Opening Day Issue
Published: April 6, 2011
On the game's second play, our best infielder, freshman LaSaan Harris, tried to three-hop a simple throw into the wind from third to first. The routine ground ball turned into a two-base error signifying a glacial three innings. These three innings still must be played before the extra-merciful, 15-run mercy rule kicks in. We make seven errors in the first inning.
One of our outfielders, Kenneth Jordan in left, seemed unable to bend over when the baseball rolled past him. When our centerfielder heaved the ball in the direction of third base, Kenneth simply braced himself against the fence, and stayed there, a frozen scarecrow, unable to respond to our feeble cries. We escaped the first inning slaughter through three strikeouts with two different pitchers, after 19 runs had been scored.
Our starting pitcher Clayton Jr. was thrown out of the game after hitting a batter, walking two more, and then hurling his glove in the air while arguing balls and strikes. A general no-no for baseball on any level, surely his gesture offered a worthy exception given a well-bundled home plate umpire enforcing a postage stamp-sized strike zone on the coldest day of the year.
Kenneth shuffled slowly into the dugout to gather his frozen belongings. As the umpires illegibly signed our scorebook, Kenneth mumbled to Art how he just had to leave. He quietly disappeared, never to return to baseball. He would bashfully turn in his uniform on the last day of school.
We fell down to nine players and still no fans. Late in the second inning, as another gust of snow flurries dusted the field, two fathers suddenly appeared. The dads offered stunning charity: a dozen steaming hot chocolates. Many of us were now actually showing early signs of frostbite. My red hands lacked sensation, yet no player urged me to pull them from the field, at least until we got our due last at-bat. Avondale's centerfielder made a diving catch in the play of the day (though only two catches were recorded the entire game). It doubled up our lone base runner for that inning, Jonathan Gordon, rounding third for the final out.
As the umpires scurried away, the two teams remembered to congratulate each other at home plate. Avondale raced to their idling bus and we staggered into the gym, more than two hours after we had first stumbled into the unforgiving chill.
In three long innings, we committed 14 errors and lost 31-1, perhaps a school record. The guys conceded Avondale was the better team, yet something seemed wrong in how we found this out. We slowly tried to shake off the cold, slumping on the empty gym bleachers. The coaches had to say something, and we wondered if we should emphasize the positive, such as our three hits, including Jonathan's two-bagger and lone run?
Curiously, these youngsters seemed more attentive than usual, perhaps because they were too cold to be restless, but maybe because they agreed with my assessment that they gained an inner strength they didn't know they had, that they had just passed a different kind of character test they would never forget. This was no minor message for these young men, many of whom had few, if any, adult males in their lives encouraging this kind of growth. We shared a few laughs reviewing proper first aid procedures for frostbite.
Snow flurries continued on the drive home under the darkening sky. I left a terse message on the athletic director's voice mail that we should never have played that game and that our school trainer should have been present to administer some climate-related first aid. Two years later, I would lose my coaching job over such outspoken criticisms about an alleged ongoing lack of support for our baseball program. A new contract clause no longer supported hiring teachers as coaches. In 2009, the baseball field would be bulldozed over for a new softball facility instead.
Still, at that moment, I remember snickering, almost smiling, in spite of a broken car heater fan. The radio had affirmed a temperature of 16 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of 0 degrees for this extraordinary Home Opener. Major League Baseball and the Detroit Tigers would cancel their home game the following day. The Oak Park Knights would be back working on their hitting, in one half of the school gymnasium, as if the promise of April would never end.
> Email William R. Boyer