Mr. Clutch

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When you write a blog, it’s kind of hard to tell who you’re writing for.  I suppose the vast majority of blogs are written for family and friends.  I’m not a facebook or myspace kind of guy – and keeping a public diary is kind of strange, but last night my Mom asked me to write down the story of my oldest son’s amazing hit and I thought – hey perhaps it’s not too much to be a proud parent.
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My oldest son goes by the baseball nickname of ‘Spider‘.  How did he get that nickname?  When he was six he was on a coach pitch team where everyone got a nick name.  There was Dizzy, Ox, Large, Gun and… Spider because he was the only kid who could catch a fly ball.  Spider’s catch flies.  The nicknames were fun as well because at times its easier for the parents and the kids to remember a nickname, especially when you have four Taylors, or three Marks on your team.  Besides, nicknames are part of baseball.  The Diamondbacks Training Centers hand out nicknames during their week long training sessions.  So the nickname Spider stuck.  And Spider stuck with baseball.

Now fast forward a few  years.  Ryan developed a heck of a swing.  He really cared about getting the mechanics of his swing just right.  He also is a smart kid and he learned early one of the laws of physics:

F= M * V2

 

Force equals, mass times velocity squared.  In other words, if your bat moves faster it will hit a ball harder than a heavier bat moving slower.  Lots of kids go for heavy bats when they start out.  The pro’s did too.  The theory being that a big heavy bat will send that tiny ball real far.  Unfortunately for most kids – those heavy bats can teach really bad swing mechanics.  Ryan learned early that a lighter bat he could swing faster, and control better would produce just as big a hit (if not bigger) then the heavy bats his friends use.  Translated into action, at an early age Ryan could hit those flies that earned him his nickname, and he could pretty much hit them over outfielders heads.

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In farm / machine pitch, Ryan could really tee off on the consistent pitching of the machine.  He earned quite a reputation as a big hitter.  But he also worked his defensive fundamentals too.  By the time he reached minors, he developed a kind of situational awareness that is uncommon in many 9 year olds.  One catch in particular stood out.  In a game against the Cubs, their best player came up to bat.  With runners on the corners, Christian Broadus hit a tremendous shot.  A real blast out to right center field.  Spider happened to be playing center and he just got a great jump off the ball.   Ranging to his left he turned into a full sprint and laid out for the catch.  He snow-coned the ball just above the grass.  That in itself was spectacular, he rolled and popped up glove high to show it was a clean play and if he had stopped right there it would have been awesome.  But the kid had the presence of mind to realize that the runner at third had not tagged up.  I mean who expected anyone to catch that hit?

So from Right center field Ryan fired a strike to the third baseman.  Unfortunately the third baseman couldn’t handle the long  throw and he missed it.  So the runner got back and tagged.  However the kid did stick with the play, and scooped the ball up and fired it home where the catcher didn’t miss it. They tagged the runner out at the plate.  Ah, yeah… the old 8-5-2 inning ending double play.

That whole season I didn’t want Ryan to pitch because I didn’t want him to tire his arm out.  I’d heard all these horror stories of kids hurting their arms at a young age.  Never the less, Ryan could throw and I trusted his coach.  Coach Treese is a great guy who is wonderful with the kids and really tries to teach them how to play baseball the right way.  I’ve never seen him lose his temper or get frustrated with the kids.  He is what is good in youth baseball, patient, firm and steadfast.  It’s not that he doesn’t challenge the kids, but he always does it in a way that leaves them whole and believing in themselves.

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It was playing for Coach Treese that Ryan first started to earn his reputation as Mr. Clutch.  He played for the Cardinals, and when he came up to bat, people learned to expect big hits.  Ryan batted .587 with a slugging percentage of .980.  In the final game against the Diamondbacks, he lead off with a ground rule double to center field.  The ball travelled 180 feet and it bounced over the fence.  He eventually came in to score, and the lowly Cardinals who crawled up through the losers bracket won the first game of a double header.

Heading back into the second game, Spider again came up big with hits and runs scored but it was his role as a closer that really cemented him as mister clutch.  Clinging to a 1 run lead (6-5) going into the bottom of the sixth inning, Ryan took the mound again after throwing 55 pitches through the first two games.  With a day limit of 75 pitches, he had just 20 to close the game out and hold onto the lead.  The first batter he faced hit a long fly ball to left field.  The left fielder made an aggressive move to catch the ball but missed it.   The ball rolled to the fence the batter flew around the base paths stopping at third with a stand up triple.

With no outs, the tying run stood on third.  I remember keeping score.  I remember being sick to my stomach.  I thought, “Why does it have to be my kid on the mound?”  Looking down at the score card I realized he was facing the heart of their lineup.  If we lost – I couldn’t imagine the summer of misery that lay ahead.  Spider faced the next batter.  He popped out to first base.  One down.  The next batter.  Strike out.  The other coach asked for a pitch count.  68.  Ryan could face the last batter.  With two down and the tying run 60 feet away, Spider induced the Diamondbacks slugger to hit a tapper back to the mound.  He calmly scooped it up and flipped it to first base.  Just like that.  Hats flew in the air, parents cried, Coaches jumped around like little kids.  Ice cream sandwiches – a token prize in case the Cardinals lost the first game – had turned to milk in a bath of now melted ice.  And no one cared.  That memory lasted us all summer.  After the game I asked Ryan what it felt like to have to pitch that final inning.  He said, “Thank God I had the ball.  I was the only one who could have won that game.”  The confidence was shocking and reassuring.
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In high school I played football.  I was very good.  I even played on two teams that one league championships and one that won the Class A state title.  But I never experienced what Ryan had experienced, being the go to guy on a championship team.   It never occurred to me that he might get that chance again.

Fast forward one year.  It’s true the Cardinals did not win the Minor League Team Championship, but this year Ryan was eligible for the Minor League All Star Team.  It was the first time we’d ever played baseball 5 nights a week.  It was also a lot of fun to play with other really great players.  Suddenly everyone had confidence in everyone else.  The kids could make plays without worrying whether the other guy was going to catch the ball or not.  Everyone could hit.  Everyone could throw, everyone could pitch.  We were having fun.  We were optimistic.  We ran right into back to back buzz saws called Ahwahtukee and Chandler North.

To put it in perspective, over the last several years, not just the state champion, but the region (best in the West) has come out of District 13.  Chandler National and Ahwahtukee have both sent teams to Williamsport.  Their kids are big, strong, athletic and they have a lot of them.  The upside of their systems is that they consistently put together great teams that can compete with California teams.  The downside to their system is that a lot of great players never get to play All Stars.  There’s just too many.

District tournaments (I think all the tournaments) run on a pattern of pool play followed by a tournament ladder.  In our district in the 9-10 year level, 7 teams play 6 games and the best 4 teams advance to a single elimination tournament.  The winners of the semifinals go to the finals, the winners of the finals advance to state.  We needed to finish in the top four.  Our first two games were against the District powerhouses.  Needless to say we started pool play with an unimpressive 0-2 record.  6 runs scored, 48 runs given up.  That’s right.  48.  You see, in tournament play you can steal home.  And you can steal when the pitcher isn’t looking.  In fact, you can steal pretty much any time you want.  That was kind of new to the boys in Tempe.  In Tempe South, we view minors as more of an instructional league.  But if you want to get to Williamsport, you have to be much, much more aggressive.

Starting from there, we needed to get to something like 3-3 to have any prayer of making the tournament.  Unlike any other team in the district our 9-10’s also drew the unlucky straw of having to play 4 games in a row.  That’s right:  Back To Back To Back To Back.   The last three games were played at 5:30 in 110 degree heat.  For reasons unknown the City of Tempe decided to make its excellent baseball fields available for the tournament this year.  Apparently they couldn’t wait 3 days to mow the lawns or something.  So instead of playing on 7 lighted beautiful baseball diamonds at the Tempe Sports Complex, three cities tried to play 72 games in 8 days on two lighted fields and two softball fields.  Thanks Tempe.  I’m guessing someone’s kid didn’t get picked for All Stars.

The boys from Tempe South battled through both of the next two games and finished their four game stretch 2-2.  They got nearly a week off and returned to play again, a much closer game that left them 3-2.  Good, but not good enough to get in if they lost to Chandler National South.  The sixth game was the do or die game.  Win and they got into the tournament.  Lose, and it was the end of the season.

Spider took the mound and pitched a beautiful game.  He pitched 5 and 1/3 innings giving up only two runs.  The game went back and forth between TSLL and CNSLL.  By the 6th, Temp had scored 4.  With a 4-2 lead, Spider hit his pitch count, and was sent to center field.  The reliever had great velocity but struggled a bit with location.  This was the break CNS was waiting for.  In a tense top of the 6th inning they scored 3 runs to take the lead.   Tempe was down 5-4, but not out.  Austin Treese, Eric’s son scored the run that tied the score in the bottom of the 6th to send the game into extra innings.  In the top of the 7th again Chandler National South scratched out a run.  It was 6-5.  They brought in their closer.

Hunter Olsen was our first batter.  He took a massive cut at a fastball and ripped it!  Right at the short stop.  The Chandler shortstop was a terrific fielder, he scooped up the hot ball and threw a frozen rope to first getting Hunter by a step.  The next batter was Conner Woods, an extremely talented 9 year old who can do everything.  Conner struggled to make contact, but had the presence of mind and the eye to lay off the outside pitches.  He worked the count full and ultimately walked.  The tying run was aboard.  Up walked Spider.  The second baseman said loud enough for everyone to hear, “This game is over!”

Spider took a couple of practice swings and stepped into the box.

Now, one thing I want to point out, is that this year Ryan did not hit like last year.  It was somewhat of a mystery for him all season.  In the end we believe it was a combination of three things.  Firstly, everyone knew he was good so they tried to pitch around him.  Second, we use 13 year old umpires in the regular minor league season and it took them 3 (or 8 or 9) games to learn the strike zone.  Third, Ryan really, really, really wanted to hit one over the fence.  So when you combine a swing for the fences stroke, with wild pitching and a strike zone that runs from your shoe tops to 3 inches over your hat – it’s a little hard to get in the groove.  (The blur in the picture at the left is the ball flying by Ryan’s head.  The umpire called that a strike.) By the end of the season however Spider was getting his form back.   In practice, his hits went far, fast, and they hurt to catch.  The night before the Chandler South Game at practice Ryan finally hit one over.  I was standing two feet outside the fence line and caught the ball at my neck.  I couldn’t believe it.  Later, I asked him, “Why don’t you think you’re hitting in the games like you hit in practice?”  He didn’t hesitate to answer, “Because they’re not pitching me in the middle.”  “What about that hit you had the other night?  It was a beautiful shot, right over the shortstop’s head,” I said.  “It was middle in but low.  Everything they throw me is low and away.”  I wondered what would happen if they gave him one right down the pipe.

As it turns out, I got to see.

Ryan dug in and entered his stance.  The assistant coach for the other team was overhead telling the head coach that maybe they should walk Ryan.  After all, he’d hit the ball pretty well all night.  “We’ll see,” said the CNSLL Manager.  Bat waggling, crouched but loose, Ryan was ready.  The pitcher reared back and tried to blow one by him.  One right down the middle of the plate.  Belt high.  It was the first really decent pitch Ryan had seen in a month.  He didn’t miss it.  The ball flew off his bat like a laser, it split the gap in right center field and hit the fence two feet below the line.  Conner was gone in a flash from first and Spider was right on his heels.  It seemed like the ball was at the fence before the outfielders even had a chance to turn around.  Conner rounded third.  There was a strong throw from the outfield to the plate, Conner got down and slid – the ball popped loose.  Game tied.  Everyone in Tempe South went wild.  Ryan just stood on third and smiled.

One pitch later, he took home on a tapper to third.  It was a gutsy play that happened on instinct, sheer determination and flawless execution.  Ryan’s big toe slid over the plate while the catcher was receiving the throw.  The umpire called him safe as the Catcher tried to lay down the tag.  Tempe South 7.  Chandler National South 6.

It might not be the greatest hit ever in the history of All Star Little League, but it was the greatest hit in the history of our family.  That Ryan knew the game was on the line, that everyone was looking to him to do something and that he delivered was simply incredible.    It may sound corny to take inspiration from one’s children, and every day in their own way my kids inspire me, but his toughness when it matters most, his competitive spirit is awesome to be a part of.

Tempe South is now in the tournament.  Their game tonight was rained out and they will play tomorrow.  Win or lose, I will be eternally proud of all of them, but I will cherish that memory of my son, walking from the dugout, bat in hand and seeing the confidence in his eyes and knowing that if anyone can make it happen, Spider can.  And he did.

– Proud Dad, Scott

Epilogue:  Tempe South lost to Chandler National North, the team that ultimately won the district.  Our boys did not play their best game and Chandler National is an excellent team.  We wish them the best of luck in the rest of the tournament and hope they win State.  While it was a disappointing end to a fun All Star tournament, I am still very proud of the boys in blue, white, and red.  Especially #38.  Go Spider!