My wife argues that what I did was tantamount to deliberate sabotage of the family vacation. I disagree, but it’s a matter of degree, not substance. It’s about sorting my priorities, and I definitely put the making the finals ahead of anything else, including embarking on an important trip. For that, I deserved some heat.
The finals in question were for the 2015 Nippon Club Baseball Tournament. Mostly populated by teams representing the New York offices of Japanese corporations, we play throughout the summer, early on weekend mornings, on the nicely refurbished fields of Randall’s Island. My company’s team is decent and has made the semifinals three times in ten years, but we’ve never advanced to the final.
And what I did, or what was done to me, or whatever, was pain. It’s hard to writhe in pain on the infield dirt while also remaining still, but that was the advice raining down on me from members of both teams. Agony inspires an escape plan. Rolling around the dirt trying to crawl out of my skin was all I could come up with. That and screaming “fuck” a bunch of times. So while the not-moving advice was sound, I’m sure, all I heard was the little angel/devil voice inside my own head “Get up. Matsui is on the line. Get up.”
This was the semifinals and our chances of making the finals were in trouble. The finals of anything is usually a good place to be, so maybe that’s motivation in and of itself to get up off the ground and play. I don’t think my angel/devil’s advice would have been much different under normal circumstances, and hence my wife’s interpretation of the events gains even more traction, but this year was far from normal. Instead of facing one of the usual tournament powerhouses for the crown, we’d be facing Hideki Matsui.
“Wait, come again?” I asked.
“Hideki. Matsui.” elaborated my teammate.
He pointed to the outfield, where two centerfielders stood back-to-back, the way they do on overlapping fields without fences. This was the quarterfinals, a few weeks earlier, and our 12-run lead allowed ample time for the observation of the other games. There was no mistaking the tank standing in centerfield, wearing number 55. Two of me together might match the width between his shoulders. There stood the MVP of the 2009 World Series playing the sun field at too-damn-early o’clock on a Saturday and trying to get his team into the same semi-finals we were all but assured of reaching.
I went scrambling through the paperwork on the bench, looking for the draw and the future schedule. “Crap,” I said. “We’re on the wrong side.”
That Hideki Matsui was playing in the tournament probably should have been something I was aware of before the quarterfinals. However, I’m in a state of, if not semi-retirement, then of other-shit-to-do-ment. I coached the Little Leaguers on Saturday mornings and the Pee Wee Soccerers on Sunday mornings. Even if there were not direct conflicts, which there were, adding another sports-related commitment to the weekends would have been the last thing I did before being served with divorce papers.
The teams in the tournament occupy an athletic limbo. The overriding qualification for being on the roster is not any baseball skill, but simply a desire to play – beginning with the awareness that team even exists and culminating with the ability to drag yourself to the field for first pitches at 8:30 AM. This brings an assortment of ex-ballplayers and guys who haven’t played since the bases were 60 feet apart. I played into college, but blew my knee out in the winter of my freshman year and re-habbed on a bar stool for the other three-and-a-half years. I picked up playing in adult leagues for several years after that, but for the last decade or so, this tournament has been my only baseball. Our starting lineup features a couple of other guys who at least played in high school and a couple of guys who can most likely catch a ball thrown directly at them.
I don’t know that I can describe exactly why it was so important to play against Matsui, but as soon as I found out it was a possibility, I wanted it badly. I’ve told this story to many friends (and their friends, and their parents, and co-workers, and their dogs) and right away I can tell if they get it. Some cannot embrace the calculus that makes this awesome. The ones that do get a glimmer in their eyes.
I’m aware that you can pay to attend a fantasy camp and play against baseball legends. That is of no interest to me (well, I’d do it if you paid my freight, but I’m not writing that check). This isn’t star-fucking, well maybe, but different. This guy is coming to us. He’s coming to our tournament to compete for the same trophy we’re trying to win. He’s just having fun and trying to kick our asses. I mean, he’s a great Yankee too, and I’ve followed his career closely and all, but if it was Mike Piazza, I don’t think I’d feel much differently.
The dream scenario for how it would play out is vague in my mind. Is it hitting a long blast over his head and earning a tip-of-the-cap when he spots you standing on third? Is it robbing him of extra bases with a sliding grab? Is it watching him tattoo our pitcher with missile after missile? Is it just the thrill of competition to test yourself against the limits of your ability and shake hands when the dust settles? I guess that’s why I needed to play that game. Something’s going to happen, and whatever it is, I’m going to tell the story of that something for as long as I can summon the spit. And really any way it goes is going to be epic in the re-telling.
But, OK, I concede, give me the tip-of-the-cap.
There was some good news on the schedule, the semi-finals were on July 11th and our family vacation didn’t start until the 12th. We’d be going to visit my wife’s family until the 19th and given they don’t live next door, the kids getting to spend extended time with them is the whole point. The finals were also on the 19th so that would be a problem. And in between us and the finals was Mizuho Bank, a team we’d never beaten, and their star pitcher, ex-minor leaguer Rich Hartmann.
We had only four guys in the lineup that stood any chance against Hartmann. I was swinging the bat well in the tournament, and I’d had some success against him in the past, but that was long enough ago not to matter. I hadn’t seen a pitch at his speed in three or four years – the pitcher in the quarterfinals might not have registered on a JUGS gun.
First pitch of the semis was on a Saturday at 8:30am. This was too bad for us, as we learned Hartmann was suffering from a very painful case of gout and was unable to put any weight on his foot right up until midday Friday. His medication kicked in just in time.
There was not a cloud in damn sky. I cuss because I was leading off and the sun was right in my face. The ball came out of his hand, low-80s, just below the life-giver. I didn’t see any white, just a dark grey oval humming at the plate. I got one pitch to hit, couldn’t catch up to it. Fouled off one of his out pitches on the outer edge and geared up for another when he came back over the inside corner and caught me cheating. I don’t like striking out, and take great pains to avoid it, but this one… I had no chance.
The good thing about that sun though, it was just as much a bastard for them. Through two-and-a-half innings, the pitchers allowed two base runners, a bloop single and a walk, against double-digit strikeouts and zero well-struck balls. Before striking out yet another hitter in the third, our pitcher smiled at me and pointed to the other field where the other semi-final was taking place. Matsui was pitching. The whole infield just turned and stared. It reminded me of the scene in Eight Men Out when the plane flies over head and drops the dummy on the infield. We had to win this game.
The next time I got up with two outs in the bottom of the third, the sun was mercifully higher, still no help from the clouds though. I laid off a couple of loose breaking balls and found myself sitting fastball when he had no good reason to throw anything else. He obliged with a get-me-over-fastball, not his hardest by a long shot, belt high and inner third. I smoked a one-hopper to the right of the first baseman. He dove but couldn’t reach it. The ball skidded off the dirt and off the tip of his glove and caromed toward an empty second base. Given the pitcher was gout-ridden, even if the first baseman made a miracle stab, I was winning that foot race. I was relieved to notch the hit, but there was also a nagging feeling that I needed to do more damage with that one if we wanted to get some runs on the board.
I got ready to try to steal, but this guy had a pick-off move and the catcher could reach second. I could steal at will off the lesser teams. Before I could get on my horse, we were out of the inning. And two batters into the top of the fourth, we were losing. Double and single, both smacked and we were down a run. It looked like a massive run, even then.
But the inning wasn’t over there. Mizuho was finding the soft spots in the outfield – and there were many. Luckily, we were able to force the pitcher at second base from right field (the gout, again) to give us a shot at getting out of the jam.
With first and second and two outs, they tried for the double steal. Let’s review the situation as this daring play went into effect: I’m left-handed, I was playing well in front of the bag at third-base to compensate for the torn labrum in my throwing arm and the catcher can’t throw either. I hightailed it back to the bag, got in decent straddling position and looked up to see the catcher uncork a spectacularly awful throw, more in the general direction of shortstop than the third base bag. I instinctively lunged out towards the ball. The glove on my right hand came nowhere near the ball hurtling into space, but the action dragged my right leg directly into the baseline where a not-small, not-agile, 40 plusser was bearing down. He never really intended on sliding, I guess, but when he saw me block the bag, he went into a duck-and-cover pseudo-roll which planted his helmet just below my right knee.
One of my (many) flaws is that I don’t suffer injury quietly. I can play hurt, I can endure pain over long stretches, but at the moment of injury, I’m prone to dramatic reactions. So there was a lot of concern due to this particular reaction which was one of my most dramatic. The Nippon Club Tournament director didn’t even get mad at me for yelling “fuck” so many times. My reaction may have also caused everyone else on the field to ignore the fact that I had obstructed the runner, and as in the 2013 World Series, if he had made any attempt at home plate, he would have granted free passage there, scoring a run we could not afford to give up.
And then we had the yelling, the writhing and ultimately only these facts remained: it wasn’t broken and if you come out of the game, you can’t go back in.
There was nothing noble about staying in the game, as the guys on the bench didn’t wake up at 6:30am on their Saturday to watch me gimp around the field. This was a selfish thing and a deluded, though possibly accurate, back-of-the-napkin calculation that even with one leg, I was going to be better than any potential replacement. I’ll give you three guesses where the next ball was hit and the first two don’t count.
Low running grounder to my left, a play of moderate difficulty, but of course, everybody was holding their breath to see if my leg was going to come flying off. I leaned over, snagged it, took an impaired shuffle and slung some side-arm slop over to first and that was the inning.
Adrenaline is a hell of a thing, but apart from being fairly certain my leg was not broken, I had no idea about the extent of the injury. It was bad – the worst I’ve ever been hurt in a baseball game by far. Sitting through our at-bats getting stiff didn’t help. And we didn’t score.
They, however, tacked on another in the 5th when our left fielder turned a can-of-corn into a double. That’s not fair. There are no easy plays in this league. He was playing a little too shallow, got the wrong read on the ball, and then instead of turning and running back to where the ball was lazily drifting, opted for the back-pedal of death. He fell down over ten feet from where the ball landed.
I fielded one more grounder to end the sixth and came up to bat with one out and nobody on in the bottom of the inning. By now, the sun and clouds were far from my thinking as all I wanted to do was crush a fly ball so I could limp to first. He figured out his breaking ball, unfortunately, and dropped the first two into the zone, low and away. I swung at the second one, and it was not a swing for the archives. I tapped it straight into the ground and it hopped up over the pitcher’s head and settled on course to the charging shortstop.
I guess I could have just accepted this as an out but…no, let’s sprint-limp to first and try to beat this out. Somehow, there wasn’t even a throw. The shortstop didn’t handle it cleanly, but I’m pretty sure that was not required to throw me out. Anyway, that was the end of me. I well overdrew the account with that maneuver and couldn’t even get a first step toward second when the next pitch went to the back stop. Two outs later I took myself out of the game.
The tournament director brought me some ice. That was nice. I needed bacta. Back on the field, we continued to play well, but not well enough. Our pitcher went all nine frigging innings and held them at two runs. My replacement fielded two balls cleanly and when my spot in the order came up in the eighth, he got a hit. Damn, I would have given a lot to stay in, but he did more than I probably could have done.
We couldn’t score though. We put one more base runner on in the ninth, but yeah, this isn’t a happy ending. We lost 2-0, both pitchers throwing complete game gems.
Our game was over so quickly, that even after the ceremonial bows and team photos, we had time to catch the end of the other semifinal. I set myself up on the ground behind third base with the ice bag and watched Hideki Matsui in the on-deck circle. This was as close as I was going to get, so medical attention for my knee would just have to wait.
It was the top of the eighth, and the game was tied 1-1 and Team Matsui (that was literally their name, which is awful, but at least transparent) had two runners on base. The pitcher on the hill was struggling and fell behind, but no, this couldn’t be happening. He walked the hitter. In. Front. Of. Hideki. Matsui. So bases loaded, 1-1 tie, and the owner of 507 professional home runs stepped up to the plate.
Matsui batted right-handed. I mean, it makes sense and all, but sheeit. He felt it would not be fair and honorable to bat lefty in the tournament, but I can tell you not one player on any team wanted him to bat right-handed. So shove the honor and hit a bomb, please.
No matter though, because their pitcher beaned him on the first pitch. The go-ahead run crossed the plate. Beaned Godzilla. Team Matsui weathered a rally in the ninth and won. I watched Matsui jump four feet in the air celebrating during the 2003 ALCS Game 7 rally, so I can tell you that, apart from a minus-three feet off the jump in intervening 12 years, he celebrated pretty damn hard for that final out.
You can read about the final here. It was a doozy.
The end of my story is that I could not really walk or do anything that required any more than the crudest, slowest limping for the next three days. So packing the bags? Packing the car full of those bags? Driving four hours? Doing anything with the children in a haze of painkillers? Nope. I received as much sympathy from my wife as if I was badly hungover from a night at the strip club. Your call on whether or not this was sabotage, but it certainly screwed up her life for reasons that aren’t readily apparent to her.
At first I tried to argue with her. But it’s a loser. Injury is not the freak accident I pretend it to be, but rather the logical conclusion of continuing to play baseball, basketball and soccer at an advancing age. I’ve had three knee operations, the torn labrum, a broken nose and all of them put together were a picnic compared to the herniated disc and nerve impingement that screwed up our 2014. If I continue to play, I will continue to get hurt.
My father plays tennis often, and he’s in his mid-60s. He recently carried his doubles team, and his tennis club, to their league championship with a particularly awesome match. It’s probably the happiest I’ve seen him, maybe ever. A few years ago, his doubles partner died on the court next to him. And last week, another partner passed away the day after they played together.
We play the games of our youth to halt the passage of time and experience the thrills and joys only found on those fields. Yet playing, especially as we age, also contributes to the rapid deterioration of our physical selves. I guess some would look at our fragile mortality and say stay the hell away from those fields and crashing bodies. But if you do decide to play, it would be best for everybody if you’re able to get in the car and drive for four hours the next morning.