Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Little Things

Since I plan on spending the better part of my Sunday sitting on the couch and watching Spring Training games, I figured today would be a good day to talk some baseball.

I've talked about my old playing days before on the blog, but just to catch you all up, here’s the in-a-nutshell version of the tale:

I played baseball all my life, and was lucky enough to play in college. After a (hilarious) string of (horrifying) injuries, I stopped. For good. But then I started coaching. And that was great. But then Life got in the way, and I needed to find a "real" job. So now I watch baseball on TV.

There. That should just about do it.

Anyway, I’ve always been struck by how much a person can learn from playing sports, and in my opinion at least, particularly from baseball. Baseball’s a funny game, for a lot of reasons. But mostly because it’s the most individual team sport in existence, and when it comes down to it, it’s one-on-one.

Only, it isn’t, really.

While it may seem like there’s just a pitcher versus a hitter out there, in the heat of whatever, and a bunch of supporting cast members standing around waiting for something to happen, really everything that happens is dependent upon everyone else on the field.

And in the dugout, actually. And on things that were discussed and practiced days before.

You’ve all heard the analogy that baseball is like a chess match, and while that can be kind of true, I don’t think that’s exactly the case.

Pitch sequences and pitch selections are talked about, studied, and reviewed by pitchers, catchers, coaches, and middle infielders before every game. Signs—between the pitcher and catcher and between the catcher and the infielders and outfielders, and between the third base coach and the hitters and base runners—are changed, sometimes, before every inning.

Teams know how they’re going to pitch to certain hitters, and all hitters read a scouting report on whichever pitcher they may be facing before they enter the batter’s box.

What I’m trying to get at is, there’s more preparation that goes into a baseball game than most people might think.

Even on lower levels--like high school and college--teams spend an inordinate amount of time going over things like suicide squeeze plays, and run-down coverages, and triple cut-offs on a ball hit deep into the right-center field gap.

And, most likely, you'll use these things only a handful of times over the course of an entire season.

But you practice them anyway. And you prepare, usually for the worst and/or most extraordinary situation, just in case it pops up during a game. So, if and when it does eventually happen, it won't be new and scary and it won't cost your team the game.

See? Life lesson. Right there.

But that's kind of an indirect type of lesson, and one that, while important, may not pop up in your day to day affairs. I didn't even think of it as a lesson until I started typing this.

I initially planned on getting into another story right off the bat here, but my mind wandered and I went with it.

So. That other story.

I was a freshman in high school, and I was starting on the Varsity team as a catcher. I was young for my grade, and I actually started the school year as a 12-year-old, and was 13 when the season officially began.

That league, at that time, allowed players up to 20-years-old to play, and I did actually face a pitcher that age. back. Twice.

Anyway, I don't want to say that I was intimidated by playing in that league, because I honestly wasn't. If there was ever a place in my life where I felt confident, it was on a baseball field. Still, there were definitely some butterflies at the start of the season.

And, actually, in my first game with the team, I went 4-for-4 hitting in the 8-hole. It's one of very (very) few games that I actually remember, because it was one of those, "I need to prove this to other people and to myself" deals that baseball tends to throw at you.

But back to the matter at hand.

We were about five or six games into the season, and the team accepted me almost immediately. I say, almost, because as I mentioned, I was so young, and there were older guys who wanted my spot.

My cousin, Anthony, and I were the same age (he's actually a month younger than me), and we both made the team and we both started. I hit eighth, and he hit ninth. It's something that could have rubbed a whole lot of guys the wrong way, but I like to think that because we were very respectful of the other players, and we kept quiet, we hustled, and we played hard, we won them over.

And that's likely the case.

But, we were also fortunate to have good teammates. No matter how hard a guy plays, it's always tough to accept someone younger taking your job. Still, several times over the course of the year, the veterans stood up for us--even the guys whose jobs we took. On one occasion in particular, after I was taken out at home plate by a player who came in with his cleats up (a big no-no, and very dangerous), our center fielder and starting pitcher confronted the player after the game.

There's that teamwork aspect I was talking about.

Sorry. I keep getting sidetracked.

So, okay. We're 5 or 6 games into the season, and we're getting ready to play our rival school--a team with whom there's been some bad blood in years past. Mot significantly, our team captain shares the same last name with the rival team's star player. A player who's so good, in fact, that he has just accepted a full scholarship to a major Division One college.

These two players--our team captain and their star--are the exact same age, they play the same position, short stop, and they have the same last name. They've literally played against each other ever since they started playing organized baseball, and our team captain had always lost out on all star teams to this other guy.

And that included being beaten by this rival school the previous season.

So, in his senior year, our captain obviously wanted to beat this rival school. Badly. And that was drilled into us every day leading up to the game. We were going to win the game for him. We would beat them. We would.

Well, the game starts and we proceed to get our teeth kicked in for the first four innings. (In high school baseball, you only play seven innings, by the way.)

But in the fifth, we score a run. We score a few more (I don't remember the score, but it doesn't matter) in the sixth, and we go into the seventh and final inning trailing by (I think it was) three runs. We get two outs pretty quickly, but then--as they tend to do in baseball--things start happening.

Weird things. A four-pitch walk by a pitcher who hadn't allowed a base runner since coming in the previous inning. A seeing-eye single up the middle.

Our captain's turn to hit comes around.

It's his moment, and he singles in a run. Something's happening. Something good. We're down by two with runners on first and third.

It's my cousin's turn to hit. He swings and hits a chopper to second base. Easy play. Game over. It should be, anyway. But baseball doesn't like easy plays, and so the second baseman bobbles the ball. He doesn't make a throw. Everyone is safe, and we have another run in.

We're down by one, and there are runners on first and second. Our captain is on second, standing feet away from his rival at short stop.

As I walk to the plate, I look out towards second base. I see our captain clap. He clenches his fist and looks me dead in the eye. "You can do this," he's saying, without saying a word.

I step into the box, that wonderful pit in my stomach gnawing, reminding me that, sure, this is only a game, but man, it's...important. At that moment, it's the most important thing. It's the only thing.

I hear a voice call "time," and that voice is followed by the opposing team's coach, jogging out towards the pitcher's mound. He's going to make a change, I think to myself. I wonder who he'll bring in. I watch as the coach extends his arm, and points.

To short stop. To Mr. Division One. The coach had seen enough. He wanted this game to end. Now.

I didn't even know he pitched. But, boy, does he throw hard from his position.

I step out of the box, finally, and take a couple of steps back towards our bench. I watch this lanky, perfect baseball player wind up and throw a pitch towards home plate. It's hard, sure, and it even makes a noise as it crosses in front of me.

But it doesn't look un-hittable.

But it's hard to pick up movement when you're standing even just a few feet outside the batter's box, and looks can be deceiving. Maybe he wasn't throwing 90-miles-per-hour (which he definitely could). Maybe he just wanted to get the ball over and put this little freshman away quickly.

He completes his warm-ups and I step back into the box. Again, I look out toward second base, and our captain makes eye contact with me. He knows I can hit this guy.

The prospect winds up, and throws.

I see the ball, big and white and red. It's letter-high, and I know I can do something with it. I swing, much too hard for someone my size. The ball...moves. A lot. Midway through my swing, the ball disappears. It...disintegrates towards the dirt. I hear the pop of the catcher's mitt before I finish my swing.

Strike one.

But the ball was right there, I think, as I step out of the box. It looked so good. And vanished.

I'd played Little League baseball the year before. What did I know about moving fastballs?

They had always been straight. Not anymore.

I step back into the box and swing through another perfect-looking pitch. Strike two.

I step out again and take a deep breath. We have to win this game. We have to. Our captain. We have to. He's been a teacher, a leader, and a friend. He's helped me out, he's had my back. We have to win this game for him.

The next pitch looks just like the first two. It's going to vanish, down, I think, and I adjust my swing. I make contact. I hit the ball on the nose. It's hit hard; a low line drive towards second base. Towards the guy that just booted the last play. The last, easy play.

This would not be an easy play. This would not be a can of corn.

But baseball isn't interested in poetic justice.

The second baseman fields the liner cleanly, and flips the ball over to first base. Game over. This time, for real.

Like I said, I don't remember many games from when I played--I remember the last pitch of two very exciting championship games, played in front of many, many people. I remember the game in college in which I was hit in the face by a pitch, and my jaw broke in two places. I remember my last-ever at-bat. I struck out on a bad breaking ball.

And I remember the feeling in my stomach when that second baseman made the play on that low line drive.

I couldn't bring myself to look up at second base, where our captain was slowly walking back towards our bench. I'd let him down. He believed in me, this 13 year old against this college prospect. And I couldn't get him this win. He'd lost, again, to his rival. This would be the last time they'd play each other.

Not much was said after the game. Our coach was proud of the way we came back, and the way we handled ourselves. He told us that, if someone had told him, before the game, that I would be up with the winning run on base with two outs in the last inning, he would have said yes to it. He would have taken those odds.

A nice vote of confidence, sure. But, at that point, it didn't register.

I'd blown it.

I went home and was quiet all night. In the morning, I didn't want to go to school. I couldn't face my team. I'd let everyone down.

But I went, because I had to.

Walking down the hall, first thing in the morning, the very first person I see? Our captain. I didn't want to look at him. I couldn't. As he got closer, I looked up.

"Hey, Alex," he said. He gave me a fist-bump. "What's going on?" he asked, with a smile. Like nothing had happened.

The relief. It was...I don't know. I can't explain it.

Maybe it doesn't make sense why that little encounter with an old teammate that I haven't seen in 15 years was such an important lesson. But I never forgot that moment.

When I took over as captain a couple of years later, I made sure to treat all of the younger players like I was treated. That little moment--that tiny, little thing of a moment--helped to shape the way I played the game. And the way I treated--and still treat--people, in real life.

Sometimes, it's the little things.

-- -- -- --

Sorry I went on like that. Thanks for listening. Writing it was very cool.


Scott said...

What's an 8-hole?

AJG said...

That means that I was hitting 8th in the batting order.

I later got dropped to 9, and then before the year was over, I was hitting 8th again.

I had a pretty horrible year at the plate, as evidenced by my bottom of the batting order slots. I think I hit somewhere around .200 as a Freshman.

Scott said...

Ahh. Much better than I ever was.

Scott said...

I saw this and thought it might be up your alley.

AJG said...

That's pretty awesome--thanks, Scott!