Thursday, April 21, 2016

One of Those Moments

Brendan pitching for Ellison JV
I saw the look of exhilaration on his face. I was less than thirty feet away, and in perfect position to see it as he stomped on home plate with the winning run. He raised his arms, leaped high in the air, with his face erupting into the most astonishing display of emotion I have ever seen from him. While it was a fantastic thing for him, for me, it was one of those moments. It was a powerful event that will remain deeply embedded for life.
Brendan, as I write this, less than a month from his 16th birthday and a sophomore in high school, has loved baseball his entire life. Brendan shares my passion for the game, which I inherited from my Dad, and he in turn, from his. I wrote about this nearly 100 year-old family baseball story in the chapter 'Fathers, Sons, and Baseball', in my book A Sports Junkie. Since then, Brendan graduated from years of Little League play, and from a decade of summer days he and I spent in the Texas heat playing and practicing this sport that we both love.
I know he considered all of that as a prelude. It was preparation for what he wanted to do from a young age: play high school baseball, what he considers the beginning of 'real' baseball. We have lived near the high school he now attends for more than 13 years. We have driven past the baseball field hundreds, if not thousands of times, and he always gazed at it in what I imagine was anticipation of the day when he would get his chance to put on the uniform and step onto that field.
He was 14 when it started, and I recall that first day of summer freshman baseball practice, two months before he set foot in a high school classroom. It was surely a big moment for him, finally getting on that field, but he seemed to take it in stride, as though it was simply time for him to do what he worked for since he was a little kid.
He got out of my truck, grabbed his equipment, and walked confidently (at least it seemed so), towards the gate. I'm sure he savored that moment, and I sat in my truck with a lump in my throat and the hair on the back of my neck standing up, savoring my moment, watching my son enter another exciting stage of his life.
About a week later, he came to me holding his baseball glove.
"Dad," he said. "I need a new glove."
Brendan, age 6
I took the glove from him and examined it. We bought this glove when he was in first grade and he played for a Little League team I coached called the Giants. When he got that glove, it was bigger than he was. It struck me now how small it was, and after years of use, after me fixing the stitching many times, it was well worn. It was still a good glove, but it was a boy's glove. I looked at it and realized I was about to have another of those parent moments. A boy's glove will not serve a young man playing high school baseball. I told my wife it was time I bought our son a man's glove.
His first year of high school baseball was less than spectacular. He spent his freshman season and the following summer baseball season playing sporadically. He wasn't much of a hitter, striking out often, and although he had the arm to pitch, there were wild pitches, hit batters, and he didn't play as much as he or I wished he could. Not unusual, I thought, for a kid his age, and I didn't think much of it. Over the winter, he had a bit of a growth spurt, and by the start of spring baseball, he had grown several inches (now taller than I am) and put on a little weight.
I couldn't get to his first two games as a sophomore, as they were scheduled out of town on weekdays, but by game three, I decided to take the day off and go watch him play. I didn't tell him I was going to be there, and I traveled the fifty or so miles to the small town of Marlin, Texas on a spectacular February day. He was surprised to see me sitting in the stands, and I was surprised to see that he was batting leadoff – a spot reserved for a player who gets on base often. Obviously, the coaches had seen improvement in Brendan. Not only was he leading off, but he was playing entire games this year, and he told me he expected to pitch more.
In Marlin, I watched him patrol the expanse of center field, easily catching several fly balls, and using his already good arm to make strong throws. He got a couple of hits, played well overall, and I smiled thinking how grown up he looked, and how well he carried himself on the field. He had always looked like a ballplayer, but it was different now. I wasn't watching a little boy; I was watching my tall son beginning to work his way into the adult world.
A month later on their home field, Brendan, playing left field, had a good game at the plate, but they lost the first game of a double header. In game two, he started in left field, but was quickly called to the mound in the second inning when the starter gave up several runs. He went on to pitch five superb innings in relief a, fantastic showing. He was in command of his pitches and the strike zone. He gave up only a couple of scattered hits, and he didn't walk or hit anyone. It was the best I had ever seen him pitch, and I was immensely impressed by his exceptional performance. Brendan was clearly maturing as a player, at the plate, in the outfield, and on the mound.
Brendan in the Ellison outfield
He had a great night at the plate, getting five hits in nine at bats over both games. He drove in four, scored five times, and stole four bases. His final hit in game two drove in the winning run, and his teammates chased him around, playfully tackling him. He was the star of the day, and I couldn't stop smiling watching him enjoy the moment as the rest of the team heaped praise on their buddy. I'm smiling now, as I write this at the memory of that terrific game.
A week later, they dropped two games. Brendan started game one, and pitched well, but it wasn't enough. The defense behind him was shaky, making six errors early on; Brendan and his teammates couldn't make up the difference, and as the pitcher of record, he got the loss. He had another good night at the plate, with three hits, but he was most proud that night that he stole five bases over the two games. He had never been a fast runner, but now, in his second year of high school ball, he was learning to read pitcher moves, and he was getting exceptional jumps and stealing more bases than I would have believed possible. 
The following week, he was again slated to start the first game of a double header. As I sat in the stands, I had no idea that this night I would see several great moments in Brendan's life, which by their very nature, would become memorable moments in mine.
The first such moment came two pitches into the game, when the batter hit a home run over the left field wall. I looked at Brendan, wondering how he would react. He watched the ball fly over the fence, shrugged, and then looked at his catcher, held out his glove, and caught the new ball. He went back to the pitching rubber and took his stance, calmly waiting for the new batter to step into the box. He acted as though nothing unusual had happened; he was ready to get on with the game.
I thought, wow, this is incredible maturity. A year ago, he would have kicked the dirt, glared at the left fielder, and slapped his hand into his glove, showing his displeasure. Not this time. His shoulder shrug told me had had instantly forgotten it and moved on. I was hugely impressed by this show of professionalism.
The rest of the game was never in doubt. The other team scored eight runs, but Brendan's team scored 14, and he had a six inning complete game win. He got a hit (a solid smash up the middle), walked twice, stole two bases, and scored a couple of runs. In game two, he played left field. He got another hit, stole two more bases, but it was what happened at about 10 pm in the bottom of the seventh that left me shouting and jumping around with the hair on the back of my neck standing up.
It was a back and forth game, and by the top of the seventh inning, the other team had tied the score, 10-10. With Brendan's team coming to bat for the final time, the umpires were looking at their watches. It was late on a school night, and they were ready to call this game a tie. I had moved from the stands to a spot near the fence, near the dugout, with a closer view of home plate. From there I could hear Brendan's teammates saying:
"Come on guys, we have to do this."
"We need to win now or they're going to call the game and it will end in a tie."
"Let's go guys, let's take this thing!"
The first batter hit a grounder to third base, and was thrown out, bringing Brendan to the plate. With his teammates shouting encouragement, he slapped the ball on the ground to third and beat the throw to first. He stood on the bag and I knew what was coming next. Before the next pitch, Brendan, with a perfect read of the pitcher's motion, stole second base.
Both teams were shouting, the few fans still there were all yelling. Everyone was standing, waiting to see what would happen. Brendan took a big lead, drawing a throw from the pitcher, but he got back to 2nd. On the next pitch, his friend Josiah (they played together in Little League years ago), slammed a long fly ball to left field. Brendan hesitated to see if it would be caught, but when the ball sailed over the left fielder's head, he was off and running.
I heard myself shouting, "GO! GO!" Brendan rounded third base at a dead run and headed for home. I was standing less than 30 feet away with a direct view of his face as he came to the plate. I saw the ball coming towards the catcher, and for a brief instant, thought it would get there first.
Then Brendan stomped his foot on the plate with the winning run as the throw snapped into the catcher's glove, and he leaped into the air, arms stretched high above his head. His face erupted in pure exhilaration, and with his arms still raised in triumph, bounded towards his teammates who were already rushing from the dugout. They mobbed him, screaming and shouting. He was ecstatic; they were elated, leaping around in pure joy.
As he crossed the plate, I raised my arms and screamed "YAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!" I glanced sheepishly around me, but everyone near me was doing the same thing. It was one of the most thrilling plays I've ever seen in the thousands of baseball games I have witnessed, but what made it that much better was the look on his face as he scored the winning run. Like I said, it was a display of emotion I have not seen from him, and it was so powerful it made me freeze in astonishment.
I stood watching as Brendan and his teammates pounded on each other's backs, laughing and shouting. It doesn't get any better than this, watching your child and his team enjoying an epic moment. I looked at the faces of the other parents near me; we stood as a group, smiling and relishing the remarkable scene we had witnessed.
When Brendan came out of the locker room twenty minutes later and approached the truck, I could see he was trying not to smile. But he couldn't do it. Before he got to the truck, his face opened up again in a huge grin.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi."
"Walk-off," he said in pure delight.
"Yeah," I said, equally delighted.
We drove home with Brendan doing most of the talking. He was basking in the glow of that spectacular finish, and I was enjoying his enthusiasm. It was a pleasant drive, a father and son discussing the games. We do this after every game and, win or lose, it is always enjoyable, but this night, especially so.
"That was fun," I told him. "That was really fun to watch."
"Yeah," he said, still smiling.
Scoring that winning run was a great moment for him, and I think he will remember the exhilaration. I will never forget it. That image is imprinted in my brain, with him seemingly suspended in mid-air, arms outstretched, with that look on his face as he shouted, "YAAAAAAHHHHH!!"

I know that fantastic, exciting things are not going to happen every time Brendan plays baseball. There will be hitless games, he will be thrown out stealing bases, and his pitching outings won't always be great. But on that night, he treated me to one of those moments – one of the greatest moments of my life, watching my son play a game he loves so much.
Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

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