing who. The ending is worth it!).

The Rays ended up winning, so next up would be the Pirates vs. Rays and the Bluejays vs. the Marlins. This game was super important because both the Rays and the Pirates had yet to lose a game. Whoever won this would have a huge advantage. All they would have to do is show up on Friday night for the championship game and win. The loser however, would have to win three games to become the champions.

Now, remember, we are going into this game yet to have lost a game, and we are the only team in the whole Lyndon Recreational League with an undefeated record. Going into a tournament with such a record can sometimes be a disadvantage because whether you mean to or not, you get a bit of an 'air', if you know what I mean.

So here we go. The biggest game of the year. Rays vs. Pirates. From the start, it was as if all was against us. It seemed as if the game was 'off' from the start. Coach Matt was wound up tight. Our boys were wound up tight. As a result, our guys made fielding errors they hadn't made all year. I have to say it was a real let-down. It's harder to stomach a loss, I think, when you know you could have played better.

As we walked to our cars that night, I wondered how our team would react to this loss. We hadn't ever had to deal with losing before. Would it get the best of us? Would they be able to keep it from ruffling them? I knew our team had a lot of talent but could it come back on Friday and do the seemingly impossible feat of winning three tough games? Only time would tell.

Friday rolled around and we (as Coach Matt predicted) faced the Blue Jays again. To make it to the championship game we had to beat the Blue Jays and then immediately play a second game against the Rays. If we were able to muster up a win against the Rays, we would then come back the following morning and play the Rays one more time for the Championship title. All the Rays had to do tonight was waltz in and play the winner of the Pirates and the Blue Jays.

Well, the Blue Jays were out for blood. This turned out to be, again, just as much as a nail biter as the very first tournament game we played against them. Except this time they wanted revenge. BAD. But we had something that night that I think gave us the edge to pull out a win. Remember the infamous line between Julius and Gerry in 'Remember the Titans'?

'Attitude reflects leadership.'

That night's game showcased Coach Matt's love for his boys. He showed up with a sound system for the game that night so that the boys could be announced prior to the game and prior to batting. He had music playing from the sound system before the game and in between innings. At the beginning of the tournament, Coach Matt had told the boys he would get a mohawk if they won the championship. So, all around the dug out he hand hung these posters:

Coach Matt set the tone for the evening by making it fun. Rather than our boys being wound tight, our boys caught the spirit and looked like they were having the time of their lives. The attitude definitely reflected the leadership that night.

Play Ball!

And that our boys did. I daresay both teams gave it their all. It was back and forth, good play after good play. Both teams were 'on'. Both teams looked unstoppable.

But we edged ahead our last time to bat. We were the visitors so we had to hold them. And that we did!

The Pirates were headed to the Championship!

The Rays waltzed out on the field. Cool and crisp, clean and tidy, not having played a game minutes before. Oh, this one was going to be a tough one. Could we do it?

From the start the Rays seemed to have the upper hand. And we just looked, well, tired. Even though we were down a couple of runs in our last inning up to bat (we were visitors again), I just couldn't shake the feeling that this game wasn't over yet.

One out.

Two outs.

Last person up to bat.

Two strikes. Full count.

Ball is pitched. Bat is swung. The bat connects with the ball, with a beautiful cracking sound. The ball is hit out into the field. Bases are rounded...

In a crucial moment with two outs and two strikes, the tide is turned. Just like that. When the inning ends, we are up by two. The Rays seemed stunned and perplexed when they come up to bat. They can't get anything going, and ...

The Pirates won!!!!

Yes! We are headed to the championship that next morning. We must play the Rays one more time and win to be the champions!

That next morning, the smell of victory was in the air. You just sensed it was going to be a good day. You sensed Coach Matt would be heading to the barber after the game.

I wish I could remember every detail to tell you. Every play. I wish I had recorded it right when it happened. It was one of those special moments in your sports career that every boy dreams of. Some get to experience it more than once. Some never get the chance. My eight-year-old boy got to taste and smell the sweetness of a championship victory. It was as if he had just won the Worlds Series (parents, you know what I am talking about!). It was a special moment, indeed! A cherished moment in the life of our family to forever be remembered.

Coach Matt did go and get his mohawk and we had a pool and pizza party immediately following the big win. A fun way to end a fun season.

And next year we get to do it all over again. :)

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