Batter Up! Top of the 5th
Learning to Win — that First Championship
The Champions of the 2010 Summer League — Diamond Flames — I’m third from left in the back
Two significant things happened in 2005 that changed my world for the better (according to the baseball player in my soul). That was the year the Washington Nationals first came to DC, having previously been the Montreal Expos. I hadn’t had a “hometown” team since we’d moved to the DC area from the Philadelphia area in 1996. Baltimore was a little too far away to go to many games up there. I immediately bought a full-season ticket package and went to half of the home games (41) that first Nationals’ season. It was truly glorious. I’ll be writing much more about the Nationals in later innings.
The other significant event that year was my return to the field as a player. I’ve already described those first two years back to playing, which were great. Now, in my third year back, things really took off. Our experiment playing in the all-ages league the previous fall had been a success. We’d actually managed to win 3 of the 16 games on our fall schedule, three times as many as we’d won that summer in 20 games. I’d brought in a couple of younger guys to help us be more competitive in the all-ages league. We were still mostly older guys, but what we all had in common was we loved to play the game. While we still weren’t winning many games on the field, we were all having a lot of fun — the comraderie in the dugout was off the rails.
Since there was an all-ages spring league that started play in early April through June, we joined up to play in the spring, as well. I was still playing with the Diamond Fever in the senior league in the summer and fall, so I went from playing about 25 games that first year, to about 65 games in my third year back. The Diamond Fever were among the best teams in their league, so I got used to winning games playing with them. With the church team, which still didn’t have a proper name, each season saw some incremental improvements.
That spring, we won 4 of 18 games, one more win than the previous fall, then that summer we won 5 of 20. The fall team won 6 games out of 16 — it seemed that each season saw us winning one more game than the previous. The following year, the summer squad finally broke even, winning as many as we lost, going 10–10. I missed all but 2 games of the fall season when I had to go away for a month to attend the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville. The guy who managed the team in my absence that fall oversaw the greatest improvement we’d seen as a team, winning 11 out of 14 games, coming in second place in the league. From that point on, I let Mike be the field manager, while I just played. I was still, more or less, the general manager of the team, but Mike seemed to have the winning touch as the field manager. I was happy to be just another player on the team on game day, so I could just focus on playing.
I got recruited to play on a couple of other teams that year, and started up a co-ed team when the church asked me to do that. By 2009, I was playing in over 100 games a year. At some point, right around then, I realized that I was living my dream as a kid. I’d always dreamed of growing up to be a ballplayer, and it hit me — now, I am truly a ballplayer!
The ladies on the co-ed team felt strongly that the team needed a name, so we became the Diamond Flames. I always liked the “diamond” part of the Diamond Fever team I’d played on, and the church symbol was a flame inside a chalice, thus the Diamond Flames. All of the teams associated with the church adopted that name. All the teams remained quite competitive in 2009, most finishing 2nd or 3rd in their respective leagues. We’d gotten used to winning, but still seemed to come up just short in the big games against the strongest opponents.
Then came the memorable 2010 summer season. By then, we just had a great mix of older and younger guys, with a number of impact players, guys who could knock a few out of the park and who had a knack for winning. Guys like that would, at times, just take the team on their shoulders and lead us to a number of wins. Their attitudes were contagious, and we developed a bit of a swagger, feeling like we were going to win every time we took the field. And, win we did. We played a great season, winning our first ten games, then 5 of the next 8, to enter our final season double-header with a record of 15–3. We were playing a team that had started out slow, but then started giving us a run for our money. They were coming in with a 14–4 record. All we had to do was win one of the two games in the final season doubleheader, and the championship was ours.
In the first game, the other team came out with all guns blazing, and simply destroyed us, with a score something like 18–10. Both teams were now tied with records of 15–4. Whoever won the second game would be the league champions. We came out of the gates strong in the second game, putting up an 8 run lead at one point, and sustaining that lead right up to the final inning. I had played shortstop in the first game, but Mike moved me to the right-center field position for the nightcap. I just played wherever I was needed, comfortable playing at every position but pitcher.
The other team was hitting the ball really hard both games, so we were playing pretty deep in the outfield, so balls wouldn’t get over our heads. They finally found their bats in that last inning, and the balls started to drop in for hits. They got to within 2 runs of us, and had 2 runners on the bases, with the winning run at the plate, and 2 outs. If they could manage to get both runners, and the batter, safely home, they would beat us for the championship. If we could get this guy out for the final out, we were champions.
The batter lifted a short fly ball just beyond the reach of our second baseman, (a “dying quail” in baseball parlance). I was playing deep in right center, so immediately started in, charging full speed ahead, with only one thought in mind — “gotta catch that ball”. I did have to consider that, if I went all out to make the catch and missed, that batter could wind up circling the bases and beating us, by the time I’d get back to the missed ball and got it back in there. My other choice was to play it on a hop, staying in front of the ball, and getting it back in before all three runners scored. That would likely have allowed 2 of the runners to still score, but then we’d have a chance to get out of the inning, and play extra innings, hoping for the best. But if I caught the ball, it was all over. The championship would be ours — simple. I knew in my heart what Roberto Clemente would have done in such a situation, as I’d watched him play for eight years — he would go for the catch, so that’s what I did.
I was running as fast as I could as I watched that ball begin to fall — I still wasn’t sure if I’d get there in time, but I was going all out, legs churning, arms flailing, then finally stuck my glove out and reached for that ball just before it hit the ground. I felt it nestle into the web of my glove as I stumbled forward, secured it and pulled it up to my other hand to make sure it didn’t pop out. My momentum carried me into the infield, where I finally lost my balance and fell forward into a somersolt, but held onto that ball and finally jumped up, held it high in the air, then simply lost my mind.
I went crazy in the middle of that infield, letting out a holler that quaked from the bottom of my baseball soul as my team all swarmed onto the field, lifted me up on their shoulders, and all went crazy with me.
I’d waited 56 years for that moment, that championship — to get to make the final out, on such a dramatic play — well, I couldn’t have written a better script. It was perfect. We were champions! I will never forget that feeling, that first one. More would follow, but that’s enough for the top of the 5th. Stick around, grab a bag of peanuts or a box of cracker jacks, and enjoy the rest of the game. We’ll see you in the bottom of the 5th!