Baseball Here Again But Never Gone
By Tim Butterfield '12, Staff Writer
It is the second round of the District Championships my senior year of high school, and Tyler Bower is up to bat. Having already hit two home runs and knocked in all three of his team’s runs, the slugger (who also happens to be the Hawk’s best pitcher) is a formidable opponent. The question at hand is a tough one, and I’m so grateful it’s not my job to answer: Should we pitch to Bower or walk him intentionally? The game is tied in the last inning and we’re the visiting team, so the game’s outcome will most likely be determined by what Coach decides to do here.

When a new pitcher — a lefty named Corey — is brought in to face Bower, everyone knows that no free passes will be given. There would have been no reason to bring Corey in just to issue an automatic walk. Bower digs in and takes a fierce practice swing. Jeez, if this guy touches the ball with that swing, he’ll crush it, I think from my second base position. But the pressure is on Corey and he’s sweating bullets. Peering in at the catcher, he accepts the first sign offered and begins his windup …

The Valley Park Hawks were our best district opponents, and we’d faced them before. In fact, the most exciting game of our season and of my career was played against the Hawks a few months earlier. Bower had been pitching that game, too. He was throwing smoke, and we weren’t scoring. I had hit a double off him earlier in the game, but he had also struck me out twice. Entering the bottom of the seventh inning losing five to two, we weren’t in an ideal situation.

Bower was still on the hill, but we somehow managed to get runners on second and third base before two consecutive batters struck out. Still down three runs, I stepped to the plate as the potential final out of the game.

I figured that Bower was anxious to put a stop to his rising pitch count and would fire a first-pitch strike — and he did just that. Ready for the belt-high fastball, I lined Bower’s pitch up the middle for a two-run single. Advancing to second on the center fielder’s throw to home plate, I now represented the tying run in a suddenly exciting game.

My teammate Sam was up next and fell behind 0-2 before working the count full. After a few more foul balls, he hit a high fly ball to left field. I knew he had tagged it real good, so I stopped at third base to watch the ball’s flight. It would either be a game ending out or a walk-off homerun, and I wanted to watch how it would all end.

Well, it didn’t end quite like that. The ball landed at the base of the fence, and I scrambled home to tie the score. I had barely gotten back into the dugout, yelling with excitement, before our right fielder Scott singled Sam in, giving us a walk-off 6-5 win. It was the best game I had ever been involved in, and I was pumped.

The Hawks slowly wandered off the field. They were noticeably shell-shocked after seeing their ace pitcher surrender four runs before he could retire one last batter. As for us, we felt like celebrities. We hooted and hollered at home plate for several minutes after the run scored. Reporters interviewed players and our district ranking rose to the very top. Most importantly, however, was our realization that we could defeat any team in our district, even if we were the underdogs…

Corey releases his first pitch. It’s a low fastball that hits the outside corner. A perfect pitch, and it’s called a strike. Bower shakes his head disapprovingly and steps irritably out of the box. Excellent, I think. Let him get all worked up, it’ll mess with his game. The second pitch misses high for the first ball. Bring that down, Corey — this guy can tattoo a pitch like that if you throw it again. The third pitch is a strike, I guess. Bower puts his head down, takes a slight hitch, and swings hard.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the ball is going to clear the fence. Bower has hit his third homer of the game and given his team a 4-3 walk-off win. The Hawks will advance to the district finals and face a very mediocre Whitfield team that we know we could have destroyed if given the chance.

The ball lands a few feet behind the fence, and Bower circles the bases with his fist high in the air. I want to be angry with the guy, but I just can’t. He has just ended the best game of his life with a dramatic home run, and he’s earned the right to pump his fist and trot around the bases as slowly as he wants. So I join my teammates in walking off the field in defeat. This time, it is our turn to wander off the field, shell-shocked …

That afternoon was the worst of the season. We no longer had a tomorrow to think about. Our season was over, my high school baseball career was over and my daily connection to a tight group of guys was over. Everyone felt awful — the players, coaches, parents and fans.

Major League Baseball players are just now arriving in Florida or Arizona to begin Spring Training with their teams. They are working out, doing drills and getting to know their teammates. Thirty teams are fine-tuning their rosters and putting their players through vigorous training to prepare for the 162-game season ahead.

Only one of those teams has the title of “World Champion” to defend. The other 29 clubs experienced season-ending and often heartbreaking losses several months ago. But they are now on completely equivalent levels of preparation for competition. It’s a new year, and hope springs anew for all.

After losing to Valley Park, I struggled emotionally, academically and socially … for about a day. I didn’t do my homework that night, but I was over the whole thing by the next afternoon. Our season hadn’t ended ideally, but we’d had a blast working together for several months, and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

I wasn’t making the millions of dollars that the professionals do, but we’re all in the same boat. Seasons start and seasons end, and, for the majority of competitors, failure will be the end result. Aiming to win the last game of the season is an admirable goal for any sports team to have, but it can only be a reality for one team. Fortunately, now is the time of year when fans and players alike can go about their daily routines with the optimism of anticipated success. Savor it, people, and hang onto it just as long as you can. And, even when reality strikes and the Pirates plummet into last place, you can confidently know that life will go on and Spring Training will come again.

Issue 17, Submitted 2010-03-04 23:44:07