Have Bat, Will Travel
We were loathe to admit it, but as week three of the MSBL World Series dawned, we were getting tired. All the excitement and adrenalin we had had were slipping away just as they were most needed, for now Don, 70, was about to play with his youngest team yet — guys 60 and over.
These were the Paladins, a team based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and headed by a knight errant named Vince Overfelt.
“Last man standing, that’s what I always say,” Vince said, explaining how he played baseball.
This was a scrappy crew, a team so different from Team America that it was almost culture shock. About the only thing the two teams had in common was that they both had managers — Vince and Joe Viau —who are in the MSBL Hall of Fame.
Not only were these guys younger than Joe Viau’s troopers, they were men with a look in their eyes that said they were there to make sure the good guys (the Paladins, of course) won.
There was only one problem: there weren’t many of them. Enough to field a team, sure, but there would only be two or three left on the bench to give the others a breather or to fill in for injured players.
Forget the idea of calling in a courtesy runner or a pinch hitter.
The same was true of the Paladin “fans.” There weren’t many of them either. Another big change from Team America. There were two, to be exact — me and Kathy Romero, whose husband Al was a tough veteran of some very tough operations of the Vietnam war.
Al and some other guys — notably Paul Risso who pitched Independent League ball and Lee Hunter, a scrappy, hard-hitting infielder/outfielder — made up the “gunfighter” side of the Paladins. But the intellectual side (you remember, don’t you, that the TV Paladin was a classics-quoting graduate of West Point?) was nailed down by a quiet fellow who turned out to be the author of several novels based on players from the Negro Leagues. When we met him, Rick Collignon had his long legs stretched out in front of him as he leaned against a ballpark fence and read an enormous, old hardcover. We craned our necks to try to read the title, but failed. Rick said he was a “retired hippy” who had got as far as Taos and stayed. He now ran a construction company there with his sons but was letting them do more and more so he could spend time with his computer and his stories — and play baseball.
So, these were the baseball inheritors of the original paladins, the knights of Charlemagne out to fight for truth, justice and an MSBL title.
With so few of them, it was clear they would need all the tricky and complicated moves of a knight on a chess board to accomplish their goal.
In fact, the moves that manager Vince Overfelt outlined for them were sometimes so tricky that the players didn’t understand them. Kathy and I sat on the sidelines and scratched our heads at some of Vince’s calls. He, by and large, ignored us even when he walked by.
As the week wore on, the Paladins were winning, but it took its toll. Small injuries and then some big ones sidelined players. Vince was sure the team would not make the play-offs, so when a couple of the players talked to him about their plane reservations home, he told them to go ahead and leave after the final regularly scheduled game.
Wrong decision. The Paladins were doing better than anyone expected, and if they won their final game they’d be in the playoffs. But they were also hurting and down to eleven players. Vince let it be known that even if the Paladins won the last game, that would be it, no playoffs, not enough players. By contrast, the Paladins’ opponents in that final game, the Tortuga Solons, numbered more than twenty. Their dugout was bursting with players, most being from New Mexico and California, and they were good.
But not good enough. Or so it seemed when the game began. The Paladins quickly took a 4–1 lead. Just as quickly, however, another Paladin was injured and had to be helped from the field. The team was now down to ten players.
By the seventh inning, the Solons had moved ahead and frustration among the Paladins was mounting. Lee Hunter was on third when a ground ball was hit to short. He took off for home, ignoring or forgetting the MSBL rule that prohibits players running into the catcher. The collision could be heard in the stands. Tempers flared as players from both dugouts poured onto the field. Angry words were exchanged but that was all as order was quickly restored. The catcher, however, had managed to hold onto the ball and Hunter was called out. He was also thrown out of the game.
With one inning left to play, the Paladins were now down to nine players. The minimum. In truth, there were only eight. Rick Collignon, the third baseman, had severely sprained his left ankle earlier in the game and could barely move. In the field, all he could do was stand near the base and pray nothing would be hit to him.
By the time Rick came to bat in the 9th, with two outs and the Solons well ahead, he couldn’t move at all. Looking toward Overfelt, he shouted, “Even if I get a hit, I can’t make it out of the batter’s box!”
Rick grounded to second and didn’t move. He was thrown out. It was just as the Paladin manager said when he first spoke to Don, “Last man standing.”
The game was over, and so was the MSBL World Series for us. Vince called a team meeting and post mortem. Kathy and I were packing up when he hollered at us to come join the confab. “You’ve been with us the whole way,” he said, “our most loyal supporters, and I want to thank you.” We were stunned. The guy who had ignored us all week, who acted as though we were not there?
Well, what did we know? Baseball is like that: full of surprises, even off the field.
Besides, it was awfully nice our few guys got as far as they did. They had faced adversity and just kept fighting.
They were knights after all.