|Edition No. 22||
August 17, 2012
Here are the standings for the week which ended Sunday, August 12, 2012:
It remains a two-horse race between the Bums and the Wahoos. Not much fun for the rest of us.
Not sure what to make of the Senators. Just a short time ago, my boys were in 11th place and looking to move up in the rankings. An eye-blink later, my team was back in the basement and looking like they are destined to remain there. With most of my hitters in a deep funk and my pitchers suddenly satisfied with mediocrity, it doesn’t look good for this once-proud franchise to avoid yet another cellar finish.
Since the Mount Michael baseball season ended sooner than we had hoped (see below), I took advantage of the open week and put together a quick, impromptu trip to Colorado and the Eagle’s Nest with the boys. Although I have taken Joe and Will on trips to Colorado and the Eagle’s Nest on many previous occasions, this was the first time that we had been there in the past four years, and it was even better than we had each remembered.
This was without a doubt the best trip yet, mainly because it was more like hanging out with two good buddies than a father having to tend to all of the needs of his young boys. We went to breakfast in Kittredge (never better), hiked the piney, high woods, played cards and talked baseball and life, went to a Rockies game, golfed at the Evergreen public course (where Itchie’s and One-Way’s 1995 quest for a 100-beer weekend began, and was recounted without embellishment for Joe and Will), and took an exhilarating whitewater rafting trip down the Arkansas River in Buena Vista.
The weather was gorgeous, the wildlife remarkable (we stopped to allow a small herd, 9, of large elk to cross the road), the food terrific, the mood relaxed, and the company unbeatable. If there is anything better than sitting out under the stars on the deck of the Eagle’s Nest, playing cards with one’s own offspring and sharing great memories and good conversation, well then, somebody will have to prove that to me, and beyond a reasonable doubt.
One good story from our trip. A couple of days in, Joe and Will’s good friend Joe Beeson joined us in Evergreen, after having played in a golf tournament in Gothenburg on Wednesday. As an Eagle Scout and lover of the outdoors, the Eagle’s Nest might as well have been Valhalla for young Beeson. Most definitely his kind of joint.
On Thursday we drove over to Buena Vista for some whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River. As I was signing us up for the adventure, I was concerned that young Beeson might not be able to join us without a parent or guardian signing off on the waiver form for him. Necessity being the mother of invention, I listed Joe as my third offspring, cleverly named “Beesley” Ernst, and passed him off to our guide as my own flesh and blood. Although our enthusiastic young guide, Ross (although he preferred being addressed by his nickname, “Squirrel”), should probably have figured this out on his own by virtue of some of the answers he got to questions to the boys about their high school sports, college choices and so forth; if he ever caught on that Beesley Ernst was not really my blood kin, he never let on. In fact, at one point during our adventure on the river, he commented to the lads that he thought that “Beesley” was one of the coolest names he had ever heard. Of course, to Joe and Will and myself, Joe B. will forevermore be known as “Beesley.”
Here’s another good Beesley story from the trip. Joe and Will and I went to the Colorado Rockies game against the Cardinals with my old chum, Larry Larson, on Wednesday night and bought five tickets to the game, leaving one at the Will Call window for Beesley, who was beating his way out from Gothenburg after finishing his golf tournament. After texting Joe from the road that he was about an hour out as we entered the ballpark, we didn’t hear back from him until the second inning. After getting his ticket from the Will Call window, Beesley snuck into our section and sat two rows behind us without announcing his presence, and then began rattling on in a Soviet-Bloc accent about the game of baseball, uttering such things as, “I don’t understand this American game of baseball! It is so different from the sporting events in my native Kyrgyzstan.” Eventually, after a better part of an inning had passed, Joe Ernst finally turned around to get a glimpse of this annoying Communist who was badmouthing our national pastime, and found it to be none other than his pal Beesley. A classic prank from a young but seasoned prankster.
Ahhh, Eagle’s Nest. Heaven on earth, outhouse and all. My heartfelt thanks to B.T., our generous landlord, for making this little slice of heaven available to the Ernst boys.
After losing the first game of Legion Districts at Mount Michael against Roncalli, the valiant Knights dropped into the losers’ bracket, and then won their next three games (Fort Calhoun, Blair, Wahoo) to advance to the finals against Omaha Roncalli on Tuesday, July 24. After winning three straight games (two via the Ernst hurlers) on three consecutive 100-plus degree days, the Knights were ready to exact revenge on Roncalli for knocking them into the losers’ bracket, by winning the first game and forcing a second.
After the Knights took an early lead, on the strength of two hits and three RBIs by Joe Jackson, our starting pitcher faltered and young Wilbur Ernst was called on in relief, with two batters aboard. He retired the first batter with a come-backer to the mound which was close to being a double play. However, he then gave up a double to an old Dirtbags teammate on a high fastball that would have been too much for most hitters, but which allowed the Roncalli 9 to tie the game. An error in the infield then allowed him to score to put the Purple Pride in the lead. After another 1-2/3 innings of scoreless work, Will gave up a lead-off single in the top of the 6th and was relieved by our ace pitcher. Unfortunately, the base runner, on another error, scored to give Roncalli an 8-6 lead, and they then added 3 more runs to take a seemingly insurmountable 11-8 lead into the bottom of the final frame, with the bottom of the Mount Michael order coming to bat.
After our 7-hole hitter struck out looking and our 8-hole hitter flew out, things looked grim for the Mount Michael 9. After our 9th-spot batter fell behind in the count 0-and-2, the opposing pitcher (their ace) threw four straight balls to put a runner on base, bringing our lead-off hitter, our catcher, to the plate.
Still smarting from a fielding error that cost the team dearly in the top of the 6th, our backstop looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. After going to an 0-and-2 count, it appeared that our catcher (a terrific kid, and a four-year starter at catcher) was going to record our team’s final out of the season, likely through a strikeout. Instead, he popped up meekly just in front of the plate, but a miscommunication between the opposing battery mates allowed the ball to drop in for the craziest of infield hits, putting runners at first and second with two outs. Hope remained.
Our next hitter, our center fielder, rapped a single to center which was badly misplayed, allowing two runs to score and narrowing the gap to 11-10, with a runner on second. The Roncalli coach then decided to intentionally walk our 3-hole hitter, a lefty, putting runners on first and second, with two out, and our clean-up hitter, Joe Ernst, at bat.
Sitting there watching the game with Scott and Jesse Krause and Rick Drews, I had every confidence that Joe would come through in the clutch. He has been our clean-up hitter all season, batted better than .450 for the year, and came through in the clutch time and time again. Everybody on the Mount Michael team knew that Joe was just the guy that we wanted at the plate in this situation.
As Joe dug in at the dish, prepared to face the Roncalli ace, he looked calm, confident, ready for the challenge. He took a mighty swing at the first offering, just missing a fastball to take the count to 0-and-1.
As disciplined a hitter as we have on the team, Joe took the filthy second pitch for a strike, realizing that it was on the far reaches of the outside corner and not his pitch to hit. Now with the count 0-and-2, Joe steadied himself, fully ready to do his job. An outstanding two-strike hitter, he was undaunted at the task, even in a crucial situation and while facing an excellent opposing pitcher. A hero moment in the offing.
The third pitch was a fastball, letter high, nasty. Joe ripped at the pitch with a solid, full swing, but came up empty, nothing but air, a seemingly audible whoosh. Strike three. Game over. Season over. High school career over. Ugh.
As the Roncalli team celebrated, I stood there feeling numb, not so much upset about the season being over and the Mount Michael boys not making it to State, but wondering how I would ever muster up the words to provide any measure of consolation to my son. I hadn’t a clue. I shared these thoughts with Scott and Jesse and Rick, and they all sympathized with me about how difficult it would be to fulfill this painful parental duty. While I appreciated their unwavering support, not a single one of these three cowards offered to take my place.
As the Mount Michael players slowly trickled out of the dugout to begin their work of getting the field put to bed for the season, Joe sat there in the dugout, head in hands, in obvious pain, disconsolate. Ugh. So hard to watch. From past experience, I knew that Joe needed some time alone to deal with his thoughts and feelings. For the next twenty or thirty minutes or so, I kept my distance, watching Joe and his teammates from the stands.
What I saw next seems just short of a miracle.
One by one, Joe’s pals on the team, beginning with his fellow seniors, came up to him, offering words of encouragement, affection, consolation. Before long, Joltin’ Joe was dragged out of the dugout onto the field, and cajoled into engaging in boyish horseplay with his teammates. Before long, a sure and undeniable, plainly unforced, smile crossed his face. A smile, probably fewer than thirty minutes after striking out in his final at-bat of his Mount Michael career. Unbelievable.
As the boys finished their work and began leaving the field, I knew it was finally time for me to approach Joe and offer up whatever noise might come out of my clueless pie-hole. I hugged this terrific, sweaty, smelly kid, long and firm, told him I loved him, told him I was proud of him, and that was all. It was enough. There was nothing else to say.
Then and there I noticed that this confident, strong, independent young man who seldom sheds tears had shed a few that day, as his eyes were a bit red and moist. But those same beautiful, expressive eyes also told me that things were going to be okay with Joe, because they still looked confident, if not joyful, and not devastated or even dejected. They were the eyes of a young man who knew that he had been the right man for the job, that he had given it his best in spite of falling short, and that his brothers, his teammates, knew also that he had given it his best.
As we stood there together with teammates and parents gathered around, out of the mouth of this babe came the profoundest of statements. “It’s not so much that the baseball season is over,” offered Joe, “but that all of this is over,” as he looked around at Mount Michael and his teammates. “It’s been the best four years of my life, and I’m just not so sure I’m ready for all of it to be over.” A beautiful statement from this recent Mount Michael grad, and one that makes me sure that the decision to send Joe and Will to Mount Michael was the right one.
Within minutes, the players and parents who were gathered around decided that it was time to head out to El Bee’s in Waterloo for dinner, a favorite gathering spot for the team. Not to mourn a loss, but to celebrate a season and, for some, a career. As I sat there at El Bee’s with a table full of player parents who have become good friends over the past four years, and as we reminisced and laughed and sipped margaritas and Dos Equis, I observed that all of the players were sitting together at one table, laughing and joking and celebrating as if they had just won the State championship for the second consecutive year, instead of losing in a heartbreaker and being denied the chance to defend their title. And in the middle of it all, holding court with a smile as big as a rainbow, was Joe Jackson Ernst, with younger brother Will also in the mix with a grin on his puss. If Norman Rockwell was still alive, I would have paid him whatever his asking price to get all of it down on canvas. It was indeed something to behold.
As I reflect back on the events of last month, I realize that Joe was in fact just the right man for the job. He was the right player to be up at the plate in the bottom of the 7th with two outs, and the right young man to strike out, if this was the way the season was to end. If one of his senior teammates on the team had made the last out, it might have crushed their spirit, perhaps not forever, but probably for quite a long time. With Joe, who has had more than his share of hero moments, and who has the confidence and strength of character to be able to handle it, it will be okay. Not that it won’t be painful at times to think about, and not that he won’t always want that last at-bat back for another chance, but it will be okay. He knows that he gave it his best shot, and that it is all right that he made the last out.
My little vignette about Mount Michael baseball and the finale chapter in an era went on quite a bit longer than I had planned, and so I apologize for my stream-of-consciousness reporting. I can explain it with one word: Catharsis. More than anything else, I had to get those thoughts out of my head and down on paper, and all of you just happened to be in the line of fire. Thank you for your help with this one.