The Cyclones Last Game

Photo courtesy of Mike Hudgens Photography

“There’s an excitement in the air and a crisp autumn chill in the wind that can mean one thing: It’s time for playoff baseball in the Ozarks,” Rance said.

Rance’s monologue on the first day of the GRBL postseason reminded me of Vin Scully’s World Series speeches from decades past. The first round of the Grip ‘N’ Rip playoffs started at 3 with the High Rollers facing the Yogis, followed by the Shockers and Naturals in the nightcap. For the third time this season, the Cyclones were scheduled to play the Rangers. The game held no real meaning toward league standings, which is why Rance had some difficulty figuring out what to call the game.

“It’s a game that’s been called ‘the consolation,’ jokingly called, ‘the concession.’ It’s more likely to be part blood bath and part three-ring circus. The earth will tremble and the seas will rise as the Rangers meet the Cyclones in a game twice wiped off the map by torrential rain. Pride is the deadliest of all sins and pride is what’s at stake for these two teams — the Cyclones, 2 – 4, the Rangers, 3 – 3. An underlying sense of being short-changed looms over these two clubs in a one-off game with potential to go any number of direction. League organizers have high hopes that a sense of community, fair play, and a spirit of the game will prevail today in this showdown at high noon.”

It could have been called the grit game, as the Rangers had no substitutes or benchwarmers, and players changed positions as arms necessitated. Manager Andy Galle, who once pitched for the Gateway Grizzlies, was the starting catcher, and made multiple great plays at second base, including gobbling my grounder up the middle toward the end of the game.  

It could have been called the game where the Cyclones’ bats went absolutely crazy. In only his second at bat of the season, Coach Nasby collected his first hit and RBI. RJ tripled with the bases-loaded to right field, Scott Weis tripled to left field, and pretty much everyone in the lineup hit rope shots — Jared and Brandon and Nick and GRBL hit-leader Zach Yarberry.

In the seventh inning, I only saw one pitch in my first at bat — my best hit of the season, a solid line drive over the third baseman and into the left field corner, deep enough to guarantee that I could make it to first base safely. I’ll be watching that hit over and over through the dreary off-season days and months. (The hit is at the 2:15:30 mark on the 10/13 video of the GRBL live stream.)

It could have been called the chaos game. For the final three innings, the Cyclones lined up in the third base coach’s box and sprinted to their desired defensive positions. A “line-up crash derby,” Rance called it. My teammates were gracious in not making me actually run fast to reach left field. I got my two innings in defensively, with significant help from center fielder Tyler on the singular ball hit my direction — a massive blast by King Owens high off the Green Monster-like wall of U.S. Baseball Park. And all pitchers combined for a shutout victory — hat tips to Skylar and Jake and Brandon and Nick and Scott.

But it should be called the Scott Weis game. Weis, a teacher and softball coach in Republic, played every position, starting in right field and working his way backward numerically to pitcher. Because we only played 8 innings, Weis caught for the first two outs of the last inning, then shed the gear, walked to the mound, and finished the game with a strike out.

Rance interviewed “the player of the game, the 41-year old human Swiss army knife.”

“I didn’t call it breaking the league rules, I called it making league history…for the love of the game,” Scott said. “It couldn’t have been any better…this league is keeping me young. We’ve got a rare opportunity, especially people my age, to go out and play a kid’s game and have fun doing so.”

In the post-game meeting, Coach Nasby celebrated us and thanked us for playing this season. The Cyclones finished with a three-game winning streak. Weis earned the game ball, but before we closed the season, Nasby gave me a gift — an ice cold Dr Pepper.

The Gritty-Crazy-Chaotic-Scott-Weis-Consolation-Concessions game.

The actual GRBL postseason games that followed lived up to the hype. They were both close games coming down to key, late-inning at bats. The High Rollers edged out the Yogis 6 – 4, and the Shockers completed a come-from-behind walk-off win in the bottom of the 9th, defeating the hard-luck Naturals 4 – 3.

Mark is heading to the championship game next Sunday, playing for the Howard Bell Trophy.

The third place game is at 1 and the championship game is at 5:30 with a little league home run derby sandwiched in between.

Hope to see you there.

The Postseason

On March 7, Josh and I made our postseason predictions through the league championship games. Why we didn’t pick a World Series winner, I don’t know.

I chose the Yankees and Mariners in the AL and the Braves and Pirates in the NL. Josh picked Tampa Bay and the Angels, the Cubs and the Rockies.

When your favorite team is playing in the postseason, emotions change with every pitch. I remember well the sleep-deprivation I “suffered” during the Royals runs in 2014 and 2015. It was a blast, and that was just from a fan’s perspective.

On Sunday, even after an 0 – 4 start, the Cyclones had a chance to qualify for the postseason. We had to win and the Yogis had to win and run differential mattered and I’m fairly certain the number of people wearing high socks also factored into the equation.

And then the rains came.

For the second time, the Cyclones and Rangers were rained out. The season standings were declared official so the playoffs could begin on October 13 with Championship Weekend and the Kids Home Run Derby on October 20.

“Anyway, a good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.”

In Bull Durham, Nuke LaLoosh first said these words of profound baseball wisdom.

From my experience this season, it could be said this way, “Sometimes you hit, sometimes you get hit, sometimes you strain a calf muscle.”

This Sunday, October 13, at high noon, for the third and final time, the Cyclones will attempt to play the Rangers. It’s the Consolation Game before the first round of the playoffs where Mark’s High Rollers will play the Yogis. When I first read the email, I thought it said “concession” instead of “consolation” and started hoping for free Dr Pepper.

It will be my last game this season, which means I better prepare a seat by the window so I can wait until spring.**

As for the MLB playoffs, with the Royals out of the picture, I’m cheering for extra innings, series that come down to the final game, and anyone but the Yankees to win.

** “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” —Rogers Hornsby

The Dauntless Dozen

Teams in the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League consist of 14 players. Relief pitchers and pinch runners and back-up catchers are all necessary, especially so during the hottest September in Springfield history. Seventeen days with high temperatures in the 90s. Equal parts incredible and ridiculous. Due to attrition and injury, the CY Sports Cyclones were down a couple players in a must-win game to keep playoff hopes alive. On Kids Day at the Park, I was thoroughly entertained listening to younger voices join Rance in the broadcast booth for the first two games as well as announce and accompany players during the starting line-ups of my game. I laced up my high-top P.F. Flyers, knowing that no shoes were going to make me run faster, and took my responsibility as a catch-partner for Jared’s son and in-between-inning fist-bumper and high-fiver seriously.

Coach Ryan Wolfe was up to the challenge of getting the most out of this great group, this determined, dauntless dozen. Under the lights, the “that what speed do” lineup stole bases and played fantastic defense.

Skylar – Our starting pitcher threw four strong, shutout innings to start the game, plus snagged a comebacker barehanded. Later in the game, he also got a hit, stolen base, and scored a run as back-up right fielder.

Jared — Started the game with a hit and scored the first run. A couple walks, a couple steals, and a couple great plays in center.

Tyler – Quick, sure-handed second baseman drove in a run and went first to third on a passed ball. Too bad he wasn’t wearing PF Flyers; he could’ve scored from first.

RJ – Our starting catcher who drove in the first run and made a great play at third to end the game.

Layn – Besides making a couple great plays at short and stealing a base after a walk, his gap-splitting, rocket-shot, stand up triple was a blast to watch.  

Rob – Our back-up catcher with Dancing Queen for a walk-up song is all heart and hustle. He made it to first on a dropped third strike, which led to our final run. Thankfully, he found his missing bat for next week’s game. I’m expecting big things at the plate from him.

Nick – The lefty slugger sacrificed a bat for a single and walked, as well as secured first base for the last few innings.   

Brandon – His two-hit game was accompanied by great stretches at first base alongside comic relief in the dugout.  

Jake – Pitched three shutout innings and pinch ran, as well as proffered vocal support, shouting every conceivable baseball mantra along with several I’m certain were completely fabricated on the spot. He must be learning from Rob.

Zach – Along with a hit and two solid plays at third, he pitched two innings and made a great defensive play as pitcher in the bottom of the 9th.

Scott – In the bottom of the third, as skies were graying and sun was setting and lights were coming on, he made a great play on a sinking line drive.

Loren – Drew a walk and got an RBI while manning left field on quads and hamstrings less than 100%.

The Cyclones started 0 – 4 and still have a chance to make it to the playoffs. With a victory in extra innings last week and a 4 – 1 win this week, this 2 – 4 team is just now finding its groove. We were the first game of the regular season and will be the last game as well, facing the Rangers under the lights.

Five years ago, the Royals played in one of the best postseason games ever, coming from behind to beat the Oakland A’s 9 – 8 in 12 innings. I’m convinced it’s the best game I’ve ever seen. I’ve even written a poem about it (scroll down if you’re interested).

Here’s hoping that the Cyclones can capture a little of that magic and keep playing ball for a few more weeks.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

KC at the Bat

More than a tip of the hat to Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” almost every stanza ends with the same rhyming words as the original in this Royals-centric re-telling of the 2014 AL Wild Card game.

The fountains looked quite brilliant at the stadium that day:

The city was a-buzz with playoff baseball soon to play;

And then the anthem filled the air, flyover did the same,

A raucous roar arose from all the patrons of the game.

A leadoff hit against Big Game, no nerves were put to rest,

When with two outs Moss touched them all, hope sunk throughout my breast.

But Butler, human hit machine, he got a whack at that,

And cut the deficit to one, his first playoff at bat.

“Thank God the game is nine innings,” texted my friend Blake,

In contrast to the first, the second inning was a cake;

No runs the A’s scored in the third, I paced and then I sat,

And flipped around my rally cap to watch the Royals bat.

And Moose let loose a single, to the wonderment of all

Esky bunted him to second, not playing Moneyball

And with two outs, thank Cain and Hoz, a miracle occurred,

The Royals took the lead before Jon Lester got the third.

Three up, three down, Shields shut the door, the crowd began to yell

This just might be the Royals year, my hope began to swell;

No hits, no runs, the boys in blue appeared a little flat

As Lester’s wicked curveball seemed to dance around each bat.

The fifth was quick, we’re rolling now, Shields put them in their place

Though Lester matched him — one, two, three — a smile lit cross my face

The game is now official length, I grabbed my rally hat

No rain forecast, onto the sixth, the A’s now up to bat.

A single followed by a walk and Big Game left the dirt

Yost motioned for Ventura, I began to eat my shirt.

The air was tense, Moss at the plate, he loaded in his hip,

A mighty swing, a Ruth-like blast, a sigh escaped my lip.

The A’s from Oakland tallied five, a melancholy air

Fell hard upon the stadium and Lester kept it there.

The seventh passed without a score, the outs unheeded sped

“Thirty years for this?” I thought. “Let’s go Royals!” someone said.

Wade Davis came into the game, shouts from the A’s did roar

But only seven pitches threw, the Royals still trailed four.

An Esky hit, a stolen base, the crowd began to stand

Lorenzo Cain soon brought him home, Aoki raised his hand.

Then Hosmer walked and Billy hit, and Gore his speed sure shone,

We felt hope rising deep within, we bade the game go on;

And Gordon stepped up to the plate, a pitch quite untamed flew

The deficit — one meager run! — my ulcers numbered two.

Thousands bellowed passionately, and cheered their KC squad

The ninth is dark and terror filled, and Holland left us awed.

Josh Willingham pinch hit for Moose, we saw his muscles strain

A luck-filled fly into right field, hope on the rise again.

Then Dyson took the place of Josh, his feet quite blessed with speed

A bunt and then a stolen base, and dancing at his deed.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,

And now the air is shattered by the force of Nori’s blow.

The game is tied — a miracle! — free baseball comes tonight

Two innings passed without a score, the twelfth would end the plight.

The A’s struck first and took the lead, and with it took my breath

Three outs remain, then Cain grounds out, what felt like baseball death.

Yet Hosmer tripled to left field and split the defense gap

And tied the game on Christian’s hit, these Royals full of scrap.

Then Salvy stepped up to the dish, and two strikes in the hole

Something crooked his way came, he pulled it toward the pole.

He ran to first, his arms held high, his face was shining bright

Colón then scored, this comeback team, who never gave up sight.

For now the men are laughing, and now the children shout

There is great joy across KC, we knocked the A’s right out.

Book-Friends

One of the best feelings in this world is when you meet someone and you’re sharing stories, feeling each other out like boxers at the beginning of a match. Then something clicks and there’s that aha moment, the cathartic release of, “You too?! I’m not alone!” These kinds of conversations can take place anywhere. Playing board games, eating lunch at Jason’s Deli after church, in a small room and comfortable chair waiting three hours while your car gets yet more work done. A lifelong friendship begins in that serendipitous moment of connection, where we feel a little less lonely on this big, beautiful ball of dirt.

Some of my best friends are books.

From the capers of Calvin & Hobbes and the absurd adventures of Winterdance to the wonder of Harry Potter and the wisdom of scripture, I find myself comforted and encouraged by the written word. The creaks and swishes and crinkles pages make when you turn them. I have carefully cared for George Brett’s Born to Hit and Pete Rose’s Winning Baseball since I first read them as an elementary student. They still hold sacred space on the bookshelf at home and are joined by a few hundred other book-friends whose stories have captured my imagination and encouraged me to take risks, never give up, and trust that Love is the strongest power in the universe.

Byron writes epic book reviews on his blog for Hearts & Minds Books. He has reviewed some of my books over the years and I am always humbled and honored by his words, his insight, and his help in growing as a writer and reader and person who wants to mature in my faith in these crazy days. Thanks to books he’s recommended, I’ve had countless conversations with friends and storytellers, writing notes in the margins, holding on to quotes as precious gems, occasionally trying to track down an author and send them an email thanking them for their words and work.

This post is a tip of the hat to Byron’s amazing work in Pennsylvania at the best bookstore in the country, introducing you to a few of my book-friends that have walked with me over the past couple of years.

The Echo Within by Robert Benson. Byron sent me this book as a surprise and I loved it. I wrote to Benson and thanked him for his words only to receive a postcard in return saying I could call him at my convenience. A couple weeks later, Benson came to KC as part of his book tour and took me to dinner at an Italian restaurant. “This world is desperate for good sentences, for good stories, and for those who are willing to do the hard work necessary to bring them to life.” When Benson endorsed my first novel Dreamfield, I couldn’t stop smiling for a week.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This book taught me how to fight Resistance, the true enemy of all creative work. At the very end of the book Pressfield wrote, “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I listened to this book in my van. I don’t remember where I was going, but when I heard this phrase, I pulled the van over in a parking lot and wrote it down word by word, punctuated as I heard her read it, because it so caught me off-guard. “Baseball can give us back ourselves…Baseball, if we love it, gives us back our place in the crowd. It restores us…Baseball, like life, throbs with hope, or it wouldn’t exist.”

Together is Better by Simon Sinek. A short, illustrated book of intense inspiration. One day, I’d like to write a book like this. “A vision is like a dream — it will disappear unless we do something with it. Do something big or do something small. But stop wondering and go on an adventure.”

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. What a beautiful work on life as a creative. This quote is in the first chapter. It took me several days to get past it. “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think J.K. Rowling is a baseball fan, else I’d do everything I could to find a way for her to endorse the Catch 365 book. Then again, I didn’t know how much I loved Quidditch or that I am a Gryffindor until I read her books. “We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. “All good stories deserve a little embellishment,” said Gandalf. Creative freedom. Same thing.

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. “If I had my life to live over again, I’d take more chances. I’d want more passion in my life. Less fear and more passion, more risk. Even if you fail, you’ve still taken a risk.”

My hope is to write stories that attempt to capture the passionate zest for life John Keating, the audacious hope and belief in other people of Mr. Magorium, and the playful, cooperative spirit of Kid President.

Books like that will make really good friends.

Blowout Victory

Hand-painted baseball courtesy of Sophie Bryan

Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League Week #5.

The Cyclones were playing the High Rollers. My team against Mark’s team. Both teams needed a win. I wanted a win for Coach Nasby, who was sick at home with a stomach bug on his birthday. I wanted a win for the team, who had lost two extra-inning games and deserved the opportunity to exchange celebratory high fives on the field. I wanted a win for me, because I had watched enough losing this baseball season.

Fall was here, at least for the day. This was the day the Lord had made. I was ready to rejoice and play ball on it. Skies were cloud-covered and temperatures were nowhere near 100 degrees. Rainy forecast threats increased throughout the afternoon, so those in charge made modifications to the schedule. Each game was moved up an hour and all games were only 7 innings in length.

I was running sprints in the outfield, feeling fast and light on my feet. Barry Allen would have been proud of the fleet-footedness of this 45 year old. I felt it as soon as it happened and stopped running. I looked down and my right shoe was completely torn across the toe box. A blowout. I ran faster than my shoes would allow, I thought and chuckled. Having purchased the pair used at Play It Again Sports, I initially thought I’d only need them through tryouts. I briefly considered putting my tennis shoes on, but figured these shoes could at least get me through the game.

The wind blew steadily toward left field as the clouds swirled overhead. I started the game in left field and did nothing to draw attention to myself defensively. The speed of the turf at U.S. Baseball Park continues to amaze me. Solid hits just don’t slow down and almost seem to pick up speed as they skip across the surface. The few balls hit my direction, I fielded cleanly, thankfully, and threw back to the infield without runners advancing extra bases. No fly balls, which was probably good as the ball itself blended in quite well with the skies and bleachers.

Hitting ninth, I was first to the plate in the top of the third inning and my heart was pounding. With the game tied at zeros, I wanted to get the scoring started. I wanted to feel the sweet nothingness of barreling a ball, sending a line drive screaming to the gap that their center fielder wouldn’t catch. (He caught everything.) But I simply couldn’t take a breath deep enough to calm myself down. I wasn’t afraid but I definitely wasn’t “in the zone,” living completely in the moment, trusting training and instincts to do their job. I was in that absurd state of will-someone-please-turn-off-my-brain-so-I-can-hit-the-ball.

After four pitches, the count was two balls and two strikes and I had yet to take a swing. My first swing earned me a membership in Cole Roark’s not-so-exclusive K Club. Over the four innings he pitched, Cole accrued 5 strike outs. At least I was in good company. (Skylar, our starting pitcher, recorded 7 strikeouts in his four innings. It was that kind of day.)

The High Rollers tallied one in the bottom of each the third and fourth innings, taking a 2 – 0 lead heading into the final three innings. Per league rules, only one pitcher per team can throw four innings, unless a game goes in to extra innings. With Cole having reached his max, Mark entered the game in the top of the fifth. I was the fourth hitter scheduled.

But Mark only needed 6 pitches to record three outs.

Loren flied out to left field on the first pitch. Two pitches later, Brandon flied out to the shortstop in short center field. Zach grounded out to the shortstop who is also his brother. My playing day was done. Skylar was headed to left field as my replacement in the lineup. Pitchers are hitters, too.

Jake matched Mark’s 1-2-3 inning and kept our deficit at two. We desperately needed to score two runs or all postseason dreams were vanished.

Skylar walked to start the sixth and Rob singled him to second. We finally had a good scoring opportunity. After throwing two balls to Jared, Mark was pulled and replaced by High Rollers’ side-arming reliever Chris Matlock, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2009. Jared walked and loaded the bases as the rain started to fall.

And then Matlock went to work, striking out Tyler on a wicked slider for the first out.

On the first pitch he saw, R.J. hit a bomb straight into the teeth of the wind to center field. Of course, the center fielder caught it, but it was deep enough to break the shutout and cut the deficit to 1.

Matlock then threw a few more wiffle balls to strike out Layn and end the inning.

The rain picked up and Jake went back to work. Fly out. Ground out. Strike out. On to the seventh. Three outs to score 1 run.

Two lefties were to lead off the inning, Nick followed by Loren. I was “coaching” first in case a pinch runner was needed.

Nick was successful against the sidewinder, with a grounder just inside the first base line. The ball was fielded by the High Rollers’ first baseman who couldn’t successfully connect with the covering pitcher. And, just like that, I was on first as the tying run.

Rule number one: Don’t get picked off of first. My leads were uber-conservative and I was aware of any possibility the catcher might throw behind me.

Loren took the first pitch for a strike. As the rain continued to fall, the second pitch sailed far outside to even the count. Another off-speed pitch outside and Loren was ahead in the count. Loren pulled the 2 – 1 offering between first and second.

Don’t get hit by the ball!

I stopped, threw up my hands, and sucked in my gut to dodge the high-hopper and tore off toward second.

On the very next step, I had my own Forrest Gump moment: Something bit my calf muscle.

I didn’t know where the ball was and had to make it to second. I couldn’t stand the thought of being thrown out. I didn’t know that the ball was in shallow right field, barely snagged by the High Rollers second baseman. I didn’t know that there wasn’t any play anywhere.

I reached second base safely and Coach Ryan Wolfe called out to me, “You okay?”

I shook my head. No, I’m not.

Ryan took over as a pinch runner for the pinch runner and I hopped toward the dugout.

Teammates greeted me with fist bumps and high fives as I navigated the four steps into the concrete bunker, overcome with frustration. I wanted to contribute something other than a K in the score book.

But baseball, like life, is not a game that is all about me.

On the next pitch, texting-friend Brandon hit a line drive to shortstop and Ryan barely got back to second, avoiding the double play. If that had been me on second, I probably would’ve been doubled up. What a serendipitous turn of events.  

Zach came up with the perfect hit, one the center fielder couldn’t catch, and Ryan scored the tying run. There was still a glimmer of hope.

Rob, our back-up catcher, got the go-ahead RBI in extra innings on a hit by pitch that barely brushed his jersey. In the bottom of the inning, he saved a tying run by stopping a wild slider, bouncing in front of the plate and hitting him in the throat. He wanted the win as much as anyone.  

The CY Sports Cyclones finally won their first game, in extra innings, 3 – 2.

It’s so easy to get caught up in ego and numbers and dreaming up back of baseball card stats. But the only way one wins a baseball game is through team effort. I’m grateful for friends and teammates who gave their all to the very end and earned the W.

The only way anyone makes it through this quixotic quest of collecting trips around the sun is with the help of friends. I can only hope your friends are as fun to be around as my teammates.

Icing and heating and ibuprofen-ing a strained calf is much easier to do after a win.

Let’s do it again next week.

Streakin’

Watercolor by Sophie Bryan painted during the first two innings of the game.

“Uncle E! Tomorrow is our baseball game?”

Henry greeted me with the question after hugging Jamie, asking about her foot, and getting a good look at her fancy scooter.

“I have my glove and my hat.”

Mighty Henry, nephew extraordinaire, was in town for the weekend. He would be throwing out the first pitch at his first baseball game. Multiple times throughout the day, he talked to me about “our baseball game.” In a short season like the GRBL, it is necessary and understandable to go to extreme efforts to break losing streaks. Thanks to Sungwoo Lee and the Royals, I’ve been part of an unforgettable first pitch ceremony. I was hoping Henry could impart some of his contagious positive energy on the CY Cyclones with his own effort.

On game day, I met him at the stadium, after I had stretched and helped warm up Skylar, our starting pitcher, who couldn’t throw anything straight. (That’s a compliment.) Henry looked great wearing his #Catch365 t-shirt. I questioned his choice of an A’s hat, until I remembered it was his t-ball team. The Oakland A’s have a legitimate shot at the postseason; the Cyclones needed that mojo, too. He quickly made himself at home in the bullpen and challenged me to flip the large tractor tire. I declined.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt

After the first game finished, we ran out on to the field. Henry loved the feel of the artificial turf as we did some stretches in the outfield and ran a couple sprints before he offered to carry my bat to the dugout. The more Henry mojo, the better. In the dugout, Henry was treated to a cup of water and a few words of wisdom from Coach Nasby.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt.

Escorted by Kaylea on college day at the park, Henry walked to the field for his first pitch.

Video by Katy Oswalt.

Official Grip ‘N’ Rip photographer Mike Hudgens also documented the moment, with Kaylea standing behind Henry and Henry’s hat turned backwards making him a solid, if young, doppleganger for Squints from The Sandlot.

Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography
Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography

It was only after Henry’s most excellent first pitch did I learn that Rylan was also throwing out a first pitch. Rylan, and his dad Chandler, were catch partners last year (Day #270). Chandler is a pitcher and off-speed specialist for the Yogis, the opponent for the day. I was hoping for a chance to stand in against Chandler’s loopy curveball just so I could see it with my own eyes.  

But in terms of streak-breaking baseball-mojo, Rylan’s first pitch rendered Henry epic effort moot.

Side note: My sister passed along this story from the stands. “You know how they play different walk-up songs for each player? Well, apparently Henry didn’t like one of them, because he turned to the loudspeaker and yelled, “ALEXA! Stop!” And then the song stopped (because the player was at bat), but I’m sure Henry thinks it was his doing.”

* * * * * * * * * *   

I have three baseball fears.

3. Losing a fly ball or line drive in the lights. (We’ll see what happens in two weeks.)

2. Getting picked off of first base.

1. Getting hit by a pitch.

Tanner was the starting pitcher for Yogis. I faced Tanner in my first at bat of the season and knew that he threw the ball hard. I spent the week taking a few hundred swings in anticipation of and preparation for his fastball. I dreamed of barreling one of his fastballs and sliding safely into second. Down two runs, I led off the top of the third and felt ready.

Tanner went into his slow wind-up and I put an excellent fastball swing on an even more excellent slider. I may have missed the ball by a foot or two, but at least I held on to the bat and my knees didn’t buckle. The second slider was considerably outside to even the count. After seeing two sliders, I took a breath and geared up for the fastball. The fastball was inside and I jumped back to avoid it. With the count in my favor, I was ready to take another cut at a fastball.

I saw it, I saw it, I started to swing and then the ball just danced or defied physics or found a wormhole. Tanner threw another excellent slider and I looked like I was trying to chop down a tree. With the count even at two balls and two strikes, Tanner went back to the fastball and it ran inside. This time, I couldn’t get out of the way.

The ball hit me square on my right elbow and bounced almost all the way to first base.

And that’s how you get revenge against ridiculous sliders. Alex Gordon would have been proud.

In the words of High Rollers outfielder Ben Hammitt, “I got a trophy.” I hoped the bruise would turn purple and green so I could brag about it.

I stood on first with the top of the lineup coming and the fingers on my right hand feeling weird. Still, I was ready to put my legs to the test; I wanted to touch ‘em all and get the scoring started. Todd, the first baseman for the Yogis and one of the few players my age, was holding me on. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t going anywhere and didn’t have any intention of drawing a throw.

Cyclones’ second baseman Tyler stepped up to the plate. Tyler of the worst-luck, hitting balls hard and square and right at people. On a 2 – 1 slider, Tyler popped out to second for the first out. At least he made contact with the pitch.

R.J., one of the league leaders in hitting, was next. R.J. is a former catcher for Drury University. I’m amazed at how he survives these mid-90s days behind the plate wearing all that gear. With the count even at 2, R.J. hit a dribbler up the first base line and I took off. Foul ball. Try again. A curveball high maxed out the count. Another curveball and R.J. was ahead, pulling it foul. On the next pitch, R.J. connected with a towering blast. At most any other ball park in southwest Missouri, the hit would have been a home run. R.J. hit a moon shot to deep left field which was caught on the warning track.

If I would have been thinking, I could’ve tagged up and been on second. But I wasn’t thinking. Just keep learning.

With two outs, Todd stopped holding me on at first. Coach Nasby motioned to me and encouraged me to increase my lead, to get a good secondary lead. I did not want to end the inning being picked off by the catcher, so my first move was back toward first.

With the count 1 – 1 to Jared, Cyclones’ tall-sock-wearing center fielder, I took the biggest lead of my life, and quickly walked back to first on a swing and miss.

On the very next pitch, I took a walking lead and caught everyone by surprise when I bolted for second.

While the pitcher still had the ball.

I even surprised myself.

Tanner had to double-pump the ball, waiting for one of the middle infielders to get to the bag.

I went as fast as these legs could take me and slid hard and, somehow, was safe. It was not exactly how I dreamed it, but still, I was on second base.

“Attentive base-running,” Rance said on the broadcast. A generous call.

In reality, it was stupid luck.

Still, Billy Butler would have been proud of the effort. And I still need one more stolen base to catch Albert Pujols.

Jared struck out on the next pitch. I asked Coach Nasby to put Scott in right field in my stead. My fingers and arm still felt odd. (Two innings later I was playing catch. Everything is fine. Still waiting on the colorful bruise to show up.)

For the second time in four games, the Cyclones lost in extra innings. Our streak extended to 4, but not the kind of streak anyone wanted. I don’t think we’ve been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but I probably have about the same chance as growing a beard by season’s end.

I went home and comforted myself with a Dr Pepper and a Gatorade and watched Mark pitch in the 11th and 12th innings to secure the win for his team in the nightcap of the triple-header.

Next Sunday is Bark at the Park. The Cyclones play at noon against the High Rollers, which means Mark will be in the opposing dugout. I’ve caught his slider on multiple occasions and know I can swing and miss it, too. But, maybe, next week we’ll get our first W. Weirder things have happened.

What a great game baseball is.

America’s Game

Photo credit: Nate Rueckert and Baseball Seams Co.

On June 14, 2001, I saw Mike Sweeney hit a walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the 13th inning to complete a three-game sweep and move the Royals to 15 games under .500. I was at the game as part of a job interview. While I was in my last semester at seminary, I told my wife, “If we could find a church where I could play guitar and work with students in Kansas City, that would be heaven.” I took the home run, win, and sweep as a divine sign.

The 2001 Kansas City Royals weren’t good. They lost 97 games and finished last in the AL Central. Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Joe Randa, and Rey Sanchez were the majority of the offense. Jeff Suppan was the ace of the staff and Roberto Hernandez was the closer. I lived in Kansas City for two months of the 2001 baseball season. I cheered on Frank White any time I saw him in his capacity as a coach for the team.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a Tuesday.

A month prior, I celebrated my graduation from Truett Seminary at Baylor University, accruing enough student debt to last the rest of my life. I had been hired as a youth minister and worship leader at Cornerstone Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. My first, full-time job as an adult. My first-born, Kaylea, was less than 7 months old, full of colic and literally up for hours every night, turning me and my wife into semi-zombies. I am still trying to catch up on sleep from her first couple years of life. I was 27 years old and full of ridiculous dreams of writing songs and inspiring teenagers to make this world a beautiful place for all people. 

Cornerstone Church was a young church, only 12 years old. A church willing to take risks and try new things and make new friends. A church willing to hire a naïve dreamer. A church willing to find ways to say yes, even if they’d never done it that way before. They welcomed me and my family and helped us find our place in God’s Great Story. I was on staff at Cornerstone for 11 years. The Royals were bad the entire time, their only winning season coming in 2003. Because the Royals were so bad and because the people of Cornerstone Church knew of my affection for the team, I received free tickets all the time.

On that Tuesday, I was anxiously preparing for the weekly staff meeting, trying to think through the youth activities for the following night while juggling the choosing of songs for band practice after youth and the order of worship for Sunday. I was overwhelmed and completely petrified I was going to fail. (I failed a lot. I survived.)

Bob was the associate pastor. His office was also on the second floor of the church, just down the hall and around the corner from mine. I had to pass his office to get to the stairs so I could head downstairs for the staff meeting. I walked by with my printed out calendar in hand, clutching on to a stack of papers and notes I had written to myself.  

I could hear that the TV was on in Bob’s office. He was standing only a couple feet in front of the mounted, CRT, big-box TV with one hand across his chest and one hand over his mouth.

“Have you seen this?” he asked me.

I took a couple steps in to Bob’s office and looked at the TV just as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

My heart skipped a beat.

My wife and I had been unable to sell our home in Texas. My family of three lived with my pastor and his wife and son. There were many perks to living with my pastor’s family. One unexpected perk was his subscription to the KC Star. It was while I lived with my pastor I fell in love with Joe Posnanski’s writing.  

In 2001, my wife and I shared a cell phone. Using our shared cell phone, I tried to reach her on the home line. She was in the middle of feeding Kaylea and didn’t pick up. Kaylea was quite the finicky eater; stopping in the middle of a feeding was never a good idea. I called again and again and again until Jamie finally answered.

I could tell she was frustrated when she answered.

“Turn on the TV. Something’s happening,” I said.

I spent the day watching TV. I was completely mesmerized. In 2001, the internet service at the church was dial-up, so trying to follow the news online was slower than just watching the national broadcast. I watched the North Tower collapse and followed the stories of the other hijackings.

I went home early, stopping at a gas station and paying $3 a gallon to fill up my car. As soon as I got home, I hugged my wife and held my baby girl.

The “war against terrorism” started.

America as I knew it had changed.

The next few days, the church was open for prayer, for anyone who needed a safe, quiet space to be and process what happened. I spent time alone in my office pondering the kind of hate that takes innocent lives and the overwhelming fear left in the wake of acts of terror that killed 3,000 people. What kind of world was Kaylea going to grow up in? What is faith’s response to terrorism?

Listening to President Bush talk, I remembered the slogan my high school baseball coach, who was also my freshman year American History teacher, taught us from Warren Harding’s campaign after World War I, “Return to Normalcy.”

How can life return to “normal” after seeing people leap out of a building? After watching replay after replay of planes crashing and towers collapsing? After dreading what was going to happen next?

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig suspended all baseball games for 6 days, extending the regular season a week into October.

For the next week, I read and watched everything I could about all four plane crashes. The weight of the stories affected my dreams and my demeanor. Two thousand years prior, Paul wrote these words to his friends in Rome who were suffering under an unjust empire, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I decided to trust those words.

A week later, I wasn’t really in the mood for baseball, but I tuned in for a needed mental distraction and watched the Royals lose to Cleveland. It was good to see the team on the field, even in a losing cause. Losing felt normal. On the first day games resumed, Marty Prather, known as the St Louis Signman, was featured on TVs from coast-to-coast as he held one of his signs before the Cardinals game, “Baseball has players. America has heroes.”

Patriotism ran thick through the stadiums. Emergency responders were honored. God Bless America was sung in the 7th inning. Players recognized that this game could put a smile on the face of those who were still trying to find a new normal. Even in the middle of horrific tragedy, our souls need to find space to breathe and play. Baseball created that space.

About a month later, President George W. Bush threw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium during Game 3 of the World Series. Wearing a bulletproof vest and an FDNY jacket, the President gave a thumbs up from on top of the mound. He then fired a perfect strike. It was one of the most emotional first pitches I’ve ever seen, wonderfully recounted in the ESPN 30 for 30: First Pitch.

That first pitch inspired Truman State University southpaw pitcher Nathan Rueckert to cut apart his practice jersey and a few baseballs and carefully craft an American flag. “America’s Game” he titled the piece of art. Baseball Seams Company was born in the wake of September 11.  

* * * * * * * * * *

It’s been 18 years since I stood in Bob’s office watching TV.

Memorial services will take place all across the country remembering those who died on that Tuesday. We will also remember those who died years later because of exposure to toxic chemicals as they rushed in to save other lives. We will honor the children of those courageous first responders who are following in the footsteps of their parents. The FDNY Academy is graduating 13 new first responders who lost a parent in the Twin Towers attacks. They are already heroes. Take time to thank the emergency responders wherever you are, today and every day.  

That colicky and finicky baby is now a freshman in college, studying music education and playing violin. Music continues to play a key role in bringing about the healing of our country.

Cornerstone Church is no more.

I’m no longer on staff at any church. I’m writing stories and poems about baseball, hoping that one day Joe Posnanski will take notice and meet me for a game of catch. He’s still writing epic baseball essays, along with amazing pieces about Hamilton and Houdini.

Baseball Seams Company grew and grew. The art inspired by President Bush’s first pitch has been recreated thousands of times, with copies hanging in the White House and in Cooperstown and in my parent’s living room. Years later, Nathan invited me to join him in a project called America at the Seams. I heard stories from every state how this weird and frustrating game is more than just a game. People told me how baseball created space for them find healing and hope and their new normal.

Eighteen years ago, I never could have imagined I’d get a second chance to play baseball. And I am absolutely loving the experience — taking risks, trying new things, making new friends. Baseball brings people together.

“Baseball can give us back ourselves,” wrote Anne Lamott.

There is a reason baseball is America’s Game.