WE DID IT!
After, let's see, about 18 years of involvement in Little League Baseball, and 15 years as a manager, a team I coach has brought home a district title.
District Champions. It has such a nice ring.
On Sunday afternoon my Big League team, that's the 16 - 18 year olds, went to Walkertown and beat them 8-6 to end our season at 14-2. The game had been started the week before and called due to rain in the top of the second inning with us down 2 - 0 and 2 outs in our half of the inning. I will not repeat the details of our season, the build-up to this game, or the reason we were playing a district title game after the end of the Big League World Series. If you haven't done so, you should read the post just before this one. Suffice to say that if Walkertown had won this game, we would have been tied for the season and would have played a "playoff" game immediately afterward.
Mmmmm, 1-game playoff. Familiar and not very comforting territory for Red Sox fans.
The completion did not start at all well. In the original start, we had a man at the plate with no one on base, 2 outs, and a 2-2 count when a huge bolt of lightening hit nearby and the umps cleared the field. It never cleared up and we were sent home after an hour wait.
When we resumed last Sunday, the player at bat was not at this game. So I had to send a poor kid up with 2 outs and 2 strikes who wasn't even in the game the previous time. The home team, Walkertown, took the field, went through all their warm-ups, and then ran right back into their dugout after my batter looked at a called strike 3 on the first pitch of the day. Not a very common occurance I'm sure.
In the bottom of the 2nd inning Walkertown scored 2 more and we were down 4 - 0. We pushed 1 across in the top of the 3rd, but they got it back with a solo home run in the bottom of the 4th. At the beginning of the 5th inning, down 5 - 1, I found myself in a good spot with my lead-off hitter up first. I called my first 5 batters out in front of the dugout and told them I did not want to have to play a second game, that I needed them to get serious right now. I told them not to give in to the ego thing and try to match the guy's home run with one of their own. Just get me some baserunners I said, quit chasing the high shit he was throwing, take the walk if he wouldn't bring it down, and hit line drives if he did. The first man walked, the next 4 got singles. During the 5th man's at-bat, with men on 2nd and 3rd, he asked for time as the pitcher, who had gone to a wind-up, was starting his motion. The umpire apparently thought it was too late to do so and said nothing. But their pitcher stopped mid-motion and stepped back - Balk! 1-run game! My man then ripped a single to tie it, and the next man added a 5th straight hit just for good measure.
Now tied with 2 on, their guy hit our next batter to load 'em up, and that was it for him. We proceeded to score 3 more off of his relief on an error, a walk and an RBI groundout.
They scored 1 more in the bottom of that 5th inning, and I started warming up my closer. But my starter made it through the 6th with no more damage and I was able to bring in my closer in the end to face their 2, 3, and 4 hitters. He struck out the 1st, got the next one to ground out right back to himself, and struck out the last one for an emphatic victory. Playoff game my ass!
I said at the beginning that "a team I coached" had won a championship, not that I had. That's really how I feel. I do keep referring to it as "my" first title, but these guys did this themselves. All I did was make sure that they were having fun, at least as much as possible. And it's interesting how many parents have mentioned to me that this was the 1st time their son had fun playing for a team in several years, since they started high school in most cases. I guess these high school coaches are so absorbed in their image and their win-loss record that they push the kids past the point of it being any fun at all. They say they are trying to give the kid a chance to "make it" but seriously, almost none, if any at all, of these kids will even play college ball, forget pro ball. It's a game. They love the game already or they wouldn't be there. Don't take that love away from them. If they have the tools, they'll get their shot. Baseball has the most all-encompassing system of finding talent that exists. I can't tell you how many scouts I've met myself at various USSSA or showcase events, just checking out some kid they heard something about and looking over everyone else while they're there. So we just made sure they were having a good time, instead of making them feel like they were at boot camp or something. Don't get me wrong, we expected 100% effort, and let them know when we felt like we weren't getting it. And we worked them at practice, hard. But then we let them be loose and we trusted them to do their sprints and such themselves, instead of standing there counting them out ourselves. I think they really responded well to that trust and to our recognition of the fact that they were here to play a game, not to further a career.
I am extremely proud of them, and also proud of whatever small part I was able to play in bringing them together as a team.
On Monday, following the big game, my wife was admitted to the hospital once again. That will be covered in my next post. I've been here with her ever since, and have not felt particularily celebratory, so that's why I'm just now getting this posted. However, on Thursday I was able to leave her long enough to go to our field and bask in our success for a while. We gathered the team and had a Home-Run Derby, which was won by one of the weaker hitters on our team, a kid we often DH'ed for. That was a wonderful surprise. Then we unfurled our championship banner, handed out our pins, took some pictures and marched over to the flag poles in the commons area. There we took down the '03 banner, which was the last time any team from our league had won a district title, and raised up our new trophy flag. It was incredibly satisfying.
I am obligated to point out that winning a Big League title is easier than winning a district title at the younger ages, simply because there is less competition. Only 4 other leagues in our district fielded a team this year, compared to the 21 teams that were entered in the 12 year-old tournament this year. I have coached a runner-up team twice in that age group and finished third once.
However, even though those runner-up efforts may have been more difficult achievements in the strictest sense, they do not compare with seeing that flag flying as I turn into the complex. Finally, the job was finished instead of just getting close.
Fourteen wins, three of them against arch-rival Kernersville, only two losses, and a district championship. This was indeed a special season and I will not forget it, nor will I forget this special group of young men who made it happen.