Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Another fantastic finish for the Sons of Pitches, another super start for my hoopin' Eagles

Election aside (I'll save my musings on that subject for another time), Tuesday was a wonderful day for a beginning and fantastic evening for an ending.

First, my Scholars Academy Eagles girls basketball team won our season opener. Although we lost a lot of offensive weapons from last season's championship squad, I was thrilled to see that our trademark "outwork-'em-to-death" style is back in full force.

We had trouble scoring early, but we were relentless on defense and just wore down our opponent to pull away in the second half. Our captain, 8th-grader Ritika, has been with me for all four of my years at the school. She controlled the game at point guard and, as is her custom, she nailed a dagger of a 3-pointer to break our opponent's back. She got strong support from Deirdre, our talented 6th-grader who matched Ritika's 8 points, and the rest of her aggressive, hard-working teammates.

It's always nice to start off with a win. You can't go undefeated if you lose your first game!

After my Eagles wrapped up the victory in Rock Hill, S.C., I jumped in my car and drove 35 minutes to Charlotte, where our Sons of Pitches won our second Carolina Senior Softball championship.

We tend to like to do things the hard way, and we outdid ourselves this time. Due to injuries, absences and, yes, a little bit of bad, old-fashioned poor play, we only had a 4-6 record in the Fall season. So we entered the postseason tournament as the No. 9 seed -- meaning that if we were going to win the title, we would have to do win four straight games as the visitors.

We opened the tournament with a 19-3 thrashing of the No. 8 seed. We then took out the No. 1 seed, a team that had only lost once, advancing to Tuesday's Final Four.

In the semifinal, we faced the No. 4 seed, Orange Crush. We proceeded to crush the softball all game long and rolled to a 19-13 victory. I had a couple of hits but most notably got a lot of exercise shifting from right-center field to left-center field and back again.

Our regular LCF, Rick, is one of the best outfielders around. Meanwhile, I'm primarily a catcher who has trouble seeing flyballs at night; I was needed for the outfield because one of our players was out of the country and another was hurt. So when there was a right-handed hitter batting, Rick would play LCF and I would play RCF, as he was more likely to get a ball pulled to him. And when there was a left-handed hitter up (or, in a couple of instances, a righty who liked to go to the opposite field), Rick would shift to RCF and I'd move to LCF.

Our inventive manager Pat devised this strategy and, unlike some of his strategies, this one actually worked - ha! I didn't get a single fly all game, Rick got several, and I think it messed with our opponents' minds to see us shifting constantly.

That win put us in the championship game against the same team that had thrashed us a few months earlier in the Spring title game, the Raiders. Unlike Al Davis' old Oakland Raiders, this time these Raiders didn't "just win, baby." Our bats stayed hot, we jumped on them for 3 in the first and 5 in the second (capped by yours truly's "mini-walkoff hit"), and we led from beginning to end in our 18-11 victory.

The final out set off a nice little celebration that put an exclamation point on an amazing two-year run for the SoPs.

In the CSS, teams are re-drafted every other year, so the nucleus of teams are together for two years. That's four seasons: two Spring and two Fall. In that span, we won two championships (2015 Spring, 2016 Fall) and a runner-up trophy (2016 Spring). The only time we didn't at least reach the title game was Fall 2015, when bad weather canceled the entire postseason. Pretty darn impressive, no?

More important than the championships have been the friendships. We have a great group of guys who pick each other up and cheer each other on. We like to clown around, but we're all business once the games start. (Almost all business. When Pat or Bob shout, "Come on guys, one out at a time," my response usually is, "Screw that, I'm getting 2 outs at a time!")

Peter and Eddie, injury-replacement players who joined us most recently, shored up our infield and brought big bats (and great attitudes) to our team. "Good Mike" (as opposed to me, "Bad Mike") and Doug were the injured guys they replaced, yet both showed up for the final four, coached the bases and rooted us on. Bruce was our resident wise-ass, and also a good hitter and outfielder. Gary, our left fielder and cleanup hitter, has a lethal bat to right-center field. Rick is the ultimate table-setter, a leadoff man who got on base nearly every time and had speed to burn (for an old dude). Jerry, our shortstop, never met a pitch he didn't like; he was especially adept at crushing pitches over his head. Bob was the best first baseman in the league and a perfectionist who, um, "gently reminded" everybody else to do things right. O.K. and Mickey, our two most senior seniors, are still going strong even though 70 has been in their rearview mirrors for quite a few years. Wayne was a good clutch hitter who, importantly, was reliable when it came to going out for a beer. Pat was our No. 3 hitter who pitched superbly in the playoffs after excelling at other positions during the season. And I was the keep-it-loose guy with the big mouth who had a few decent moments at the plate (too few) and tried not to screw up too often in the field.

This was my third season with O.K. and Wayne, and my fourth with Good Mike and Bob, and I've been lucky to be around them for all these years.

And Pat ... we entered the league at the same time, all the way back in 2012, and were thrown together on a team of misfits. We've been together ever since, for five seasons, as he kept trading for me after he became a manager. He loves telling stories about how he traded a blind guy for me -- or was it a double amputee or a dead guy? I'm pretty sure he just kept bringing me along because he wanted to make sure he had a teammate who would be willing to grab a beer after games. As much as I (and many of our teammates) like to kid Pat, he's been a great manager and a true amico.

Lots of teams talk about camaraderie, chemistry and other hard-to-quantify intangibles, but it really, truly has been the case for this group. I've been involved with a lot of teams in a lot of sports, as a player, a coach, a parent, a writer, etc., and this one has been extra special.

Here's to you, Sons of Pitches: great champions, great guys, great friends.

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