First a miss, then a championship

My son won his only championship on a second try. At first I had to campaign to get him into Little League baseball over the concerns of his mom about injury and inattention to homework. I wanted to give Nicky the sports experiences I didn’t have as a boy too small to be picked at tryouts. In truth, I really didn’t participate in organized sports because of my fear of failure. I wanted Nicky to have a chance at a life with less of that fear.

In the year of his championship, Nicky’s team was an underachieving underdog in his league. Steve Shanks Field had been the scene of more than a few baffling losses during the regular season, as the leagues top teams got past Nick’s Cubs. While the Cubs played below their potential, or shy of the expectations of their fathers, other teams played and exceeded their limits. The lesson still unlearned by the boys was not really how to handle a ball hit to the third base side of second, but how to believe you could do it.

Adam was the coach’s son and the star pitcher for the team, but in time it became evident that other pitching talent would need to appear for the Cubs. One afternoon while the season was still fresh, without much warning, the coach asked Nicky to pitch. His son had thrown a good game earlier in the week and had to rest, according to league rules. Little League coaches, especially those in the leagues where kids are first pitching, hold this kind of tryout as part of games.

Nicky threw hard on that afternoon, but the Marlins hit even harder. His day on the mound lasted three rocky innings, his strikeouts marred by lashes of hits and a handful of runs scored against him. The capping ignominy of that day was a hard hit right up the middle that bounced off his foot for a single. Tears welling up in his eyes, he wanted to come off the mound after that hit and just be a supporting player again, not the focus of attention and expectations. If he left the mound he’d be out of that game. He was persuaded to stick out his attempt, and after escaping the inning he handed over the ball to a teammate.

As official scorer I had a record of his outing on the mound, and even though it didn’t deliver his objective of setting down the batters in order, the appearance had some sparkling moments.

Nicky couldn’t see it that way. “I’m never gonna pitch again,” he told anyone who wanted to listen. He’d thrown his hardest and it hadn’t worked out. Who needed any more proof that he’d been a failure?

Smiling Little League dugout.png

As the remainder of the season unfolded, through, something magical began to happen. The attempts of boys like Nicky began to teach them how much they could grow. In one game, a light-hitting left fielder for the Cubs scored the winning run. In another, the heavy-swinging catcher, who’d been aiming beyond the fences and earning strikeouts, settled in for a series of bounding doubles instead. It was as if the efforts at greatness had taught the boys to believe in their ability to make their attempts smarter, with an eye toward learning the process, instead of simply the results.

Once the playoffs arrived, the Cubs found themselves in the dark horse position, needing to climb past teams with better records if they were to have any shot at playing in the title game. The lessons about attempts were paying off just in time. Nicky was about to face his own final exam.

Little League rules in that year called for a best of three matchup of the two remaining teams for the trophy. The Cubs had won the first game with ease. The Cardinals fought back in the second, however, since the mighty Adam had to let others pitch after his Game One victory. The score was tied at the top of the final inning, and the young Cubs could begin to feel their championship drive and understand their wills could help dictate the result.

Coach Caskey, a gruff bear of a man with some professional baseball experience, came to Nicky before the sixth inning started. The Cubs starter was tiring and a relief pitcher was needed. “You wanna give it another try, Nicky?”

I stood outside the chain link dugout and watched the emotions flash across Nicky’s face. First, the pride at being asked to contribute in such an important spot. One good inning from him — just three outs — could put the team in position to break the tie in the bottom of the inning and win the game and the title.

Then the prospect of failure swept in on the tail feathers of that flight of fancy. Nicky got up to pace and think as the coach gave him time to consider.

“Hey dad, coach wants me to pitch next inning.” He said it as nonchalantly as any 11-year-old could manage, but I could hear a flutter under his cool.

“Great opportunity,” I said. “You’d do well.” I hoped I hadn’t oversold the idea. I wanted Nicky to get back on the stallion that had thrown him weeks earlier on the mound as a starter. “Are you gonna do it?”

The emotions struggled in him and he shut me out of a ringside seat to see them. “I dunno,” he said after a moment.

“Well, let me know,“ was all I could think to say, not daring to put another gram onto the scale of expectations that swayed for both of us. I walked up into the stands and took my place at my official scorebook, wondering if I’d pencil in his second effort at believing in himself.

While Nicky weighs the offer to pitch, the healthy three-run lead has crumbled. The Cardinals tie the game at 11 when the Cubs pitcher hits the final batter, forcing in the tying run after five straight walks. In the bottom of the sixth the Cubs have a chance to break the tie, but they go down meekly on a series of ground balls. It’s extra innings now. Nicky walks onto the field in the fading evening light. He stops at the mound. The drama is about to be played out.

Facing the heart of the order in the championship

Facing the heart of the order in the championship

This is a different boy that the one who suffered a shellacking as a starter. He’s the fireman now, sent in to put out the Cardinals attack. He brings a big wad of gum to the mound, chewing and watching his catcher. His honey-colored hair flows long out the back of his cap. I think of Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and all of the dramatic haircuts of relievers like Mitch the Pitch in Bleacher Bums. I don’t realize it, but he’s living out my dream from my sports column — of cheering for my son in a close game as he reaches for the best in himself. For him, at this moment, it’s only a game.

Bottom of the order. Soft hitters. Nicky opens with a strike. The crowd roars. The next pitch jumps off the bat, though. A bouncer to third. The long throw comes back clean to first. One away. He tosses the ball in the air, catches it, looking cool blowing a bubble on the mound. He’s focused, calm.

The next batter is a watcher. She has walked three times already today, waiting on a ball four. Her latest walk started the Cardinals’ rally the last inning. She looks at a ball. She looks at a strike. The pitches paint the outside corner, coming in tight and fading away from the batter. Another strike, and she doesn’t swing at it. The final strike blows past and she’s done. Two away.

Now the meat, the top of the order. The batter steps in, a boy who’s only been retired once today. Nicky works slower, studies the batter. He throws two strikes past him, ready for the kill. No — a sharp hit down the left field line, the batter then digging in for an extra base. A double. The go-ahead run is now at second. Nicky looks worried. I’m frantic, hovering behind the backstop, thinking he’ll see this as a crossroad and hoping he’ll choose the right path. Not to worry, I say, the next batter hasn’t had a hit today.

The young boy stares out at Nicky, intent. 0-1, 1-1, 1-2. Ready for the knockout punch, stopping any rally this time. With a crack of the bat, a dribbler drops into center. The fielder arcs a perfect throw to the catcher, fast enough that the lead runner stops at third. The winning run is just 90 feet away.

Now my son is in a jam with two men in scoring position. He turns and looks at the runners, then tosses the baseball up again and blows a bubble. He adjusts his cap. No smile, but no frown, either. He’s fully in the moment. New batter, another chance.

Ball one. Has his control left him? Strike one. Naw, he’s okay. The sidearm delivery has the batters looking at a ball that surely isn’t going to be a strike. Until it is, right at the end, and they’re swinging too late. Strike two, and the runner gets ready to bolt on the pitch. Two out, two on, two strikes. His pitch crosses the plate just before the swing, a big strikeout. The inning’s over with no runs scored. I breathe again.

Out on the field, the momentum shifts. The boys race to the chain link dugout, talking hot, reaching for bats. I move toward the dugout and smile at him. “Nice job,” is all that I dare say. He doesn’t reply, still drinking in the heady brew of his success.

The Cubs parlay a pair of walks into a man on third base. The game is 90 feet from being over after more than two and half hours. But a centerfield fly ball ends the first extra inning. The ump calls time, and ever parent in the stands is baffled. These boys are 10 and 11. The can play all night. Why stop the game? League rules, and players and parents alike walk away from the field muttering. All tied after seven innings, we will play the eighth inning tomorrow. Nicky will have 24 hours to think about his next challenge — the heart of the order, batting a collective .600 on the day.

I savor his success, the sight of that long hair, bubbles blown on the mound. He’s grown over the last few weeks. I hug him as close as he will allow me in front of his teammates. “I’m proud of you — that was great to watch.”

“Thanks. See you tomorrow, Dad.”

The next day dawns with those hitters waiting. It feels like these teams have been playing this game for weeks. While he pitches, I pace along the top row of bleachers, so I can shield my anxiety and expectations from him. Batter up. Strike one. Antoher sidearm delivery. Then a pop-up, just beyond Nicky’s reach. The second baseman snags it in the air. One away. Nicky looks around, understands — he’s not alone out here. The knowledge brings a smile to his face.

He bears down again, staring at the batter, the number five hitter. Powerful—he hit a double yesterday. Nicky throws three pitches for three strikes. The Big Whiff, and now there’s two away. My heart rate is up but my worries are down. The third batter was safe with a walk yesterday during that rally. Ball one — concentrate, Nicky. Strike one, settling down. Strike two, fouled off. Batter in the hole 1-2 now. A hard throw, a quick swing, and the ball is in the air. The shortstop fades back onto the outfield grass. He squeezes his glove. The side is retired. Now for the winning run the Cubs can create and an end to the championship quest. Who’s up? Nicky.

His energy hovers around the mound by now, not in the batter’s box. He swings wide at the first pitch, straining to make contact. A second pitch gets past him. Finally he makes contact — straight back to that pitcher’s glove on one bounce. Nicky’s out at first and heads back to the dugout to watch his fate be settled by his teammates.

Next batter for the Cubs has been 2 for 3 in the game with four RBIs. He evens the count by looking at a ball. It’s time for a hit now. No. He fouls one up in the air for a fly and the catcher reels it in for another out. Two away. Will Nicky have to throw a third inning? The next batter takes a second strike. Once more chance to start a rally. Crack — a slapped single from Nicky’s teammate Mark. Next batter goes to 1-2. Big swing, and contact. A long double into right field. The runner digs for third, safe on the throw.

Like yesterday, the winning run is 90 feet away. Cubs on the bases, the team on the dugout chain link, chanting. Ball one. Ball two. Will they load ‘em up to get at the number nine hitter? No — a sharp single, and Mark gallops home from third to score.

The boys spill from the dugout like bees and mob him. They dance around the infield, while my heart does scissor kicks. I squeeze off a dozen pictures of the joy and the parents’ relief. The team poses together and goofs off for the camera. If there was champagne, it would be popping its corks. I think of Harry Caray’s famous line at the end of Chicago victories and I say it out loud — “Cubs win! Cubs win!”

I shake Nicky’s hand and give him a hug outside the dugout. He looks at me beaming at him, the warm memory of victory still simmering inside him. He has chosen to try after failure. I smile at the lesson he’s taught to himself, the most apt teacher. We have learned together during this game about how hope fights the fear of failure — and how victory is sweeter on the second try.