By: Al Hudson-August 28, 2008
The story I am about to relate is true, but as Joe Friday would say, the "names have been changed to protect the innocent." By the way, Joe Friday was a character on the television series "Dragnet". He was…..oh well, never mind.
The place was Charleston, South Carolina. The year, 1991. The venue was the Collegiate Summer Baseball World Series. I will narrate for the coach, as he tells of the exploits of a championship journey that tells a story of the true meaning of why we play the game.
"It was my second year to coach in the Lowcountry Summer Collegiate Baseball League. The league was well designed, but under financed. We struggled to pay our bills, but the caliber of play was pretty good."
The league did not receive any support from Major League Baseball, as most summer leagues do today. They had a successful Christmas tree sale in December, and a few local businesses contributed money to keep the league afloat. Players worked summer jobs to afford to play, and coaches volunteered their time.
"I was honored when asked to coach a team. My experience had been highlighted by travel ball, but limited to high school age players. My first job was to recruit quality players to stock my team for the season. I soon discovered that my skill as a recruiter would turn out to be my greatest asset in baseball."
"I was able to secure players from Coach Bill Wilhelm (Clemson) and Coach June Raines (South Carolina) as well as numerous other colleges and universities in the Southeast. In that first year of recruiting, the team had 13 players that had or would be drafted into professional baseball. We lost one game during the season to advance to the World Series. Sadly, that was the pinnacle as we only won one game in the National Tournament."
"As we approached the 1991 season, I was determined to upgrade my performance. I was sure that any coach with that much talent could perform better in the Championship Series."
What transpired during the 1991 season transformed this coach, and changed the lives of a group of players.
"The 1991 team consisted of 4 players that would become professional players. I thought that my recruiting skills had really diminished. It was a desire to succeed that led myself and a fine group of coaches to reach a level that we all thought impossible."
"The real character of this team became apparent when in the third game of the season, one of our lesser known players was spiked in a play at second base. To my surprise, the whole team erupted with one of our better players leading the way. The fight was short lived, but an identity was born. I don’t condone fighting, but a team must stand together in the face of adversity. This is where leaders are born and character is developed."
This incident may have been the catalyst, but the real spark would come much later.
"We played pretty well that year, and qualified to appear in the World Series again. However, a week before the series was to begin, I had to remove my best pitcher from the roster. He missed a practice and a game that he was scheduled to pitch to go to the beach."
"Several players were upset, but I sat the pitchers down and told them that this was an opportunity for them to find out what they are made of. They responded with performances above and beyond their capabilities."
"Fortunately, our pitching staff was fairly deep. Our top 3 starters were very similar in ability, and it was almost like drawing names from a hat to decide who would throw. We opened play with a win over Ohio, and followed it with a win over Texas. The Texas win was the key to the tournament. In the seventh, with the score tied, I went to my number 3 starter, a lefty, in a situation that called for one. He got us out of trouble, and finished the game throwing about 40 pitches."
"Our next game was the winner’s bracket final against Virginia. As I searched for the pitcher to start this all-important game, the same lefty starter came to me and said, "Give me the ball." While I admired his courage, my thoughts were to protect his arm. I agreed to let him start the game, but that he would be on a short leash."
After 3 innings the lefty had a perfect game going, and a limited number of pitches. "He didn’t want to come out, we were up 1-0, and he was throwing well. To make a long story short, at the end of six innings we were up 3-0, and he still had a perfect game. I told him that he was out after the first hit allowed. In the seventh inning, the leadoff man got a hit, and I proceeded to the mound. The catcher met me half way to the mound to inform me that he would whip my ___, if I removed the pitcher. I returned to the dugout, but changed pitchers in the eighth, and we won 3-0."
"Championship game, and Virginia had to beat us twice. When I made out the lineup, I realized that I had six players that not played an inning to that point. I had a pitcher that had just finished his Clemson career, and would never toe the rubber again. I started that pitcher and the six substitutes. League officials and parents were aghast. Had I lost my mind, was I trying to lose the series? They even threatened to remove me as coach."
"The starting players taught me what a team is all about. They supported my decision, and were the first to congratulate their replacements when a nice play or a big hit was made. I truly learned that day what a team is made of."
"We lost that game 6-5, but rebounded in the second game to win 15-0."
When asked why he had made such a bold move, the coach responded "It was more important to me for every player to be able to tell his grandchildren about when he played in the Collegiate Summer Baseball World Series, than it was to win the game. Every player on this team busted their butts in 95 degree heat to get us to that game, and they deserved to be a part of the experience."
Remember, the game is for the kids, and we, as coaches and parents need to understand the concept. "Probably the greatest accomplishment from that experience is the fact that almost half of those players would become coaches. I know they understand the concept, and many young people will benefit from it. "
Questions and comments should be sent to: [email protected]