Damian “Chief” Orslene is training hard to make the 2016 Paralympic Throwing Team, but he also understands the importance of rest. Chief writes about an exciting baseball season opener from his vantage point on the field.
It is the sure sign that Spring is here. Baseball. I have always loved Baseball. So when I got the invite to be the “Special Guest” for the Pensacola Pirates season Opener how could I refuse? You won’t find me parked in front of a television on a Saturday afternoon watching other people play pitch and catch, but to come to the ballpark, be in the dugout and stand right there with the Third base Coach while it’s being all played out live…now my friends…That is baseball. It was fun…with a very serious undertone. For that is what baseball is. It is the time-honored harbinger of Spring. It takes that responsibility very seriously, at every level. Every Player who comes to bat is playing that tape in their head where they are hitting the winning home running in Game Seven of the World Series. I know, because I did it. This is serious stuff Baseball… it is what dreams are made of. And tonight was no different.
I had a great time, but as the game wound into its final inning and the Home team, the Pirates, came up for their final at Bats, down two runs…the laughing had stopped. No one likes to lose at Baseball. I was standing with the Third Base Coach, a few feet away from the Third Base bag, watching as he dug a little hole with his toe while signing to the batters what he wanted them to do. ”Get on base you idiots”…was what all that furry of hands signs meant and they listened, for amongst a weak grounder to third and pop out to left, we got a walk and a single, so suddenly we had runners on first and second with two outs. God I love Baseball. That feeling of Hope that stays beating in your chest, that knowledge that anything is possible. Then the third base coach sighed, and dug his toe deeper into the ground. He stared hard at the score board “What’s the matter Coach?” I asked. He pointed with a nod of his head at a squatty young man coming to the plate, his bat balanced precariously on his right shoulder. “Joey Devine”…the Toe Digging Coach said. “Great Catcher…crappy hitter”. And I too turned to look at Joey Devine and instantly loved him. For those very words had been used to describe me for all nine years of my catching career. Look a Mini-Me. Joey dug into batter’s box with his right foot, keeping his left foot out of the box and stared down the third base line hard for a sign. Toe Digger beside me snorted under his breath…”What’s he expect me to tell him to do?…bunt?” and he sent the signal to swing for the fence back to Joey who accepted it with a slight nod as if he expected to be allowed to swing away anyways. He pounded the plate with his bat, swung his left foot into the box and settled in to wait the pitch. The once loud ballpark had gone silent and I found I was holding my breath. I could see Joey’s brow crinkled in concentration, his Under Armour battling gloves pulled tight as he held the bat in a nervous death grip. The Pitcher took the sign from the catcher and in a tangle of arms and legs fired a perfect strike to the middle of the plate. And Joey…bunted.
In a flash he had turned his feet, slid his hands along his bat and laid down the most perfect bunt you had ever seen down the third base line! No one in the park expected a bunt! He exploded out of the box towards first base, the Catcher yelled and leapt down the line to be met by a charging Third Baseman who had gotten caught totally unawares. But…Third baseman are special people, he yelled for the Catcher to get out of the way, and the Catcher dove to the ground, as the Third Baseman snatched the ball up bare handed and off balanced, one leg completely off the ground, his body almost perpendicular to the field, he fired the ball towards First Base. Joey was yelling at the top of his lungs and churning his squat Catcher legs as fast as they would go. The entire park had erupted at his audacity and joined in his yelling as if noise volume would help him go faster. The runner that had been on second was already rounding third and heading for home, if Joey could only get to First. The First Baseman, with his special First Baseman’s mitt, stretched his entire body out, reaching with every fiber, for the round ball that was growing in size by the second. And Joey ran with all his heart. And the First Baseman reached…and reached…and the ball…sailed right over his head!
The ball went right over his head and right down the first base fence, and Joey slammed his foot into First base, his concentration so complete that he had no idea that the ball had gone over their heads. “Run Joey Run” yelled the First Base Coach pointing to the ball rolling down the fence, the Right Fielder giving chase, and a huffing and puffing Joey launched himself towards second. One runner had scored and the runner that had been on first was now rounding third! This was getting exciting! We almost had a tied Game!
Joey stopped with both feet on second base just as the ball zipped past the Second Baseman’s out stretched gloved, skipped across the ground at Joey’s feet and headed out towards Left Field. Amongst the outpouring of noise that was erupting around me I now heard the Toe Digger beside me yelling “Run Joey Run”. And with a resigned shrug, he did. The little catcher that can catch, but can’t hit, pushed off from Second Base and with a furrowed brow and swinging arms that one hopes will propel tired legs a little faster…he ran. The Left Fielder chased down the ball just as Joey lumbered up to me and I was amazed at the flood of memories this event brought back of my own ballpark days. I love baseball.
But my trip down memory lane was cut short as a pair of hands grabbed my shoulder and pushed me down while yelling “look out”. Toe Digger and I lay sprawled on the grass as the Left Fielder’s attempt to end this evening’s adventure went horribly awry and his throw nearly took off our heads. Joey standing on Third Base, looked down at us, laying tangled in the grass, and the ball banging around the backstop behind home plate and he shrugged. He lifted his arms, dropped them, blew out air like an old steam locomotive and stepped off third base like a man on a mission and…he charged down that third base line. Toe digger and I flipped over and got to our knees to watch the squatty Catcher, his arms swinging back and forth, the Game 7 World Series tape playing in his head, run towards home plate with the winning run in his shoes. The dugouts had emptied, which is against the rules, but no one seemed to care, everyone was on their feet. The Catcher snagged the ball from behind the backstop and turned to see Joey heading for Home. He surged towards the plate, his left hand squeezing the ball hard into his glove, his right hand squeezing the glove shut in anticipation of the train wreck of meeting what was about to happen 15 feet away. And Joey ran. The Home Plate Umpire leaned in just inches from the plate, the catcher leaped the final feet, his arms outstretched one over the other protecting the ball just like all catchers are taught, and…with his final bit energy…Joey threw himself into a slide. The Catcher swung his arms swiping down, but found only empty air, for Joey hadn’t slid at the plate but rather had slid right at the Home Plate Umpire who had to leap to get out of the way and watched intently as Joey slid his Under Armour Glove across Home Plate as he went by. “SAFE”!!!! Came the Call. And Toe Digger, the Third Base Coach, grabbed me and hugged me and we rolled onto the grass again slapping each other on the backs in joy for Joey. The Team snatched the exhausted Bunter from the ground, pounding him on the back in elation for their unexpected victory.
Toe Digger and I joined the Team and once they settled down he asked the question that was foremost in my mind of the little Catcher. “Joey..why did you bunt?” The exhausted little man looked up, his faced that of total confusion, “That’s the sign you sent me Coach” he said repeating on his arms exactly what I saw the Third Base Coach Toe Digger do. The Coach opened his mouth to speak…stopped…thought about and replayed in his mind what he meant to do, and what he instead did…”Yes, I guess it is” he said, looking at me. I shrugged. “Well that ended well”…”Yes it did, and that is why I so love Baseball.” And the Coach smiled.
“Let’s get this cleaned up and go get some Pizza!” the coach yelled and the dugout erupted once more. And again I smiled. It never leaves you, that feeling that anything is possible.
On that day I was surrounded by the Pensacola Pirates Little League Team comprised of exuberant nine year olds who took their baseball very, very seriously. Maybe not as seriously as going out for pizza, but still, seriously.
Baseball. It warms your heart, the smell of the leather, the feel of the grass beneath your feet, the sound of a ball popping into a glove…it reminds us that we are alive and well, and we can shake off another winter, come out of hibernation and do with this summer whatever we want. It is a sure sign, a harbinger of the great things to come, I love baseball for that.