It has been said before that part of baseball’s appeal is that it doesn’t run according to a clock. There is artifice, to be sure, in the game – the nine-inning structure is an arbitrary construct, after all – but the artifice does not extend to the competitive duration of any given contest. There’s always enough time in baseball for your team to come back from a deficit or to cough up a lead. If you’re favorite football team is down three touchdowns with forty-five seconds left, you can pretty much turn off the TV. If your baseball team is down five runs going into the bottom of the ninth, well, you might want to keep watching. And I love that.
I love it because it mimics real life as much as a game can: in order to do something, you have to do it all the way. A team that has gotten all but one out hasn’t actually accomplished anything. One baseball team has to stare down the other and keep staring until the final out is recorded. There’s no spreading the floor to milk the clock, no faking an injury to use up stoppage time, no kneeling down to force the other team to use their final time out. I enjoy those sports that operate by the clock, but for me there’s something organic about sports like golf and tennis and especially baseball that require full attention until the final play has been made.
I have to think that part of my love for this facet of baseball came about because I was, at one point, a 75-pound weakling. That probably needs some explaining.
There were two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning of what was supposed to be a six-inning game. It was the championship game of our regional tournament for 10-year-old All Stars. In the town where I grew up, the 11-and-12-year-old All Stars were eligible to work their way toward Williamsport and the Little League World Series; the 10-year-olds only competed in regional tournaments. So, win or lose, this championship game was our final game of the season. And it was the bottom of the 8th, with two outs, and we were down by one. I walked to the plate, a short and skinny ten-year-old with spindly arms and goofy sport-specs. I was an All Star, of course, a center fielder and third baseman with a strong arm and a great batting average, but I can’t say that I inspired fear in the opposition when I strode to the plate that July night. With a one-run lead and the bases empty, they had to be feeling good about their chances.
I don’t remember thinking much as I stepped into the batter’s box. The 39-year-old me writing this would probably ruminate on the importance of the moment, the pressure, the desperation of my teammates and the hundred or so fans we had on either side of our dugout. I don’t think I thought about much beyond “swing level” and “make him throw a strike.” All else was over my head. I stepped in and assumed my stance and waited.
The first pitch I saw was a fastball down the middle, and I swung at it. I pulled a line drive toward the third baseman. To my credit, I didn’t see the play. I hit the ball and took off running. I knew it wasn’t a clean base hit, and I ran for my life because I expected to be thrown out, but I blew through first base without a throw. I learned later that the line drive ate up the third basemen, who knocked it down but couldn’t make a play. Probably and error. I was the tying run.
Five pitches remaining.
The next batter was my friend Jason, a bigger and stronger boy than I was, though not quite the hitter. I want to say from this distance that the pitcher looked nervous, or perhaps flustered that the skinny kid in goofy glasses managed to extend the game, but really I’m not sure. What I do know, though, is that his next pitch bounced in front of home plate, skittered past the catcher, and clanked off the chain-link backstop. I took off for second and made it without a throw. Tying run in scoring position.
Four pitches remaining.
The next pitch, as I could see from my second base perch, was a bit inside, but Jason took a swing and fisted it down the first base line. I took off for third but I remember a distinct sinking feeling. We’ve just lost the game. As I ran, though, there was a sudden explosion from the fans on our side. The first baseman had fumbled the weak grounder by charging it too aggressively, and Jason (a fast runner) had beaten the play to first. The tying run was now on third, the winning run on first. Two outs.
Three pitches remaining.
At this point I know the pitcher was flustered. His manager was calling out encouragement from the third base dugout. The crowd on both sides of the field was tense and noisy. I bounced up and down on third base. After a pause the pitcher stepped to the rubber and faced Brad, our catcher and one of our more powerful hitters. I knew what would happen here. As soon as he could, Jason would take off from first in order to steal second. The hope would be to draw a throw from their catcher, at which point I would sprint for home. My job was to time my break correctly and also to watch out for a trick play (a quick throw to the shortstop, for example, that from my angle would look like a throw to second).
The nervous pitcher threw a strike, Jason took off, I took a small lead, and then nothing. Jason took second without a throw. I retreated to third. The tying and winning runs were in scoring position.
Two pitches remaining.
I’ve never been on the field in any sporting event in which everyone was this nervous. The whole season was on the line. Players from both teams were pacing around like they’d been chugging Gatorade all game and the bathroom was out of order. The crowd was shouting on both sides. The managers were barking at their players to stay calm and focused and to keep their heads in the game. My heart pounds even now thinking of that moment. Then the crowd grew quiet as the pitcher stepped once more to the rubber. I placed my left foot on third and crouched into a runner’s stance with my right foot toward home. There was a pause.
I’m not sure now if the pitch was that bad, or if that catcher was that nervous, but either way the ball sailed low and outside and crashed into the backstop. I sprinted for home. There was no sound. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the pitcher running for the plate. He was going to beat me there. I saw the ball coming from the catcher just as a slid. I went flat, an all-out slide, the dirt scratching the back of my helmet, and my left foot crossed the plate as the tag hit my thigh. Safe.
The noise of our crowd overlapped the umpire’s call. I’m pretty sure I jumped straight into the air from my prone position and then floated over to the dugout, where I was run into and pummeled by a screaming group of ten-year-olds. After I adjusted my glasses, I looked back to the field and saw Jason standing at third base and the pitcher walking slowly back to the mound. The game was tied.
One pitch remaining.
What happened next was all but inevitable. Brad stepped back into the batter’s box, our crowd was still going wild, we were poised on the brink of the regional title, and that poor pitcher needed a time out. But there was nothing for it. You can’t bring a reliever in at that moment, and a manager’s visit to the mound (as I see it now) would only have given the pitcher more time to think bad thoughts. Without too much delay, then, the pitcher stepped to the rubber, went into his windup, and then promptly threw another pitch to the backstop.
Jason told me later he’d never run so fast. The crowd was utterly silent. The pitcher ran to the plate, the catcher went into a slide to grab the ball and throw it as quickly as possible, and still they had no chance. Jason slid across the plate without a tag, flew up out of his slide, and sprinted toward us as we stormed out of the dugout.
Of course as we all ran into each other, we really had no idea what we were doing. We’d all seen baseball celebrations – the dogpile or the crowd of guys standing and hugging and jumping in unison after a World Series win. We didn’t quite manage any of that. We just screamed and ran into each other. Ten-year-old boys don’t really hug each other all that well. The sentiment was there, though. We’d just pulled out the most improbable victory any of us could imagine. And we were champs.
Later that night our team decided that we had three MVPs of that final game: Jason, Brad, and me. They chose Jason and me because we kept the inning alive and scored the necessary runs. And they chose Brad because he never took the bat off his shoulder. He let the action happen instead of trying to be the hero. There were no real heroes that night. It was just baseball being what baseball is.
What strikes me most about those moments now is the same thing that strikes me at the end of any close baseball game. Once a team is down to its final out, each pitch could mean the end of the game, but it doesn’t have to. There’s no clock, no countdown letting us know which pitch will be the last one. If I had popped up to the shortstop on the pitch I hit, or if Jason had grounded out to the first baseman, or if Brad had tried to hit a walk-off home run instead of letting the other pitcher implode, then the outcome would have been different. There have been a few Major League Baseball teams, including most recently the Texas Rangers in 2011, who were one strike away from winning the World Series and yet lost. You have to make that last pitch, that last play. Otherwise, according to the glorious timelessness of a baseball game, the other team might come back.
Or, from the other side, look at it like this: as long as you have another pitch coming, in baseball or in real life, you have a chance. Even if you’re a 75-pound weakling with skinny arms and goofy glasses. Or an almost-forty-year-old who still feels like that kid sometimes. There are days when it’s good to have baseball to remind me that with two out and none on, I’m still not entirely out of the game.
Author bio: Dr. Aaron J. Housholder is an Assistant Professor of English at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He has graduate degrees in English literature and creative writing from Ball State University. He lives in Anderson, Indiana with his wife and two children. He’s been a Cincinnati Reds fan since birth, or shortly thereafter. You can reach him via Twitter @profajh.