My baseball weekend

So we finally got to take to the diamond and play some ball this weekend.

First, a little backgrounder: Last year I joined a newly formed men’s baseball league in the city -- organized for guys who aren’t interested in the beer-sponsored/slugfest softball leagues. Guys who simply enjoy the national past time and want to have fun playing it. But, since I joined the league as an individual and not with a pre-formed team, I was basically placed on a team of leftovers. It seemed fine enough at first, but as the season wore on, our coach was clearly a terrible manager. He was putting his own interests before the team’s, pitching guys until their arms gave out, playing guys in positions they had no right playing, not to mention playing guys that didn’t deserve to be on the field, all while decent, skilled and smart players sat on the bench. … We finished the season with one win and so many losses we stopped counting them.

After the season ended last September, one of my teammates, Tom, and I started conspiring to form a new team. We knew there were other players on our team who considered the season a disaster, and we knew there was potential to construct a competitive team with some of those players forming our nucleus. We started talking up the possibilities, promised better management, and before we knew it Tom and I had lured six key players from that original team to form the new team with us. With their help we recruited five more guys, including two pitchers with what could be the best stuff in the league …

Last year, our team name was the Sox -- a name picked by our then-coach, a White Sox fanatic. This year, we set things straight and we’re calling ourselves the Cubs, which was only fair since most of us are Cubs fans anyway … We had team meetings in January and by February we were practicing in a rented warehouse. For weeks, we spent our Saturday nights taking batting practice from a pitching machine, hitting into nets and throwing from a practice mound. More importantly we were building the kind of camaraderie and chemistry that was absent from last year’s team.

So fast forward to Saturday, our first competition of the season, a scrimmage against a new team in the league. Interestingly, the opponent was this year’s “leftovers.” Even more amusing, the team included last season’s Sox coach, because we snared more than half of his players to form the Cubs and no one else wanted to come back and play for him this year.

Watching our team take infield practice -- dressed in our practice Cubs jerseys and looking sharp -- was a breath of fresh air. We were nearly flawless as we warmed up. People were talking to each other, communicating and keeping their focus -- and if you’re a baseball player, you know how important that is. All the bad vibes and negative feelings about last season were erased the moment we stepped on that field.

As the game got underway, we played as the home team and took the field first. Another positive change from last season -- I got to start at shortstop. Last year, I was lucky if I got into play a couple innings at right field. On Saturday, I played the first half of the game at short, fielding a couple balls there, before moving to center for the second half.

Our opponent managed to score a couple runs in the top half of the first while we settled in and worked through what little nerves we had. Then we came up in the bottom half of the first and took over the game … Our leadoff batter got on with a walk. Then I took the box second, drew a walk of my own and promptly stole second base.

We had decided as a team before the game that we were going to play small ball and experiment as much as we could. So I had to be ready for anything when a couple batters later, with the score 1-0, we had the bases loaded and I was sitting on third base with two outs. With my back to the third base coach, I never caught the sign, but when I saw the batter square up to bunt, I had no choice but to put my head down and run home. The batter laid down a perfect bunt that rolled slowly toward the pitcher’s mound. Both the pitcher and the catcher went after it, leaving home plate abandoned and I scampered across the plate untouched … It was a beautiful play, and we completed the inning with a 6-2 lead.

But we went quietly through the middle innings -- I struck out -- while the opponent inched back and eventually took a 7-6 lead.

In our half of the sixth, we vowed to rally. We tied the score, and I came up with one out and the go-ahead run on third base. If the first pitch was in the zone, I was swinging. The pitch did come in, but I didn’t get all of it and grounded out to the shortstop. But the go-ahead run scored.

If we could hold ‘em in the top half of the seventh, the game would be over. We got one quick out, but they weren’t letting us go easily and they put the tying run on third base. Our pitcher notched a strikeout to get the second out and proceeded to battle with the next batter for that third out. He fired pitch after pitch. And then, out of nowhere, our catcher fired down to third base. The runner was caught completely off guard as our third baseman caught the throw and tagged the runner.

The game was our’s -- 8-7. With one game, we had tied our win total from last year. And our confidence was overflowing.

We officially open the league’s season under the lights on Monday, May 14.

* * *

After Saturday’s game, Kates and I took off to spend the rest of the weekend with my parents.

We had some of Dad’s famous burgers off the grill Saturday night, and then went to the high school for a performance of “Grease,” which Kates and I concluded was the worst musical production we’d ever seen … The acting was awful, the singing was uninspired, 4-year-olds could have done the choreography and Kates and I were dreading the token standing ovation when it ended.

Then, on what proved to be a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, we were off to Miller Park for the Astros-Brewers game …

We arrived at the stadium more than two hours before game time, giving us plenty of time to walk around the park, taking in the scenery, statues and historic markers. As usual, I was snapping unless pictures, and now I had Dad to join me -- he was so proud of his digital camera and delighting in discovering the advantages of digital photography …

When the gates opened, we were among the first to walk into the stadium. The reason: The day’s promotional item was an album commemorating the 1982 AL Champion Brewers. But what we didn’t realize was the item was only an album. To make it worthwhile, you have to clip a coupon from the Journal Sentinel every day for the next 23 days, take the coupon to a retail location and exchange it for a silver coin to commemorate each of 23 select Brewers on that ‘82 team. Oh yeah, and each coin is $2.99. But I’m such a rabid collector, I’ll probably do it anyway …
As for the game, it was The Bill Hall, Geoff Jenkins and Dave Bush Show. Hall went 3-for-4 with a single, homerun and a double; Jenkins went 3-for-4 with a single and two doubles. Dave Bush was lights out for eight innings; he gave up three hits and struck out seven. And, oh the defense -- it seemed like every ground ball was hit to Craig Counsell at third base, and Counsell turned out after out …

Then came the ninth. Bush tired out. The Astros notched a couple doubles, a walk and pretty soon it was 4-3. Ned Yost pulled Bush for Francisco Cordero with no outs. But Cordero promptly gave up a walk to Carlos Lee. He struck out Luke Scott, but then Morgan Ensberg singled, Adam Everett drew a walk and wah-la, the bases were loaded …

Ah, but this is a different Brewers team we’re talking about this year. The Crew pulled together; Cordero struck out Orlando Palmeiro and then got Craig Biggio to ground out to first. Brewers win, and hand Astros starter Roy Oswalt his first loss of the season …

* * *

After waiting out the traffic at Miller Park with a few sandwiches, Kates and I parted ways with Mom and Dad and headed home ...

Then it was time for Sunday Night Baseball. Yankees-Red Sox. Aw yeah.

The Red Sox won the game 7-6, but that's barely a piece of the story.

The Sox were down 3-0 in the third inning with Yankees rookie lefthander Chase Wright on the mound. And there were already two out and nobody on when Manny Ramirez stepped up the plate ...

With a 2-1 count, he launched one over the wall in left center field. The Red Sox were on the board, 3-1.

Next up, J.D. Drew. He ran up a 1-2 count and then he knocked a homerun. The Red Sox are down 3-2.

Next up Mike Lowell. And I'm thinking, man this would be cool if he could hit a homerun too.

He did it.

Now the fans in Fenway are going crazy. The announcers are talking about it. And it's not over ...

Jason Varitek swung at the first pitch he saw from Wright and sent it over the left field wall. I shot up from the couch, hooping, hollering and clapping ... and then ran up the stairs to tell Kates about one of the most unbelievable and finest things I'd seen in all my years of watching baseball.

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