Baseball is a team sport. I have heard that preached to me since I was boy: Rah-rah’ed to me by Little League coaches, mantra’d from my high school coaches, promised by my college coaches.
Now I’m a pro, and I admit, as such I have questioned the truth of the team sermon. After watching the rise and fall of individuals through the media and the divinity it grants a privileged few before wantonly casting them from the heavens in the next breath, I can’t help but wonder what truly defines the word team. There are, after all, only so many roster spots, so many contract dollars, so many opportunities. Teammate or not, not everyone gets what they want in this game.
I know it takes more then one person to play this sport. I know there are nine positions on a baseball field. But the concept of team is more then the numbers required to fill locations. I’d be a fool to tell you money doesn’t talk in this world of ours, and be lying if I said I don’t want to beat all comers to a spot in the bigs. Yet, in my heart, I still believe this is a team game. Not because of what old coaches preach, what numbers say, or what Disney movies evoke. I believe this is a team game because I know what its like to lose with a team, and win with one . . .
I made it to the gate first, but my emotions were driving me at a reckless pace and I couldn’t get it open. In my elation I couldn’t make the simple latch work. It was as if I forgot how to spell my name or tie my shoes; something so simple was now so foreign in that glorious moment.
The rest of the pen was immediately on top on me. Suffering from the same adrenaline stupor, they would have pushed me through the fence or simply knocked it down had I not gotten the gate open. When it flung wide, we burst through like a raging river. Across the outfield we ran, screaming like wild men, like warriors charging into battle. It was the last sprint we would run that season.
The air was cold the night of Sept. 15th; the first real signs of autumn were creeping across Missouri’s landscape. The chill was a reminder we were in postseason play. The stands were filled with deep Cardinal red, surging on every out. Springfield’s fans were marvelous and horrifying, a united front against the evil team who came prowling around their house for a championship. Truly, they were a formidable 10th man, and we felt like real players in their presence. Like us, they never doubted the ability of the home team. However, after cruising through the first eight innings with an 11- 0 lead we began to think the game was over, that we had won and the mighty Cardinals were slain. We were wrong.
Shock was an understatement, more dread and nausea as we sat in the pen watching the Cardinals come alive in the ninth inning. They scored seven times before we recorded an out. A four-run lead seemed so fragile after enjoying the safety of 11. In the pen we relievers paced, clinging to the chain link fence, squeezing it in frustration, leaning on it for support. We cheered for our teammates but it was futile. We were too far away for them to hear us, our voices drowned in a sea of roaring crimson. We talked nervously amongst ourselves, asking how we offended the baseball gods? Did we put the balls away to soon? Did we talk to confidently about being victorious? Were the Cardinals just toying with us? We were clueless, helpless and sick over a dream fast turning into a nightmare.
Baseball, being a game of averages, was against such anomalous comebacks, yet baseball, being a game of magic, never ruled it as impossible. Fortunately for us, the averages aspect proved the better, and the Cardinals’ war machine came to a stop with an anti-climactic grounder to third base. The ball was scooped up and thrown across the field like any other and, at the same time, unlike any I’d ever seen. It seemed to stand still, as if the field, the stadium and the whole earth itself moved around it. It carried the expectation of a 147-game season on it, the culmination of every drop of sweat, every sacrifice and every hope. Thousands of eyes watched, dozens of hearts pushed, and two hands caught the ball the ended the 2007 Texas League season.
I was in a full sprint, my arms raised in a V with both fist clenched, as I crossed the infield dirt. Others had torn off their jackets and thrown their hats as they ran. We were set to collide with the pile of the teammates already forming at the pitchers mound. The bullpen arrived last and landed on the top of that screaming mountain of uniforms. Underneath, we could hear cries for mercy from the crushed. They begged us to relent, crying they couldn’t breathe, that something was going to break if we didn’t get off. We got off, backed up, and jumped on again!
When we had our fill, we peeled off and stumbled around, staggered by the reality of our victory. Hugs, shouts, arms over shoulders, more hugs . . . There we stood, on the patch of grass we called home, a pack of grown men, big kids, and wild warriors, amazed we could do the very thing we only whispered about in spring training, back before teams were made. We were transformed, a family now, baptized by the power of a championship . . .
It’s good to see my old teammates come spring training, their faces like pages where all those great, magical baseball moments are recorded, written in a language only we can understand. I will always remember what we experienced together, the weathering of defeat and the pride of victory. Those men may go onto greater things then I, or disappear into the blur of life, but they will always be my teammates.