San Bernardino – Short Matt was in Cooperstown all weekend for his annual pilgrimage, leaving the care of this site to the rest of us monkeys. He texted me yesterday morning, beseeching yours truly to edit Cheesy Bruin’s shockingly naked post. Sorry Cheeseman, I was tied up all day with work, and now I have to write my own post without much inspiration. The Yankees, after a recent tease that had fans thinking playoffs were a possibility, reminded everyone that fighting for the gimmicky second wild-card is no way to go through life when you’ve got no chance to win a series afterwards. The “Manning Bowl” was a dud, with Cookie’s Broncos looking like the clear class of the AFC while Eli and his receivers were looking at different playbooks. I honestly don’t even know who won the Mayweather fight, I assume he did or I’d have heard something. So I’ll turn to one of my travelogues, you can skip right to the comments now if you want to talk about anything else.
Last week yours truly trekked out the 10 to San Bernardino, out in the optimistically titled Inland Empire. My baseball team was fortunate enough, after a great season, to make it to the championship game here at a real minor league park, San Manuel Stadium. I’m not sure, but this might be the only professional sports stadium in the country sponsored by a casino.
This is the city, Berdoo, where Hunter Thompson practically invented his gonzo style, embedding himself with the Hells Angels, and apart from a lot of theme restaurants and big box stores, I don’t think it’s improved all that much since those days. San Manuel Casino is very modern and obviously draws the most water out here in the desert: it looks like a real casino, packed with fanny packs and smokers and Asian gamblers. I met a couple of teammates out there the night before, drank some shots and put down a $25 chip on a black jack table on the way out, shrugging at my 13 to the dealer’s 8 showing, and staying for no better reason than my buddy telling me to let him bust. The next card indeed was a bust card, only it busted the lady next to me, giving the dealer a 5 that gave him the win. “Why you no play right!?” the woman scowled at me. Yep, just like a real casino.
Hopefully I’d play better the next day on the field, but with temps already past 90 by nine in the morning, nothing was going to come easy. At least I was smart enough to return to the hotel with my family after an El Torito team dinner the night before, and didn’t accompany the guys who ventured to the crappy strip club next door for blue balls at $20 a dance. “Hair of the dog?” said one of them the next morning, crouching down in the sun drenched dugout to draw from the flask he produced from his bag. Did I mention how much I love these guys?
We felt good about our chances, against our old nemesis the Hollywood Stars, having won all three games we played against them this year, even if two of them were decided in the final inning, the last one being especially fortunate with a dropped pop fly giving way to a game tying triple on the next at bat. They started their lanky left hander they picked up during the season and somehow finagled onto their playoff roster. This guy was good (rumor had it he’d pitched in Japan), with a sharp fastball, a wicked slider, and a Mariano-Rivera like cutter that broke in on the hands of right handers and broke two of our wood bats this day. Still, we got to him pretty quickly, scoring two. I kept my hands inside the ball and was able to punch a single the other way, eventually made my way to third and came home to make it 3-0 on a fielder’s choice grounder to the shortstop. However, the run was taken off the board when the other team’s manager, a lawyer by trade, argued that our runner going into second didn’t slide. He was supposed to, a stupid little point of procedure that’s amplified in a championship game, and the umpire screwed up the call…that’s baseball. Unfortunately, the threat of playing this game under protest scared the umps into reversing the call. The head of the umpire crew, a guy with teeth out of the Big Book of British Smiles (even though he’s definitely not British), was satisfied that “the important thing is we got the call right.” Boo.
We got that third run, they scratched back for one off our starting pitcher, who celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this season but can still pitch wonderfully…at least until the fourth inning when, right on cue for him, the pitches stopped fooling them. Three runs later we were down 4-3, but fortunately we had an ace up our sleeve (actually at shortstop) to come in to pitch and shut them down over the rest of the game. We finally got back at their lefty, tying the game in the bottom of the eighth and forcing them to bring in their own 60+ year old pitcher…but that guy knew how to work in and out of trouble as well. We had runners on the corners and two outs, but my manager, who was leading off first, is absolutely enamored with the play where he simply walks halfway down the base path and tries to get in a rundown to allow our runner on third to score. This works surprisingly often, but the Stars are an old timey team who’ve seen all the tricks, and they knew how to play this right enough (catcher running at the runner, pitcher covering home) to cut down our man at the plate. The game stayed tied.
Did I mention that by now the game had stretched past the three hour limit? The teams playing in the next game started showing up, adding some more fans in the sparse stadium seats. It was now hovering around 107 degrees. The sun baked our feet in the dugout. I had grown a grizzly playoff beard, which now felt like a wet fur coat on my face. It was also my wife’s birthday that day (a keeper, to come spend it out on the sun’s anvil like this) and I had been telling all our friends back home to come over that afternoon for a bbq, and now I was starting to wonder if we would make it back in time, or at all. I started planning on calling my neighbors to open up my house and start the coals and to carry on without us.
This game was tight. It was probably the best game I’ve ever played in. Great defensive plays on both sides. Their guy led off the tenth with a triple over our right fielder’s head. Nobody out, we had no choice but to bring the infield in with the heart of their order coming up. Next guy hit a hard chopper to me at third, which I managed to snare backhanded, look the runner back and, remembering I still had to throw the guy out, turned and fired it over for the first out. Next guy up tapped it back to our pitcher, looked the guy back and threw to first. Two outs, back to our normal depth, and the next guy hit a sharp grounder to our shortstop who made the play and the throw. We dodged a huge bullet, felt all the momentum swing back our way, and eagerly went back to the dugout to hit in the bottom half. It didn’t start promisingly, but with two outs and a runner on first, a pop up to their second baseman was inexplicably dropped. Like Jackie Smith, God bless him, that guy had to feel like the sickest man in America at that point. Runners at the corners, automatic steal of second (this time without trying the rundown), and our 3 hitter up, who was already an outstanding 4-4 on the day. With first open they walked him, bringing up our 4 hitter–I’ll call him Mason to protect the innocent. A huge former Army special ops soldier who is probably only half kidding when he says playing on Sunday helps contain his PTSD, Mason led the league in hits and belly laughs this season. Gregarious, always talking (“I’m hitting bombs today, lord have mercy!”), he’d carried us on his back plenty of times and nobody on either side of the field wanted this game as badly as he did. Well, somewhere men were laughing and somewhere children shout, but there was no joy here in Bernardino, the Mighty Mason struck out.
They scratched one out in the top of the eleventh, a timely hit by one of their seriously old guys slapped up the middle scored a runner from second. We’d been coming back in games like this all year, but suddenly with two outs it was my turn to step into the box. The booth played One Is the Loneliest Number as my walk on music, and my wife would later say that the next game’s players sitting around her all winced and groaned and hoped they didn’t play that if they were the last one’s up. I honestly don’t remember hearing it. I don’t remember much except that I swung at a high fastball, the kind I could’ve let go but have known to pull for hits more often than not…only this time I got under it and popped it out to the left fielder, who did not drop it.
The game ended up being 4 hours long–almost as long as it’s undoubtedly taken you to read this post–and I must’ve lost ten pounds in sweat. Damn that’s a bitter pill, and games like that always leave you looking at the smallest details in the aftermath, wondering “if only.” That’s obviously no way to think, but it gets the best of us. Mason almost immediately sent out a text to everybody apologizing and feeling terrible, only to spur a flood of “no never” texts back, quite rightly calling it a team loss that each of us did our part to screw up. Another long off season awaits.