One might think blowing an 8-3 lead in the final inning of a semifinal baseball game is rather heartbreaking. Well, you’re right, it’s downright painful. You see, after three wondrous months of coaching the Minnesota Twins in the local Babe Ruth little league with my great friends Tom Vecchio and Jason Coburn, losing for the fourth time to the Yankees this season wasn’t supposed to happen; and certainly not like this.
Let me take you all back to early April when our team was just a bunch of names on a piece of paper. It was a time when they were merely 14 and 15-year-old kids who were about to give these three aspiring college-age coaches the baseball thrill of their lifetime. The thought of having a team with major league-like uniforms playing on high school fields with dugouts and fences and scoreboards and concession stands – ah, a field of dreams.
There were bi-weekly practices during our finals period that made studying for the exams feel so unimportant. Then the schedules were made – 20 games in 42 days beginning May 13. Because of some bad weather and a little misfortune, our dreams of managing a real baseball team had to wait eight long, never-ending days.
And now, suddenly, after a 10-10 season, it’s all over, just like that. The baseball part, that is – with the disappointing final on-the-field memory being a bases-loaded single with two outs in the bottom of the eighth off Mike Salinas, our pitcher and the league’s most valuable player.
But something very special happened to the Twins this season. Months ago the coaches practiced how we would celebrate a championship. At the time, that’s all that mattered. We wrote down on paper how we would run our practices and how we would split up the infield and the outfield during pre-game warm-ups. Whether it be making up a batting order or putting a competitive team on the field, the always-matching Twins trio had some sort of answer for everything regarding their team and the game of baseball. That’s to say we thought we had every answer.
The one thing we struggled at that Saturday was trying to figure out how we would say goodbye and thank you to teenage kids who impacted our lives. When Jeremy Prior, a talented player who slumped at times this season at the plate, connected for a late-inning RBI double that capped a great Twins comeback over the Braves a few weeks ago, he screamed to me down at third base and gave the T for Twins sign with his arms in celebration. It’s like you just want to call time and go hug the kid.
And that’s ultimately what this season became for us older college students. It was about baseball and about life, about how bonds between kids and players and coaches and parents can strengthen even after the worst defeat imaginable. When it was all said and done that Saturday afternoon, the loss didn’t matter. Salinas mattered, Prior mattered and so did Chris Flowers, Ted Gibson and the rest of the Twins team.
With the coaches near the dugout, the Twins ran down the rightfield line and huddled and inspired each other. You could hear them from a mile away and you just knew each one was listening to the next. The sight was surreal and everything felt complete.
No, we didn’t win the championship we had hoped for, but that’s baseball. At first, I asked myself why this special team couldn’t have won it all, why things have to work out in the ways that they do. And then I realized I had what I was looking for all along, a group of passionate players who would have defended each other and their coaches to the end.
Our winning went unparalleled this season, a unified team that cared about each other no matter what happened. And in the end, that’s truly all that counts. I told these kids before our last team huddle that we loved them. For a second a couldn’t believe I had said this to a bunch of teenagers. But, then I saw Jeremy’s smile and Chris’s smile and then Travis Dowdy’s. We were the only team with win in our name. And what a bunch of winners we had.
This article appeared in the July 10, 2000 issue of the Hatchet.