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Storybook endings aren’t all contrived and aren’t all schmaltzy

June 7, 2012

In Little League baseball, at the end of the spring season, there’s a tournament in our park. It’s double-elimination–lose twice and the season is over. It hasn’t been the best season for our team this year. Somehow, we’ve managed to be less than the sum of our parts. If one part of our game was working, another wasn’t. And if we played great defense, we’d miss an inning and wind up losing.

We blew in eleven-run lead (in a game was lost), win a game 33-7, and lost a game 19-2. There have been a lot more losses than wins, and the season has worn an everyone, players and coaches alike (I’m coaching this year).

In our first game of the tournament, I got a gut feeling we’d put everything together and beat the number-one seed in the park, a very good team. We kept them close early, but then after a couple misplays, the roof fell in, and we lost, 15-1.

So today, it was the cliched win-or-go-home game. Against the second-best team in the park (which remarkably lost their first game). Another tall order. My son pitched the best game of his Little League career today, but ran out of pitches with one out in the fifth inning (there’s a pitch count in Little League).

After that, we opened up a 9-5 lead after a few walks, then a series a solid hits with a few misplays thrown in. We needed a shutdown inning.

And promptly gave up four runs.

Then in the bottom of the inning, we scored 0ne to go ahead, 10-9.

“There outs. That’s all we need, is three outs, guys.”

Victory seemed within reach. And we snatched defeat from its jaws, giving up five runs in the top of the last inning. 14-10. Not a bad deficit in football. Five runs in one inning is a tall order in baseball.

As I said, it’s been a tough season on everyone. The manager, I believe, thinks he let the kids down. But managers and coaches can’t hit, field, or run the bases. We don’t overthrow the cutoff, and we don’t pop-up on a pitch outside the strike zone on a 3-0 count.

But losing gets old. It takes the fun out of the game. And when you play baseball and you play twice a week and practice twice a week, it hovers like a fog. You can’t touch it or feel it, but it hangs over everything you do, and it distorts your view.

So we went to the bottom of the last inning, trailing by four. Got a few baserunners, and dodged a few bullets. Almost lost an out when their center fielder made a great catch on a sinking line drive none or our baserunners thought he would catch. The center field has chances at double plays at first and second, but our baserunner at second beat the ball to the bag by what seemed like a millisecond.

Bases loaded. One out. We’d scored twice to make the score 14-12.

We play on a regulation-sized field. Ninety feet between the bases. Sixty feet, six inches from the pitching rubber to the plate. A big outfield. We have no team speed. A grounder to the infield is probably a double play. A hit might tie the score. A strike out takes us down to our last out.

The batter, the manager’s sun, swings mightily at a high fastball and hits the ball a mile in the air. The runner at first takes off like a bat out of hell. If someone catches it, there’s no way he gets back in time to first–he’ll be doubled off and the game and the season end, just like that.

Except this ball keeps going. The outfielders turn and run hard to the fence. They aren’t going to catch it. Two runs will probably score.

Then the ball lands. There’s a chain link fence and it’s hard to tell whether the ball lands in front of or behind the fence, but the outfielders stop.

Home run. The manager’s kid has hit his third home run. And it occurs to me that it’s a grand slam. And then occurs to me that we trail by two.

And then it occurs to me that a season of frustration and angst has just been made right for a guy who put a ton of time and effort into managing because his son just hit a walk-off grand slam in a post-season game.

And the griping and frustration and the headshaking and all that vanishes, like fog subjected to a bright, overwhelming sun.

If I wrote this as fiction, you’d shake your head at it. Contrived, it would be. Paint by the numbers. Too predictable. Except when you’re sitting in the dugout watching the other guys score five runs to put the last nail in your coffin, you don’t consider a walk-off grand slam predictable, or even likely.

In our next game, we might get stomped, but for one day, everything is right. Sometimes reality is perfectly structured with wonderful backstories that come together as if you wrote it that way.

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