The last baseball game of the year was the best game I’ve ever been personally involved in. Little League, for 15-year-olds, features seven-inning games. During the regular year, you play seven innings or two-and-a-half hours. Sometimes, if the pitching is bad and the fielders aren’t on their game, you only get to five or six innings in that time.
During post-season play, however, you play until the game’s over, regardless of time. The advantage is that the games matter a lot and a kid who can’t find the strike zone isn’t going to last too long.
The last game of the year for us went eleven innings in less than three hours. A Major League game of that length would easily surpass four hours, once you consider all the pitching changes and commercial breaks.
The final score was 3-2. Our team scored runs in the sixth and seventh innings for force the extra innings. But the game was tight all the way. The team we played seemed to be on the verge of breaking the game open on several occasions, only to have the door shut on them. Then when the outs become precious and few, we scored just enough to extend the game.
And so it went through the eighth, ninth, and tenth innings. These were fifteen-year-old boys, and though there were periodic mistakes made, no one was a goat. In a lot of cases, grown men can’t say the same.
In the bottom of the eleventh, our fielding was sloppy and there were runners on first and third with less than two outs. We called the outfielders in–anything hit deep would end the game. And then we got the second out. And then the batter hit a pop-up to the third baseman.
Our third baseman that night might not have been the best ballplayer on the team–he went into a hitting slump through much of the year. But he had the biggest presence. He was a coach on the field and the other players listened to him. He had the knack, finding the exact blend of chiding and encouragement to deliver discomfort when it was needed, but never too much. He often came to our games from football practice.
He was a ball player.
He settled under the ball about three steps onto the infield grass and we were ready for the twelfth inning. Except something different happened. The ball didn’t hit right on his glove and it evaded his grasp. With two outs, the runners were moving, and the winning run scored at almost the same time the ball hit the ground.
He remained on the field on his knees as the other team celebrated–and celebrate they should, the won a hard-fought, intense game. And this one guy–the guy who best knew the cost of his misplay–knelt alone on the field, fully understanding the cost of his error.
We said all the right things–me, the manager, a dad who helped us, even the opposing manager. “We wouldn’t have been in the position we were in if you hadn’t played well all year.” “That play doesn’t undo all the good you did all season long.” “You’re a good ball player, don’t let that stay with you.”
The first statement was mine and as I said it, I knew it was necessary and I knew it was pointless. He understood what happened, and given his understanding of the game, he’d understand it’s cost.
It would have been a far better game the other night if we’d won, rather than losing. But the story of the loser is often the better, more interesting story. There’s no bigger challenge internally than coming to terms with losing when you should have won.
Society loves a winner. As writers, we should consider the losers’ stories.