Monday, June 10, 2013

Feeling Giant

Back in March, I wrote about Smunch's latest PONY baseball team. He is now in the Bronco division which spans 5th through 7th graders. He was visibly the tiniest player on his team.

The team had a good season. They finished with a win percentage a little over .500. That's respectable. They played some great games. They played some not-so-great games. Through it all though, they were a great group of boys. The superstars on the team were also good leaders. They picked each other up. They encouraged each other. They made room for everyone. I have to believe that it started with a really good coach...who managed to draft really great boys, with great families in the stands.

The Bronco season ends in playoffs...three games of "pool play" for all 10 teams, followed by semifinals for the top four finishers and one championship game. All of these games are smashed into two weeks. For the Giants, that meant games on Wednesday, Saturday, Monday and Wednesday followed by possible games Friday and Saturday. Ouch. There are strict pitch counts for the boys at this age, so it also involves some planning by their coaches.

There were some really good teams in the Giants' division, including the feared Cubs and Indians, who were first and third, respectively after the regular season, and the "hated" Mets. And there were the pitiful Pirates, who had a rough season and came in last place. The Giants were ranked #6 after the season. No one was counting on them to get past pool play. And that was O.K. The baseball season is long and busy. Folks are usually ready to get back to their real lives by the end of May.

But the Giants had other ideas. Those Cubs they were so afraid of? They beat them 17-4. The Mets? Well, that didn't go so well. They lost 12-7. And they crushed the poor Pirates 17-2. Their last game was against the Indians. Whoever won would go to the semi-finals. The loser would go home.

Our coach had our very best (by far) pitcher primed for the occassion. He pitched 5 innings, using up half his allowed pitch count. And the Indians couldn't keep up. At the end of the 5th inning, they were down 9-0. Smunch came in to pitch. He struggled. The defense struggled behind him. They gave up 4 runs. He was replaced for the 7th and final inning, by another good pitcher, having a bad day. He gave up 3 runs, but the Giants were the home team and in the end the Giants beat the Indians, just barely, 9-7.

You might think Smunch would make the most of his baseball off days. It's the end of the school year. There isn't much homework. But making the most of those days, for him, meant going to watch the other teams' playoff games when he wasn't playing himself. So, we learned quickly that the Giants would be playing the Nationals during the semifinals on Friday. Smunch's Mavericks coach was the Nationals coach and one of his buddies from school is their first baseman much of the time, so this would be a fun game. The Giants had trouble with the Nationals during the season, however.

Against what might have been his better judgement, but at the urging of the assistant coaches, the coach put the Giants' ace pitcher back out there on Friday. Perhaps it was the only way the team could win against a team like the Nationals. The big guy (seriously, the top of Smunch's head doesn't reach this guy's shoulders) threw 5 more shut-out innings and he was out of pitches...for the rest of the season. He came out of the game with the score standing at 7-0. If the Giants reached the championship, they would be without his pitching services...although fortunately not without his hitting. This kid is really phenomenal. Smunch did NOT want to pitch again. Fortunately, the kid who went in next was good and Smunch wasn't slated to pitch regardless. The Giants won 7-2.
In a big surprise, over on the other semi- field, the Rangers beat the oh-so-feared Cubs. And the match-up for the championship was forged.

Serendipity was also on the Giants' side when it turned out that the San Francisco Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, had been hired to appear at grad night for the junior high school where the semi-final game was played. After the game, all the kids went out front and had their pictures taken with the big guy. Who knows? Maybe the magical 2010 and 2012 seasons of those "Big Giants" would rub right off Lou Seal and onto these guys.

When it came to Saturday morning, Mam had to be in South San Jose by 10am for a weekend softball tournament. Her games were at 11, 3:30 and 5. The Bronco championship game started at noon. I was exhausted just considering it. But I wasn't going to miss the first championship game Smunch ever played in. It was just NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN. Period.

I drove Mam to San Jose, pawned off the scorekeeping on a willing grandparent, pawned Mam off on one of the team managers, watched the first half inning of her game (leaving when Nova was up 4-0 and Mam already had an RBI) and jetted home, reaching the ball field during the bottom of the first inning. The Giants had already shelled the Rangers' ace pitcher and the score was  7-0 in the Giants' favor. It was a hot, hot day and the fans (aka parents, grandparents and siblings) were roasting. The kid who had closed out the semi-final game the day before was put in as the starting pitcher. He wasn't having such a good day on Saturday. He worked hard, but the defense failed him over and over and they gave up run after run until he finally ran out of pitches and left the game with the score at 10-9, in favor of the Rangers. I'm sure Smunch was grateful that it wasn't him. And hopefully, it helps him maintain the perspective that it's O.K. to have a bad day in baseball. It  happens. One day can be stellar and the next can be disastrous. At any rate, the whole thing was stressing me out far more than should be allowed. It's a kids' baseball tournament for goodness sake! I considered driving back to San Jose and avoiding the torture.
I haven't said a whole lot about Smunch's personal performance in these games, aside from his rough couple innings pitching in the last game of pool play. He had a few hits, but didn't touch the ball in the outfield in either that game or the semi-final game. He didn't have many opportunities for heroism and I think that was just fine with him. He maintained his position as lead-off batter. I think he was proud of that. He should have been. It meant that he made it to first base more often than not. He probably walked to first as often as he hit the ball. His strike zone is that small. The championship game was different, however, with their ace pitcher done for the season, there were a lot of hard-hit balls that went to the outfield. Smunch fielded several of them. It wasn't always beautiful, but he got the job done. His best play was on a fly ball where the crowd held its breath as he looked skywards, taking a few steps this way and that before the ball finally landed in his glove as he fell over to one side. He's a good base runner too, so while he didn't have a single hit in the championship game, he scored two runs and even had an RBI. 
Despite being a little guy, he knows what he's going out there, even when it isn't done to his own satisfaction.

Don't think he had any problem with scoring that run there though!

After the starting pitcher left the game, things started picking up. Although the Rangers had their ace pitcher available, the Giants hit him so hard that they were forced to replace him. Their next pitcher fared better, giving up only a couple of runs, but he was Smunch-sized and throwing his entire body of the mound to throw fast, beautiful strikes. He could only last so long. As soon as he was gone, so were the Rangers' chances of winning. A game they were once leading 10-9 became a smoking crater that they lost 23-11.

And that is how a really fantastic group of boys with four phenomenal coaches became the 2013 PONY Bronco Champions. And I'm so sad it's over for them, even though it ended in the best possible way. I spent too much time at softball and missed too much of this awesome group of boys. Any one of them would be welcome at my house any time.

On the way back to San Jose for the rest of Mam's softball tournament, Smunch commented on what a weird feeling it was to win...not just a game, but the whole championship. "It's a feeling I've never experienced before," he said. 

I hope he knows how special and rare that feeling is for most people. It's something you have to appreciate in the moment so you can look back on it and remember just how that felt. If you're lucky, you get to feel it again (and again and again), but you might not, so it's worth taking stock when it happens. Smunch got to be an integral part of a team where he got to play a sport he loves with great teammates and great coaches, including his own grandpa (who's pretty special all by himself). He may not have grown in physical size compared to his teammates (as evidenced above), but he grew so much in skills, confidence and experience. 

Championships aside, I wish every baseball season was just like this one.

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