Last year my old high school had a very strong varsity baseball team. They were loaded with a homegrown bunch of Division I quality pitchers who could take them all the way.
But just before the play offs began two of them got caught trying to buy liquor with fake IDs.
This wasn’t the first time these two pampered pups had messed up. The coach spent a lot of time trying to keep them from undoing their season all year.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
The boys were kicked off the team. And the school didn’t get past the regional championships. Not when your relievers are all sophomores.
One of boys kicked off was their top pitcher. A senior, he graduated, never to play for the school again.
The other, a junior, was out of the play offs, but he was allowed to come back on the team in 2007. I was surprised by that. I really thought he should have been gone for good. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been his own worst enemy before.
This year the team had an even better season than last year. With another batch of Division I quality pitchers, all over six five and each one throwing some serious smoke. Or nasty junk.
Today they made it to the championship game at a really nice minor league ballfield about 45 miles away. Tonight I was listening to the play by play on the internet radio and the announcer said the championship was theirs to lose. They were ranked high all season. By the time they made the Elite 8 they were ranked No. 1.
After beating their semi-final opponent 7 to 2 this morning, the team looked invincible, despite leaving the bases loaded three times, but maybe that was a good thing. They won, didn’t they?
Their pitcher for the semi-final was also the starting quarterback on the football team. He pitched all seven innings, as cool on the mound as he was on the football field.
Tonight, in a move that completely took me off guard, the starting pitcher was the kid who came back after being kicked off the team last year.
Usually you save your best for last. So I was puzzled why he was starting such an important game, since clearly he had some maturity and integrity issues. Not to mention a possible alcohol problem. Why didn’t the coach have him start the semi- final instead? Keep in mind this isn't a rube coach. He's already won one baseball state championship since coming to the school. And he's already in the state high school FOOTBALL hall of fame from his time at another high school.
But I knew we were in trouble when the first seven pitches of the game were all balls. Maybe the ump was calling them a little tight, but you have to adjust.
However, even after the walks, he was still pitching a no hitter through the third inning. And his teammates got him a run so they were ahead 1 to 0. They could have had more runs if one of their players hadn't lost his brains and left second base early on a sacrifice fly.
Finally his wildness caught up with him. He threw a pitch that went behind a batter. Then he hit someone. He walked two guys and made TWO fielding errors. First he bobbled a bunt to load the bases. Then he made a stupid pick off throw to third that went into the bullpen and suddenly the score was 3 to 1. Somehow he was still pitching a no hitter.
What was he smoking? Bobbling an easy pick up could be anything from nerves to booze to drugs. Either way his hand-eye coordination was messed up. And trying a pick off with the bases loaded meant he'd completely lost his ability to make decisions. That was an insane move. The announcers were flabbergasted. My first thought was, is he trying to throw the game for some reason? That's how bad it was.
Finally the coach made a pitching change. But they didn’t get out of the inning until the score was 5 to 1. All unearned.
I turned off the game. I heard that they were still behind 5-1 in the fifth. Not insurmountable, but when your best pitcher crumples in the championship game, it’s hard to recover.
What’s interesting is that I began to reflect on how anxious this pitcher was from the start. Totally unglued from the first pitch, after having a great season. Then I wondered if the anxiety he experienced is what led him to do the stupid thing that got him kicked off the team last year -- right before the play offs. Nothing on purpose mind you. Just one of those stressed out teenaged moments where the switch to make good choices gets turned off.
Living with the punishment of getting kicked off the team for trying to buy alcohol was probably easier than dealing with the anxiety that mounts when you're the one everybody's counting on in a big game.
Mostly, I just wish the coach had asked me to do his pitching rotation. I’m here. I’m available.
So much of sports is won or lost between your ears. What is that little voice saying in your head? Winner? Or loser? The little voice in my headhas been saying “Gimp”for several years now.
Meanwhile this kid has gone and screwed up the biggest game of his life. That’s an echo that will haunt him forever. Assuming he ever recovers.
POST MORTEM: I woke up this morning and realized that the relief pitcher who came in to stop the bleeding is the first cousin of the boy who fell apart. And a straight arrow compared to his troubled relative. I think their mothers are sisters. Won't rehashing this game make for nice conversation over the years?