Tommy Lasorda, the brilliant former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, once said, “The best possible thing in baseball is winning the World Series. The second best thing is losing the World Series.”
In the summer of 1991, I played in my last championship game. It was the summer before my junior year in high school and I was a 16-year old, smallest-on-the-team benchwarmer for the Kickapoo JV American Legion team. Playing at Meador Park, then home of the Southwest Missouri State University Bears, we got stomped, losing by 7 runs. Maybe it was 9. It was never really a contest. I had one at bat in the game, in the bottom of the last inning, and flew out to deep left field.
I stopped playing baseball after that game. I never dreamed I’d get another chance to play in a championship game.
Losing the last game of the season feels like breaking a favorite toy, like watching your favorite coffee shop go out of business, like watching the series finale of Merlin on Netflix. Since that Kickapoo summer game, I’ve had a lot of time to think about baseball, from the friendships formed in the dugout to the reminder that humility still matters. But the thing I’ve most learned is the importance of being a good teammate.
I really can’t control what happens at the plate.
This season, I singled — once and only once — and scored a run — once and only once. For the most part, whenever I took the field, the ball seemed to go the opposite direction. Except for that one time Caleb Cole hit one to the moon that I happened to track. Once I learned I made the cut, I had one goal for this season: be the best teammate I could possibly be. Before every game, I greeted every teammate, lots of high fives and checking in. Every inning, I tried my best to notice all the little plays that made the difference and give more high fives. I warmed up outfielders, pitchers twice (Dayne, you were greatly missed), and even encouraged other teams pitchers by contributing to their K counts. I know the impact a negative teammate can have on a dugout. I didn’t want to be that guy.
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Rance Burger, friend and voice of the GRBL, introduced the story of Championship Sunday of Season V of the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League to the online viewers.
It’s been a year since the last champagne cork landed.
The battle was fought, the bell sounded, the trophy handed.
The High Rollers won it all, and captured the glory.
Not knowing we as the world were about to write a story.
People unknowingly drive by this place, this cavernous chasm of baseball off of a federal highway in an unsuspecting and quiet suburban town. They may have heard of the league for adults, envisioning some over-the-hill weekend warriors who probably never had a prime chasing at the windmills of the past they can’t let go. They ask about shorter fields, shorter fences, and how much beer is consumed in between innings.
Those cold and dismissive souls may never experience the magic of Grip’N’Rip Baseball. They won’t understand why so many people sacrifice so much of their time and their energy to chase the great baseball unknown. They never heard of Austin the Teacher, Brandon the Engineer, Dayne the Fireman, Skyler the Banker, Clay the Insurance Adjuster, Jared the Pilot, Chandler the Realtor or Braian the Plumber.
They won’t experience the exhilaration or that fleeting feeling of tremendous joy that can only come from a big hit, an amazing catch and a together win.
It’s a shame they won’t experience the joy we feel and the love we share.
Today, they go for the ultimate prize. It’s their World Series, their challenge of the immortals, their moment of Grip’N’Rip Magic. You’re about to watch history unfold. You’re about to see what this dream is truly all about.
Going into the bottom of the 9th, the Ducks trailed the Mets, 3-2. A quick recap.
In the top of the fifth, with the bases loaded, Toby Yorks, the red-headed, shark-wrangling marine biologist, hit a high chopper over the mound. The Mets struck first, 1-0.
The Ducks answered in the sixth, scoring two on a groundout and an error by the Mets third baseman.
The Mets responded immediately in the top half of the seventh. With two men on and two outs, Trevyn Batey the All-Star laced a single to center, putting the Mets back on top 3-2.
Eight and a half innings of great baseball summarized in five sentences. Onward.
The Ducks had three outs to try and tie the game. Chandler Veit the Realtor had followed Mets starting pitcher Chris Matlock the Knuckleballer’s lead and frustrated Ducks hitters for the previous two innings.
Ducks Manager, Austin Kendrick the Teacher, sent a sharp grounder down the left field line and slid around the tag for a lead-off double. Chandler promptly answered, striking out Brandon Freeman the Engineer for the first out. Mark Blehm stepped up to the dish and tattooed a ball to deep right center, but Joe Emery made the catch in front of the warning track for the second out. On the drive, Austin advanced to third. The Ducks were down to their final out.
Not another 2014, was the very first thing that crossed my mind. The tying run on third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the season reminded me of my beloved Royals and their incredible postseason run in 2014, winning eight-straight before losing to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7. Austin’s team made it to the finals in GRBL Season IV. I wanted the win for him as much as myself.
Harry B was the last hope for the Ducks. He did not draw out the drama. On a first-pitch curveball, he singled to left-center, scoring Austin and tying the game.
“Harrison Broadstreet just got the base knock of his life,” said Rance Burger. “The Mountain Ducks going nuts in the dugout.”
Just like the first time the Ducks played the Mets, the Championship Game of GRBL Season V headed to extra innings.
After a scoreless 10th inning, Clay Murphy, Clay the Insurance Adjuster, and his slider went back to the mound. It was the first time ever a GRBL pitcher had thrown seven innings.
In April of 2012, Clay had Tommy John surgery. A year later, he had labrum reconstruction. A year after that, Clay pitched his final game for Missouri State University — throwing all ten innings against Dallas Baptist University, only to lose the game on a walk-off homerun.
Leading off the 11th, Braian Lopez Rivera the Plumber hit a sharp grounder up the middle, but Brandon the Engineer made an incredible sliding stop and throw to record the first out. Jared Braschler the Pilot followed with a nine-pitch at bat, foul ball after foul ball after foul ball, slider after slider after slider. Finally, Clay snuck one past him for strike three, then retired Joe the Physiologist on a strike three slider as well.
In the bottom half of the inning, Clay worked Chandler to a full count and Joe made a great play in right field on the fly ball for the first out. Then Chandler started showing signs of fatigue. A first-pitch curveball to Austin landed between the numbers on Austin’s back. Halfway up the first base line, Austin turned and ran to the mound, only to greet Chandler with a bro-hug. Brandon followed with a walk.
“Kendrick is on second base and in scoring position for Mark Blehm,” Rance said.
I was working on edits for A Year of Playing Catch when my flip phone buzzed. It was Mark. Grateful for the distraction, I answered.
“What’re you doin’?” he asked in his deep, Midwestern drawl. We talked about health and masks and Covid-19. We talked about bats and gloves and wondered if the MLB season and the GRBL season were going to be canceled. We encouraged one another with baseball dreams and stories of family.
“One out here for Mark Blehm, Harrison Broadstreet in the on-deck circle. Chandler Veit throws a fastball outside.”
There were six of us almost every Friday morning for months. Mark, Gerry, Colin, Nick, Grady, and myself. Grounders and fly balls and swings in the cages. Hopping a rickety chain link fence for access to the baseball field. We commiserated over sore arms and stiff backs, tight hamstrings and energy-sapping heat and humidity. But still we met. Friday morning baseball practice, the fellowship of the game.
“No activity to report in the Springfield Metropolitans pen. It would be a position player coming in to throw, should they relieve Veit.”
It was June and I stood near home plate, much like a second baseman stands near second awaiting a throw from the catcher. Mark was throwing his first bullpen of 2020 to me, wrapping up our second week of practices. His fastballs had zip and his slider was biting. The next day he messaged me, “My hamstrings and glutes are sore!” I commiserated. My palm hurt from catching what he was throwing.
“The 1-0. Fastball, Blehm swings at this one. It’s grounded, foul off the third base side.”
In that 11th inning, while Mark was hitting, I spotted Colin and his wife sitting behind home plate. He was wearing his purple hat of the Branson Showmen. Grady and his family were sitting with my family, several of them wearing Royals hats and hoodies, coordinating with the blues of the Mountain Ducks. I could hear their yells and cheers, alongside the squawks of plastic duck calls.
“Blehm saw fastball there, but fouled it back to the screen, 1-2.”
When the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon was totaled, Mark volunteered to give me a ride to the stadium on game days. We went early, so we could stretch and run and throw and take batting practice. He surprised me the week that Gerry tagged along when our team was down a player and needing an extra. The other weeks, Mark let me choose the radio station to get us in the mood for a ballgame.
“Chandler Veit comes set for the 1-2. From the belt, fastball…Blehm puts this one in the air to right-center…”
Mark was almost to first and Austin had just rounded third when I hopped the fence in front of the dugout.
“That will get down. Kendrick, turning on the wheels from third…”
In the fourth game of the 2020 World Series, Brett Phillips walked to the plate with the Rays down one. Two outs, two strikes, against one of the premier relievers in the league, Kenley Jansen. Phillips hadn’t recorded a hit for a month. He only had two prior at bats in the postseason, neither one resulting in a hit. A soft single to right-center, two errors on the play by the Dodgers, and both runners scored, evening up the series. Phillips took off toward the outfield, arms stretched wide like airplane wings, and zoomed until his teammates caught him in left field, dogpiling him, the now-and-forever World Series hero.
“And he will score…”
As soon as Austin touched the plate, Mark took off toward the outfield, zooming around just like Brett Phillips. I was part of a long line of Ducks teammates giving chase to the now-and-forever GRBL hero. As he swerved and veered, I am not certain my feet actually touched the turf. As soon as Mark was tackled, I dove in headfirst, pounding him on his back, screaming at the top of my lungs, laughing like I was part of the best inside joke in history.
“Mark Blehm, putting on the wings, flying into the outfield! The Ozark Mountain Ducks are the champions. Mark Blehm scores Austin Kendrick from second base…holy cow…the dogpile has made its way all the way over to the shortstop’s spot. Thirty-seven year old Mark Blehm, the automotive tool manufacturer, who never played college baseball, has just won a league title for the Ozark Mountain Ducks.”
After the game, Chandler Veit told me, “Hats off to the dude. I honestly don’t know if I could’ve picked anyone else in that lineup that I would rather give that hit up to just because of the season that he has this year.”
There is a peace that comes with winning the last game of the season, even in the squash of the dogpile, even among the sticky spray of champagne showers, even during the hugs and high fives and post-game pictures, and especially in the screamed-sore throats and exhaustion of the next morning. I had never experienced this feeling pertaining to baseball, until my two-year training partner and friend, now two-time GRBL champion, became the player of the game.
The 2020 GRBL Ozark Mountain Ducks embodied teamwork. We refused to get down on anyone, no matter how many times I struck out. We trusted one another, believed in one another, cheered for one another, and laughed with each other. Now, our names will be inscribed on the Howard Bell Trophy:
Ducks fly together, forever.
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In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann are headed to Iowa after a detour through Chisholm, Minnesota. Ray stops along the highway to pick up a hitchhiking ballplayer. The seemingly out-of-time Archie Graham introduces himself and says, “I’m looking for a place to play, and I heard that all through the Midwest, towns have teams, and in some places, they’ll find you a day job so you can play ball nights and weekends.”
The Grip’N’Rip Baseball League is a place where baseball dreams come true.
Friday morning workouts for GRBL Season VI can’t come soon enough.