25 Hours on 25 September
It was a hugely emotional day in my personal baseball experience, and 25 of the most unforgettable hours of my life. I have been watching baseball for 12 years now, and since those early days of watching Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd on late night Channel 5, I cannot remember when a single day caused me to celebrate, laugh, cry and shout in both frustration and exhilaration, and it was even rarer that all of these emotions could be felt due to my association with sport.
Sunday 1.00 am: GB vs Brazil
First, that fantastic GB win very early Sunday morning, starting with the ceremonial first pitch being thrown out by BSUK Joint CEO Jenny Fromer. It was a thrill to see Jenny be given this honour after all she has done for British baseball and softball, and I hope that more achievements such as hers, from all of the wonderful staff and volunteers in Great Britain, can be recognised on grander and grander stages in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
Many words, pictures and videos have been written, taken and recorded about the game, and will do it much more justice than I can do here. But I will say that after a tiring day taking part in the GLSML All-Star game, the suspense of the match-up, the high stakes of the tournament format and the #GBWay of playing this game kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the 4:10 am finish time [in the UK].
Every person I spoke to later that day highlighted what anyone who saw the recent GB games would notice: that this team has an ungodly amount of athleticism and now, having beat the Brazilians and having run the Israeli team close in their first game, they had a very realistic shot at getting to the full World Baseball Classic for the first time. Names such as Champ Stuart, Todd Isaacs and Jasrado Chisholm became overnight sensations in GB's mission to Inspire, Develop and Perform. Starter Blake Taylor and reliever Chris Reed got into and out of very dangerous situations with great regularity, and the bottom of the seventh inning featured what would be the eventual game-winning RBI on a single by third baseman Kyle Simmons.
The drama seemed to build with each passing pitch, and in the ninth inning, with the score 4-3 to GB, Brazil DH Juan Carlos Muniz hit a double that both excited the Brazilian fans and shredded the GB fans’ nerves. This brought in Daniel Cooper to try to close out the game, and he only needed two pitches to earn the save. With the count at 0-1, Muniz surprised everyone in the ball park when he thought he saw an opportunity to steal third base to get 90 feet closer to tying the game. But thankfully (from a GB perspective), Chris Berset and Kyle Simmons held their combined nerve to throw out Muniz stealing and send GB rapturously into the Qualifier final. There they would face Israel in a repeat match-up from the opening day, and the feeling held by most was that, if they could keep the powerful Israeli bats quiet, GB really could pull off that last victory they needed to get to the tournament proper in South Korea.
Sunday 12.00 pm: Hit the Pitch
An early start the next day saw me travel to the beautiful baseball and softball facility at Farnham Park for what I am sure will be one of my best British baseball memories. For those who were not able to attend, the very first Hit the Pitch Baseball Day was a huge success, with a mixture of old faces returning to the diamond, softball players picking up the smaller ball for the first time, Darrin Muller expertly adjudicating the strike zone, kids picking up a glove and a bat for the first time and families and friends giving their usual fantastic support to all the players.
There were many great moments throughout the day. There was an emotional memorial to Phil Chesterton, with the first pitch being thrown out by his son Richard. This was watched by plenty of former Windsor Bears who turned out to play, including Simeon Maas, Will Everett, Patrick Matias, Phil Norris, Fraser Duggan, Jon Marsh, Clint Milner, Darrin Muller and John Boyd.
For me, the highlights were:
• Getting behind the plate and catching for two of my softball compatriots giving baseball pitching a go for the first time (Eric Lukazewski and Sahan Jinadasa).
• Two inside-the-park home runs from the first three at-bats of his baseball career by Romin Mehdizadeh.
• Seeing BSUK Joint CEO John Boyd donning the catcher’s gear.
• Sara Daughtrey showing that #ThisGirlCan by exhibiting an impressive outfield arm and putting together some very composed at-bats.
• And bringing all of the players on the day together to wish GB Baseball luck and record a quick video message wishing them well in their quest to win #OneMore and make it to the WBC in Seoul.
The two four-inning games were fantastic to be part of. Although my team lost the first game on a walk-off single, we brought it back in the second game with some inspired pitching and the softball players getting their eye in on the faster baseball pitches. The split meant that we went to "extra innings", and the blue team managed to carry on their momentum and win the extra inning. The game finished with pitcher Eric Lukazewski freezing Jon Marsh on a beautiful curve ball on the inner half which Marsh couldn’t believe broke back over the plate.
I want to give huge thanks to John Boyd for organising the day and giving the opportunity for so many people to either return to the game or come to baseball for the first time.
The rollercoaster takes a dip
Halfway through the first four-inning game, news broke out in the dugout that Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández and two friends had tragically passed away in a boating accident. Initially, maybe because we were playing, the extent of what had happened did not fully sink in. I had some muted discussions with Jamie Gregory and Romin Mehdizadeh -- my teammates for the day -- about his stats, his comeback from Tommy John surgery, the future Cy Young awards he should have received and what would almost certainly have been a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career.
It wasn't until the drive home, when I stopped for a coffee, that I saw some of the media reports coming out of Miami -- mainly a shortened version of the full press conference held earlier that day. I had to stop at South Mimms Services for 45 minutes while I digested the news, and when I got home I am not ashamed to say that I cried for an hour while reading all about the life and career of José Fernández.
I read about his four attempts at defecting from Cuba, during the third of which he was arrested and expelled from school, and his fourth and successful attempt when, as a 14-year-old boy, he dived into the water to save one of the passengers on the boat. It was only once the woman was saved that he realised it was his own mother.
I watched when, in 2013, he was interviewed about his family and how their support got him to the Major Leagues, when he waxed lyrical about his grandmother Olga, who taught him how to throw and catch, and how because she was still in Cuba it was impossible for them to see each other and for her to see him pitch. How she would climb on to the roof of her apartment in Cuba to hear the radio broadcasts of his All-Star Game start through a tinny radio. The video here is a must-see.
I heard about how his girlfriend had just announced to the public that their first child was on the way, and his final Instagram post said to her, "I'm so glad you came into my life. I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst".
I then saw the full news conference when Marlins President David Samson, GM Michael Hill, Fernández’s Manager Don Mattingly and his teammate Martin Prado spoke through the tears until they were overwhelmed, to the point where they had to leave as the emotion in the room became unbearable.
I reminisced about his love for the game and the smile and the fun that he had on the field, in the dugout and any time he was around his teammates -- for example, his celebration when Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run.
Hours earlier, I was able to play baseball at Farnham Park for the first time and have what was as close to a pure baseball experience as I could imagine -- not worrying about the politics of the team selection, or complaining about the umpire giving the other team's pitcher an extra few inches on the outside corner or about the opposing baserunners sliding into second too hard or running through the catcher. It was going out onto the field with some people I knew, some who I hadn't met before and just playing and enjoying the sport. After learning about José's journey to get to the big leagues, that is what he tried to do every day and a lesson that we can all learn: that baseball is supposed to be fun and that we can treat it as such.
The next day, the tears would flow freely again as a heart-breaking pre-game ceremony took place in Marlins Park ahead of their match-up against the New York Mets, with the eight starting position players surrounding the mound for a moment’s silence and the Mets coming across the field before the game to embrace their opponents. The most touching moment, however, was not planned.
Dee Gordon, who has publicly been one of those most affected by Fernández's passing, with Fernández's name and number on his back, took the first pitch from the right-hand batter’s box wearing José's batting helmet. A few pitches later, Gordon would step over to his natural left side and crush the ball for a lead-off home run, his first of the year after 303 at-bats.
The boating accident that took the life of José Fernández was a truly tragic ending for an incredible athlete and soon-to-be father who by all accounts had an infectious personality and was a fantastic teammate. He will be sorely missed.
Sunday 7:10pm: #ITFDB
While waiting for GB to play Israel, and with all of this going on, it had completely slipped my mind that Sunday 25 September 2016 was also the final home game of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ regular season, and with that the final home game called by broadcasting legend Vin Scully.
As each Dodger batter came up to the plate, they waved up to the press box, doffed their helmets and paid respect to the greatest baseball commentator in the history of the game. However, you wouldn't have known this if you listened on the radio, as Vin was the epitome of professionalism and was always directing the attention back to the players on the field. Every time the view switched back to the centre field angle, you saw on TV the tribute from the Dodgers grounds crew to Vin, with his name etched behind the pitcher with a microphone artfully replacing the "i".
In the bottom of the third inning, Scully seamlessly tied in a story about Fernández tweeting on 1 September 2015, "If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?", around a sacrifice fly by fellow countryman Yasiel Puig. It scored Howie Kendrick from third base, bringing the Dodgers back to within a run of the Rockies on a night when a Dodgers win or Giants loss would seal a fourth NL West division title for the Los Angeles club.
Often throughout the game, the camera would focus on signs in the crowd giving thanks for Scully's career, and he would graciously and modestly acknowledge them and thank the fan before bringing the audience right back into the action. He would, in what has become his trademark style, expertly weave the narrative of the baseball game in front of him with stories from the Dodgers’ franchise history, an occasional light-hearted pun and well-researched factoids about the participants in the match-up from around the Major and Minor Leagues. All of this with his self-deprecating sense of humour, which is a breath of fresh air for a British fan tired of the usually brash, catchphrase-filled American style of commentary which has become commonplace in today's sporting world.
This mindset of the game being about the teams rather than what the commentator can add to the game was be summed up by the man himself in this quote from an article written at the beginning of the season announcing that this would be his final year:
"I saw Mel Allen leave the Yankees, Red Barber leave the Dodgers, Russ Hodges leave the Giants, Harry Caray leave the Cubs, Jack Buck leave the Cardinals," Scully said. "You know what? Not one of those teams missed a game. They kept on playing and the fans kept on going. I know I can be replaced. They've all come and gone and I'll join that group."
That being said, his particular brand of commentary will never be duplicated. The Dodgers would go on to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning on a solo shot by Corey Seager, before Charlie Culberson became an instant classic trivia answer by giving Vin a perfect send-off from the hometown broadcast booth via an extra inning walk-off solo home run off Rockies’ pitcher Boone Logan. As Randy Newman's "I Love LA" rang out around Chavez Ravine, it gave the Dodgers the win along with the NL West crown. These two home runs gave Scully two final exciting calls at Dodger Stadium, capping a legendary 67-year homestand that is unlikely to ever be repeated.
Thankfully for fans of the Dodgers and of Scully's style, there are a couple of final opportunities to hear his commentary, with his final broadcast coming against the Giants from AT&T park on Sunday 2 October at the very kind time of 8.00 pm BST.
Sunday 11.00 pm: GB vs Israel
Nearing the end of this 25-hour baseball journey, the one event that we all looked forward to involved GB taking on Israel in a high-stakes shootout, with the winner to go to Seoul, South Korea to take part in the third WBC event in March 2017. Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Israel's pitching kept the GB hitters off the base paths and their home run power put the game just out of reach of Liam Carroll and his charges.
The game started very hopefully, with Southampton Mustangs pitcher Spencer Kreisberg getting the start and doing really well in containing that aforementioned Israeli power. He threw 68 pitches (40 for strikes) and claimed four strikeouts, while surrendering only two singles and three walks in a very impressive 4+ inning stint.
However, just as happened in Thursday night's game, the Israel team got to the bullpen and made life difficult for the British players.
Chasing Kreisberg from the game with a lead-off single in the fifth inning, the Israeli team went on to put up four runs in the frame on two two-run home runs.
GB felt the need for an immediate riposte in the sixth inning, but they were thwarted by Israel completing two fantastic defensive plays, including an amazing catch by pitcher Josh Zeid on a smoking liner hit back through the box by GB’s DH Chavez Young. As a fan, you felt the frustration grow as the team finally squared up a couple against the former Major Leaguer but still came away without any baserunners.
After the turnaround, Israel added another run on a triple against Nolan Bond, and the crowd and commentators alike could feel the game slipping out of reach for GB. A questionable strike two call against Champ Stuart led to him expanding the zone and striking out, and the few quiet words on his way back to the bench caused his ejection from the game. Carroll admitted in the post-game conference that he felt it was a soft ejection. When he went to argue his case to the home plate umpire, Carroll was also ejected for his troubles, and the feeling of frustration kept growing.
The game finished 9-1 to Israel, but as with the game a few nights before, you felt that had two or three dominoes fallen GB's way there could have been a much different result.
Monday morning blues
The 25 hours finished at 1:55 am, and the next day the press conference popped up on my news feed. GB Head Coach Liam Carroll showed the fighting spirit that the GB team exemplified all week long, and reiterated the GB programme’s mission and vision that the American coverage really latched onto this week -- to Inspire, Develop and Perform -- and the promise that Great Britain will be back in four years’ time to claim their spot in the 2021 World Baseball Classic.
Overall, the day had left me exhausted, more emotionally than physically. However, such a mixture of ups and downs, and being so invested in all of these moments, served to remind me why I love this sport and the important life lessons it teaches those of us who are so connected to it.
That failure will happen, but you always dust yourself down after a strikeout and get back in the box.
That losses hurt, but we take what we learn from them and try our hardest to apply them to come back with a win the next time.
That it is okay to cry and mourn at missed opportunities.
That talent is golden, and longevity is a gift that cannot be squandered.
And most importantly, that like life, baseball is a game and should be enjoyed to its fullest.
A Dr Seuss quote posted on Facebook by the LA Dodgers summed up the evening perfectly -- not just for looking back at Vin Scully's fantastic career, but with equal application to GB's result and the loss of José Fernández.
"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened!"
tagged under: baseball, wbc, gb, dodgers, jose fernandez
Great article Simba.Commenting is not available in this channel entry.