Monday, July 26, 2010

A plaque only a championship coach could love

I’ve decided there is a direct correlation to the beauty of a softball trophy and the actual achievement. And it doesn't go the way you might think.

You have to understand that I’ve been coaching coed softball teams for 13 years. I’ve presided over some decent teams and some teams where we all considered not getting hurt and still being on speaking terms at the end of the season an accomplishment.

The top prize has been elusive -- a lofty goal. Oh, we start each season thinking that we were going straight to the finals, and that the regular season was a formality intended as an enjoyable way to spend June and July.

The People’s Team came close -- twice. We founded the Flint Journal’s coed team in response to what we felt was the unfairness, elitism, and unpleasantness of the company’s men’s team. Our credo was that we would have fun and still make sure everybody played.

We won more than we expected, and one year, all the stars seemed to be in alignment and we went to the championship. The opponents, who had not won a game during the regular season, appeared with players we never saw before – really good ones. It did not end well.

That same summer, we went to what was once a casual tournament for newspaper teams, and again went to the finals. We went up against a team from one of the Detroit papers, stocked with players we were convinced had never seen the inside of the Detroit newsroom. That, too, did not end well.

We moved across the state in 1999, and I was very content to be just a player again. But the church team needed someone to take the helm when we had some many players that we could split in two.

The church team is named Know Mercy. I found out later that they picked the moniker because the team not only lost every game its first season, but lost by the mercy rule in each game. The players at the time thought the name was both accurate, and appropriate for a nice Lutheran church.

In the irst year with me at the helm, we earned this fine plaque:

Third place in the consolation round is another way of saying we lost the first game, then managed to win one or two against other teams that lost a game before getting sent home.

It's beautiful, with the little 3-D effect working there. It proudly hangs in the baseball room, not far from the Newsday front page of Jesse Orosco leaping for joy in 1986.

We were good in 2009, and cruised through much of the season. We have a great pitcher, some dangerous hitters and solid female players, which are the key in a coed league. The guys tend to balance out, and teams typically have a bunch of them. But the girls usually bat four or five times a game compared to twice or three times for the guys.

I thought we finally had a team that could go the distance. I mean I really thought we could do it, not the usual pre-season optimism. Alas a communication error prompted some players to arrive late to a first-round playoff game, causing a forfeit.

We marched our way through the losers’ bracket, getting to the final round. There’s a chance I carried on like Jesse Orosco after pounding our rivals in the last game. But deep down, we wondered if we could have gone all the way had we not goofed up that first round game.

The league director brought over the Consolation Championship plaque, and I had great expectations after the beautiful third place prize. We got this:

We were under whelmed. But still proud to accept. It hangs in my cubicle in the newsroom.

But that taste of near-victory led to greater expectations for this season. And with good reason. The second church team sort of fell apart, and two of the best players came to play with us. Most of the heroes from the year before were returning, and we picked up some new friends.

And there was another reason. My son was turning 18, which meant he was finally old enough to play on the same team as his dad. I got all choked up just thinking about it.

Things did not turn out entirely as expected early on. Some of our biggest guns had some other commitments and missed some games, out biggest was injured playing basketball and things just didn’t fall into place when they needed to. We lost some close games to good teams, and got pounded by some very good teams. We even had a tie game, which had not happened before.

We closed the regular season limping with one win, one tie and, well, more loses than we dared to count.

But I told the team we needed to shake off all that baggage and start anew. Most of the other commitments had been completed, my shortstop was declared healthy and things started to click.

We bounced a team out of first round, and squeaked around the team we tied in the second – our first winning streak of the season.

We caught fire. The defense flashed leather previously unseen. Our great pitcher tossed the first shutout in team history. We finally started getting runs in bunches.

Each win afforded new confidence. We faced our rival, the St. Matthew’s Monsters, in the championship game.

Throughout the week, teammates traded e-mail brimming with confidence. But I couldn’t help but think back to those two championship games in 1996, and the disasters that ensued.

We scored three runs in the first inning, and the Monsters replied with one of their own, on a contested call, I might add.

We nursed a 3-1 lead for most of the game, an unusually low score for coed softball. But we tacked on three more in the sixth, no help from the coach. “Mr. Clutch” was so nervous that I popped meekly to first base twice, nearly had the team bat out of order, and directed a player to accept a walk that she wasn’t entitled to.

There’s a chance there was much pacing and angst. More than one player lovingly admonished, “Calm down, Chipper.”

We added a seventh run in the top of the seventh, the final inning. Up 7-1, I directed my son to run out to the outfield because I wanted him to experience what I thought was about to happen. Too nervous to field myself, I bounced all over the place.

Usually I can report the details of each play for our game notes. I have no recollection of what actually happened that inning, other than we shut the Monsters down then raced to the center of the infield to celebrate. It was, after all these years, a very good feeling.

After all the hugs, the league director walked over with a large plaque wrapped in plastic, offering his congratulations.

I’ve been told that it looks like something that escaped from a 1970s roller disco, Others said it looks like a bad 1980s sci-fi movie’s backdrop.

We have a tradition were everyone in the team signs the back of the plaque. We all passed it and posed for a photo. We pointed to the word, "champions" and overlooked the rest.

The plaque has made the victory tour. Pastor asked me to hold it up so the congregation could see. I think some people were a little frightened.

It’s also been to work, where it will probably be on permanent display since my wife said she doesn’t want in the house, much less in the living room, where I first suggested it hang in glory for all to see.

One person walked over to my desk and stopped in mid-sentence. “Boy, that’s, um, some plaque.”

And I smiled. Yes, it is.

To see more about our season and our cool collector cards, check out Know Mercy Softball

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't let anyone tell you that co-ed softball doesn't create pressure. I will go to my grave carrying the disappointment of the 1991 Journal playoff defeat with me. Down 12-8 in the sixth, with seemingly no chance to catch up, the Journal team did the nearly unthinkable -- mount a rally with the whole season on the line. Three runs later we had the tying run on third, the fastest player in the history of the Grand Blanc League on second and our best hitter at the plate. All we needed was a knock, any knock, just past the infield and the runner on second scores and we pull off the miracle. And he pops up! He hadn't popped up the whole year. He was obviously feeling it.

The beer at the Cornerstone tasted bitter that night.