Saturday, November 12, 2005

Greatest Game I've Ever Witnessed
By Blogger

This is the second in a series the Sportszilla crew is writing. Read Zach's account here.

Glory days. Well, they'll pass you by. Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye. Glory days.

This is about my most glorious day in sports. I don't know how to feel that I played in what I consider the best baseball game I've ever witnessed (Should I feel lucky? Proud? Perturbed that a major league game hasn't matched the feeling?). Let's go to San Jose, California, on March 25, 2000...

My junior year of high school, I was the ninth man on a seven man pitching staff. That's not a joke. On my freshman and J.V. teams, there was no way I was demonstrably worse than any of the other pitchers, yet the Varsity coach decided that he didn't like me because I was five foot seven. There were three other "short" pitchers on the team that year. Two were lefties (therefore, according to our coach, being short was not a hindrance), and the other, Kevin, was a fireballing junior who had been the relief ace on J.V. the year before and had also been a spectacular defensive right fielder. Kevin was about five-nine, but despite killer stuff was also never given a chance. We understood why the seniors were given preferential treatment, but we didn't understand why the six foot four soft tossing junior would automatically get more chances than we would. Don't get me wrong, Ryan was a very good pitcher, and he saved our asses more than once during the season, but simply because he was tall he was considered a better option than the shorter guys. I was the only pitcher on the team for the whole season who struck out more guys than he walked, and yet... I was short.

Our team was stacked. We had the two best catchers in the WCAL, the Bay Area's best baseball league. Joe Jacobitz did most of the catching, and Jim Goethals was forced to play right field to keep his bat in the five hole. Both would eventually go on to play pro ball. Our lineup could do it all. We had six legitimate home run threats, and the other three guys were absolute burners on the basepaths who got on base a lot. To top it off, our up the middle defense was tremendous, with our three speedsters in the field and Joe or Jim behind the plate able to block anything in the dirt.

This particular March day, we were playing at Bellarmine College Preparatory. At the time, they were ranked eighth in the country by a major prep sports web site. Several of their players would play Division I ball, at Cal, the University of Miami, and San Jose State. More than a few got drafted, and at least one, Kevin Frandsen, is now considered a promising major league prospect. If you don't get it, they were damn good, too.

Both of us were undefeated in league play coming into the game. We knew that Bellarmine and Serra High School would be our most difficult opponents in league. It wasn't hard to get fired up. All we had to do was stare at them taking infield in their warmup jerseys and convince ourselves they were cocky sons of bitches that didn't deserve that number eight national ranking.

We killed their starting pitcher, a big tall lefty who could supposedly hit ninety on the gun. Bellarmine's coach kept calling for curves, and we kept smacking grounders through the holes. In the middle of the first, we were up 3-0.

Bellarmine came right back with three of their own in the bottom half. Then, in the second and third, while our bats went cold, they kept on coming with three more runs, knocking out our starter with two outs in the third. Paul, a senior, had only given up two earned runs, but he'd thrown a ton of pitches under stress. Ryan came in and shut the door, not only in that inning, but in the next two innings, also, giving up only one run.

While Ryan induced groundout after groundout, our hitters started raking again. In the fourth, we touched up the big lefty for four more runs, and finally knocked him out in the fifth after he gave up another run, his eighth run allowed, fifth earned. In the bottom half, they got to Ryan for a run, but that was all. In the sixth, we plated one run and then Ryan again held them scoreless in the bottom half. So, going into the final frame, it had been a back and forth affair, but we were up 9-7, needing only three more outs.

First, though, we wanted insurance runs. Good hitters get timely hits, and two came across. With an 11-7 lead, it looked like we'd ride Ryan to victory. Bellarmine had other ideas. Ryan only faced two batters in the seventh. With all our seniors unavailable, Kevin came in and only faced two batters, walking them both to load the bases.

Here's the part where I should have come into the game. Remember how I said I was the ninth man on a seven man staff? At this particular moment, I thought I was the sixth man on a six man staff. Our ace had blown out his knee a few weeks before, finishing him for the year, so I thought that moved me up one spot. The other senior righty had started this game and been removed. The senior lefty was unavailable, having pitched deep into our game several days before. Ryan had come in and been removed. Kevin had come in and been removed. Our junior lefty was also our starting first baseman, and removing him would have required shifting Joe to first base and Jim behind the plate. That left me. Except that our coach decided he'd rather have our cleanup-hitting left fielder come in to pitch. He'd pitched with marginal success during his sophomore season, but had not pitched at all since then. He was six foot three, though.

He came in to pitch and over the course of the inning walked in two more runs, tying the game. Miracle of miracles, he didn't give up the winning run because the Bellarmine hitters were too jumpy to be the hero and swung at bad pitches.

During the break between innings, we didn't say anything. What do you say in that situation? "Hey, you! Strawberry! Hit a home run!" We knew what we had to do, and we scored five runs on them, capped off by our cleanup hitter's monster home run over the thirty foot high fence in left field. I've never seen so many angry-looking kids as in our dugout right then. It was the fighting football mentality we had, I guess.

As the team ran out onto the field for the bottom of the eighth, our left fielder on the mound, and with a five-run lead in hand, the coach looked at me and finally told me to warm up. There was only one problem: someone had moved my glove and I couldn't find it. In a panic, unwilling to tell the coach I couldn't find my glove should he ask why I wasn't in the bullpen, I begged for and got one of the reserve outfielders' gloves. It had wide open webbing, the worst type of glove for a pitcher to use. I got ready in record time, but it still wasn't fast enough, as our left fielder got one out, but also walked four batters, plating one. The coach strolled out to the mound to get him, and he pointed at me. I sprinted in, and, in a monumental stroke of good luck, realized that with our left fielder going back out into the field and switching gloves, I could grab his pitching glove, which I did as he looked at me with bewilderment.

As I warmed up, the bases loaded, one out, up by four, against the middle of the Bellarmine order, the coach (Not "my" coach, dammit) stood behind me and watched. Over the course of the season, he worked with me in the bullpen exactly once. Over the course of the season, he gave me only one piece of advice, to throw my curveball harder, which caused me to lose all feeling for my best pitch and left me with only one pitch I could control with any confidence. Over the course of the season, I don't think I did anything productive in practice except earn my teammates' respect by being the most enthusiastic and best-fielding batting practice shagger they'd ever seen. The coaches wouldn't work with me, but there I was, on the mound in a high leverage situation, against one of the best teams in California. When I'd thrown my eighth warmup pitch, the coach walked back to the dugout without saying anything.

I walked their three hitter, bringing in another run. It was a three-one curveball that dropped into the strike zone, but the umpire called it high. I was throwing the curve too hard. The next hitter to come up was their five hitter. They'd batted out of order, and nobody noticed until we looked at the scorebook the next day. I threw him a curve that missed, and then came back with a tailing fastball on the inside corner. It jammed him, and he fisted a grounder to our shortstop, who flipped the ball to second, and our second baseman made a sweet turn to first. I made a thirty-five inch vertical leap, and the team mobbed me between the mound and first base.

After we'd settled down, as we were walking back to our bus, the other coach asked if I'd been nervous out there. I told him my knees had been shaking so badly, I wasn't sure I'd be able to kick in my windup. Inside, my adrenaline was pumping even as we got on the bus. It was all I could do not to stick it to the coach about that game, on the bus, in practice the next week, for the rest of the season. In our biggest prove-it game of the year, he'd been forced to rely on the pitcher he least wanted to rely on, and I'd come through.


We went on to win a share of the league title. We beat Bellarmine again in our section tournament. Ryan pitched six innings of one-run relief to finish their season. We made it to the section championship game, where we lost a 6-5 thriller to Leigh.

The next time I pitched in a game, it was two weeks later, and I threw 1.7 innings of shutout ball on the losing end of a blowout. Two weeks after that, I threw a scoreless inning closing out another loss. Nine days after that, I threw two perfect innings, keeping us close to the end in another losing effort. The last time I pitched that year was six days after that, when I had a poor one-third of an inning and was pulled mid-inning the only time in my high school career. On the season, I ended up with only 8.7 innings pitched, with 7 strikeouts and six walks. I only gave up 3 earned runs.

I became the ninth man on the seven man staff when a six-three sophomore was called up from J.V. for the stretch run and ended up pitching more innings than I did all year (seven pitchers, plus our injured ace and our left fielder). During the sectional tournament, I was asked to warm up several times, but never got into a game. During Ryan's masterful performance against Bellarmine, I was actually asked to stay in the outfield bullpen instead of the dugout. Alone. For the final five innings. Earlier in the tourney, our left fielder had gotten another chance to pitch while I sat. The next year, both coaches decided to call it quits. I haven't pitched since my senior season.


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