The game started late. 7:45 p.m. Playoffs.
They’d just played this team and won 14-0. So they hadn’t gone into their first playoff game all that concerned.
Surprisingly, we stayed behind most of the game.
We were closing in on 9:30 and the sky was dark against the stark white field lights.
Last inning. The boys team would have the last at bat. Score: 7-5. In favor of their opponents.
Bases loaded. Two outs.
The eldest walked up to the plate. (Um, no pressure…) He’s a solid batter but certainly doesn’t have a history of connecting with the ball every time.
The balls began to come in.
The ball soars out beyond infield’s reach.
The boys begin running. Man on third crosses home plate. Man on second crosses home plate. Man on first crosses home plate.
He won the game!
Another team’s coach stood watching from the bleachers. He was the coach of the team we would face the following evening in the playoffs as a result of our victory. He approaches the opposing team’s coach, I think that kid is using an illegal bat, go check.
Days before, the boys received news they had been selected for a special team they’d tried out for. We had promised them they didn’t have to share a bat if they made the team. All season, for both of their baseball teams, the eldest had used the bat Santa brought the baby.
We knew this year little league had changed their rules and limited the types of bats that could be used. We had checked the bat from Santa to ensure it conformed.
So, with the news about the team, I took the eldest to Academy to try out bats. He tried out four different ones that appeared to meet the rules, and he selected the one his new coach recommended.
This playoff game was his first opportunity to use it.
The other coach came over to get the bat. First, he showed the bat to the ump: It looks fine to me.
Turns out, it wasn’t. It was USSA approved not USA approved. The difference: one eighth of an inch.
So after the game had been called for the boys, the Commissioners overturned their win. The verdict: illegal bat.
The eldest was devastated. He went from being on an athlete’s high for scoring the game winning runs to being crushed. I cheated, he muttered despondently. No you didn’t, I insisted, I made the mistake.
Two nights later, the boys team went to the losing bracket to play one more game. The team remaining incredibly supportive and positive.
The team that the boys had played two nights before was there, having just finished their playoff game.
Throughout the season, we’d been so impressed with their coaches. While some coaches shouted at their players and fans and refs (in 9 year old little league, sigh), these coaches encouraged their boys even when plays went wrong. Great effort, nice swing, way to hustle. Coaching from a place of encouragement rather than angry competitiveness.
Even with all that, I would never have predicted what happened next.
Their coach came over to our sweet boy who was still nursing sadness from the loss he wore as a personal fault. He handed him the baseball from the earlier game. Each of their coaches had written encouraging notes all over the ball: You did your job! Great hit! Keep it up!
I can’t even type the words without tears. They gave him their game ball.
That extraordinary game ball is going in a case on the eldest’s top shelf. It taught him more about the game than anything else he learned this year. We all too often, say in trite response, it’s not about winning it’s about how you play the game.
But this simple act showed that statement to be true. Both that team and our team lost our games and exited the playoffs quietly. The third team’s coach who had arm-chair refereed our game from the stands went on to the championship.
My prayer for my athletes is they’ll see winning at all costs is never worth it.
Winning is about how you play the game.
Whether it’s baseball or life. Integrity. Respect. Sportsmanship.
I wish he hadn’t had to get the game ball like he did. But I know this game ball is one he’ll never forget.