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A Baseball Story

It was the bottom of the sixth inning, the end of regulation play for 8-and-under baseball.

The 747 was at the plate, with runners at first and third. With a chance to be a hero and drive in the winning run, he had fouled off a couple and was down to his last pitch.

It was a good pitch, belly-high, right across the plate. Our grandson took a good cut, lofting a high fly ball out to short left field.

The left fielder hardly had to move. He camped under the descending ball, holding his glove in Roberto Clemente basket-catch style, and it landed plop! in the leather pocket.

WIN OR LOSE, being able to sit at a community ballpark complex and watch a baseball game is a real treat these days. There’s nobody scolding about keeping a six-foot distance or wearing a facemask. We just sit in our bag chairs or lean against the chain-link fence, watching the game, cheering for our kids, and chatting with the parents and grandparents of their teammates.

It is so blessedly normal.

The only concession to COVID-19 is that teams don’t line up to shake hands at the end of the game. They still line up, but at a distance, and raise their ballcaps to the other team, chanting “Good game, good game.”

All three of our youngest grandsons were drafted on the Oak Glen team coached by Teddy McKenna. We’re thankful; life is oh so much easier for our family with just one schedule of games to follow.

The Favorite, Seed’s youngest, usually plays right field. His hitting and fielding have improved quite a lot this year, something which honestly can be said for the whole team. He saved a run with good fielding in a tight win over the 17-team league’s second-place team last week, earning praise from the coach.

Shark’s two boys, Lamppost Head and The 747, are competent at the plate and in the field, for their ages. They rotate through most infield positions, with Lamppost Head most often fielding at pitcher or playing first base, and The 747 at second, short or pitcher. I told Lamppost Head I might have to change his column nickname to “Line Drive” after he snagged a couple of hard liners at the pitcher’s mound.

IN TEMPERMENT, Lamppost Head, a lefty, is the steady type, a dependable hitter who thinks about things and doesn’t let bad outcomes bother him too much. His brother is do first, think second, which helps make him a quick, hard-hitting, intuitive player, but he’s also overly sensitive, taking strikeouts and fielding mistakes too much to heart.

“Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball,” Tom Hank’s character said in the movie “A League of Their Own.” There’s not much crying in 8-and-under baseball, but there’s some. Earlier in the season, Coach Teddy had The 747 leading off in the batting order, but he was nervous and often struck out the first time at bat, and the tears would come. The coach moved him down in the order to cleanup, which makes sense anyway since he can hit for power.

In the game referenced above, Lamppost Head and The 747 had back-to-back inside-the-park home runs in the fourth inning that helped build a 6-3 lead over a good visiting Indian Creek team.

But The 747, playing second, also had an error earlier in the game, throwing home when he should have run the ball back into the infield and called time, which by rule halts the runners. The runner scored from third.

The 747 realized his mistake and the tears came. His dad Snickers, coaching in left field, knew they would, and hustled over quickly to give his boy a hug and tell him it was OK.

However, the run later proved crucial when Creek rallied for four runs in the top of the fifth to take the lead, 7-6.

IN COACH-PITCH youth baseball there are no walks. Each batter gets only five pitches unless he strikes out first, or stays alive by fouling them off.

In an earlier game this season, Coach Teddy’s fifth pitch went behind his player’s back. It didn’t matter that it was a bad pitch, the kid was still out. It wasn’t a crucial situation and the coach was able to laugh about it later, but it made him really concentrate on making a batter’s last pitch a good one, like the one he made to The 747.

In that last half inning, the first Oak Glen batter struck out. The coach’s son, also named Teddy, doubled, but the next batter struck out and the Bears had two outs. Kane, the feisty little shortstop, kept it going with a single, then Lamppost Head hit a clutch single to drive in Teddy from third to tie the game 7-7, with Kane advancing to third.

The 747 stepped up to home plate with the chance to drive in the winning run in the bottom of sixth.

Roberto Clemente was a proud man, and he bristled when anyone suggested he copied the basket catch from Willie Mays. Clemente grew up making basket catches in Puerto Rico. Plus, his nonchalant style, making effortless basket catches down low, was different from Mays, who assisted the glove with his free hand for catches at the waist or above.

Probably no other great players ever made more use of the basket catch than Mays and Clemente. But maybe there’s a good reason for that.

When The 747 connected on that high fly to short left, his teammates on base, with two outs and nothing to lose, took off running. Kane was crossing home plate when the ball plopped into the left fielder’s glove, held basket-style at waist . . . and then rolled out and fell to the ground.

The 747 was credited with a double. The game was over. The Bears had won 8-7 on a walk-off hit.

It would still have been a great game, and we would have been just as proud of the boys if the left fielder had squeezed that catch, but that was so much better an ending, don’t you think?

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