It is a humid, hot night in Grapevine. The lake is still 15 or more feet above normal and the bugs are out. A softball team is about to begin its first championship game in more than 5 years. The men are quietly confident, smiling but a little stiff because they already played a game 2 hours earlier.
Tonight they are playing a team that has given them little trouble in the preceding season and they are a fairly confident bunch of players. None of them are flouting thier confidence--they just arent that kind of men. Briskly and calmly they go to thier positions and await the first pitch. They are the home team tonight. A huge advantage. As play commences the score never really moves. The runs just don't seem to come for either team. The visitors are not a good hitting team but they are most of the way through the game and have a 2 to 1 lead. Finally in the fourth inning the "big stick" from the home team finally swings and connects with a ball and it meanders into the outfield allowing two runs to score thus making the score 3 to 2 in favor of the good guys...
Have you ever made been a part of one of those games that count? Have you been in a championship of some kind, whether it is a district championship or a division in little league or even a chess club final? This was one of those games.
We have been playing softball together now for 10 years and this is the first championship game we have had in nearly that whole time where we were the definative favorites. We have half a dozen second place t-shirts and trophies, a smattering of third place knick knacks and a lot of should-haves. To set the table a little further, there was a championship game a few years ago where we were a dominant team with a powerful lineup. We walked into the championship game that year the clear favorites only to have one player oversleep and not make the game. Playing wth 9 we gave it a good shot but the hole in our lineup hurt us too much, and we lost. We have never really gotten over that one. In fact over the years we have found new and exciting ways to lose games. It has defined us in some ways.
Early on, when most of us were in our mid-thirties instead of our mid-forties, we regularily made the championship game. We would fight tooth and nail, diving catches, great throws, slides and homeruns. But never all in the same game. Something always happened, we would have an off-fielding night or we could not buy a run because our bats seemed to have huge holes in them. We would pick ourselves up after each loss, then go out together, share the pain and say we will be back next season for the win. We then pick up our heavy hearts and prepare for the next season.
It never really quie materialized like that. As our team aged and a player or two fell off we just never seemed able to get over the hump. Nearly 10 years later, we simply start our seasons looking for a decent finish and trying to have a good time. The championship is now almost an afterthought not pondered very often. The fun is just getting together with THIS group of guys.
But, this past season, our bats wake up and we start scoring runs. Mistakes are small and easily made up. Suddenly we beat a good team in our final game of the season and WE ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS.
We met the 86ers in Game One. That night our pitcher can drop the ball on a penny from the mound. His accuracy was awesome. The bats were alive and everyone seems to be running a little faster. When the final out was made, we had won and the forgotten dream was suddenly, alive again. The Championship game day finally comes (after multiple rainouts and a schedule maker hampering us) and we arrive for the game we have been thinking about for nearly three weeks now. We are playing the worst team in the playoffs. We truly are the clear favorites and not only did we have 10 players this time, we had an 11th as well.
... Once again the pitcher is pinpoint accurate and he even strikes one person out. Two shutout innings go by and we are tasting it. It is the top of the final inning and we have two outs on them. Opposing runners are on 1st and 2nd as the right fielder comes up to bat. He has been hitting well but the outfield is positioned just right and he pops an easy linedrive to left center field. The player trots back a few steps and reaches up for the ball. As the ball enters his glove the universe suddenly remembers that it is US who are about to win this game and laws twist and time bends as the ball deflects and rolls further into the outfield. Both runners score and the batter winds up on second base. The other team is alive and hyped up, the man at second also scores before we can finally squeeze in the last out. We go to bat now with the score 5 to 3 and this is it. Through a little luck and speedy base running we have scored and made it 5 to 4. There is a man on first and another on third with one out. All we have to do is hit it to the outfield and allow the man a third to score and assure us of at least one more inning. It is the top of the order and the confidence on the bench is high as the ball comes to the batter. The batter swings and strikes the ball but instead of flying up throught the air it is bouncing toward the left side of the short stop, he ranges right tosses the ball to second and then the second baseman fires it to first for the double play.
Once again we are second.
As I numbly walk through the line and shake hands with the victors it is hard to look at them. We were so close, it was almost like we were SUPPOSED to win this game and here we are, again. A couple of mistakes and a whole lot of underacheiveing later I am standing next to my car with that oh-so-heavy heart.
I have replayed my role in this a thousand times already. I have plans for how I will do it differently next time, but really, will there even be a next time? At this point I dont believe we will ever win again, maybe we dont deserve to,,maybe "I" dont deserve to. I am not even sure I want to play this silly game anymore.
This is the day after.