This past Friday, the Walkersville baseball team lost in the regional finals to North Hagerstown by a score of 5-2. It was a rematch of last year's regional championship, which Walkersville won. Last year was exciting, but this year I had a much greater personal investment in the outcome. It is Jon's junior year, and he's been a big part of the team. So for the past few days I've been feeling a bit downcast. I'm trying to sort out why.
One reason is that this team consisted mostly of players whom I've had the privilege of watching since they were eight years old. Many of them are seniors and so it was our final chance to see them all play together. Our first full summer in Maryland, Jonathan made the 8-year-old all-star team at Glade Valley. That scrappy crew won the Cal Ripken state tournament. The picture of those little dirty, smiling faces clutching trophies is frozen in our memory banks. They had lots of other great moments through the years, too, playing rec and travel ball, and competing in tournaments. Now about half of them are donning their caps and gowns and shaving their "playoff beards" for graduation. I don't know during which season they grew to be so tall. They are a special group of young men, and although Jonathan has another year left with some of them, it feels like a chapter has ended. It was a wonderful chapter.
Another reason I'm a bit downcast is the actual circumstances of the game. Based on the situation with the pitching staff, I was certain Jonathan was going to be a key factor in the game. Sure enough, he came in to pitch in the bottom of the 3rd. There was a 2-0 count, a runner at second, two outs, and we trailed 2-0. He got two quick strikes and I was sure he was going to be the hero, but then the batter hit a ground ball through the hole between third and short to plate the opponent's third run. I felt that ball scrape across my heart as it trickled into left field.
Jon pitched another 2 1/3 innings after that. He threw quite well, striking out North's #3 hitter and not allowing any good contact. But some more ground balls found their way through, a few plays didn't quite get made, and there was a strange stoppage of play that resulted in a balk, sending my taut emotions over the edge. The result of all that was another two runs. Meanwhile, as every baseball fan knows, hitting is as fickle as a girl with three prom invitations, and on this day, the Walkersville bats chose their right to remain silent. The five runs were too much to overcome. Jon needed to be great for his team to have a chance, and he was merely good. I felt his pain.
So we're left wondering what might have been. Two more wins, and we would have been playing for the Maryland state championship at Cal Ripken Stadium this weekend. How incredible it would have been to see those dusty eight-year-olds come full circle and win a state championship again. My wife tells me I spend too much time "what-iffing," but I wonder what it would have been like to see one of these kids I know so well make the key play or get the big hit, or to see Jonathan at the bottom of a dog pile after recording the final out? What a glorious moment that will be for some young man this weekend. His parents will cry, I'm sure.
So I'm sorting out my emotions. For someone who loves the game as much as I do--for whom baseball is inseparable from life--to have the joy of watching my son and his friends display such talent and achieve such success all these years has been a gift. But every season comes to an end, whether we are ready or not, and I guess that's the only time it hurts to come home. Joy and pain are as intricately connected as winning and losing. I'm just not sure which is responsible for the tears in my eyes.