*Paul and I have alluded to this story several times on The Top Step podcast, so I thought it was time we come forth and explain the magnificent details of an event that was partially responsible for our continued collaboration on this media venture.
There was an inspirational phrase on the wallpaper of my sixth grade classroom that read: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” I appreciated the thought—determination to achieve ambitious goals is honorable—but the astronomically-misleading advice also failed to mention the hard failure that inevitably comes with repeated attempts at stardom.
Said hard failure became all-too palpable for me at the end of a long April day in 2014.
The adventure began—as far too many of my adolescent memories do—in slow traffic on I-95, heading north to my high school at about 10 a.m. for a 4 p.m. game. Why was I arriving to the baseball field six hours before anyone would toe the rubber? Well that’s a great question. Irrigation…that’s why.
Effectively a basin at the recess of two steep slopes, John Paul’s baseball field did not exactly drain well. Rather, the infield’s impressive ability to retain water juxtaposed with the outfield’s inability to nurture much grass made our lovable home field’s performance with precipitation comically inconvenient.
So the notorious April rains of age-old proverbs threatened to cancel this Saturday game unless we, the players of the John Paul baseball team, did something about it. Manually.
We were summoned to the field so early in order to dig irrigation ditches in the infield, shovel water into buckets, pour the buckets into a wheelbarrow, and finally wheel the wetness off the field.
For a school that so passionately taught the Romans’ language, which died long ago, it’s a wonder they failed to embrace the civilization’s water transport technology, which utilizes physical laws still very much valid in the 21st Century.
There we worked for several hours, tunneling a network of creeks in a desperate attempt to dry the field upon which our friend Jake once literally cast a fishing line in a veritable pond behind first base. The image of Jake’s shenanigans, by the way, became Twitter gold.
At 3 p.m. we stepped back, wiped our brows, and marveled at the work we had done. Our stomachs also grumbled for more of the pizza we had quickly eaten through when it had arrived at noon.
The field looked, dare I say, good. It may have been the goggles of our hard labor filtering our perception of the playing surface, but at the very least the field was playable—which was much more than could be said five hours prior.
What do you do after a long day of landscaping labor? Why, you play a baseball game of course! We had almost forgotten our whole purpose for the day. Who are we playing? Who’s pitching? It’s spring break, is anyone actually coming to watch?
All these questions had escaped our minds for the bulk of the day and now had to be answered, although their answers were somewhat irrelevant given we had already accomplished one monumental task.
Make the John Paul field playable? That was quite difficult. But win a baseball game? For JP, that at times seemed darn near impossible.
As the Avalon team arrived at the field and we began cleaning up our yard working equipment, it dawned on us that perhaps things were not in our favor. Our refreshed opponents popped off their bus and began stretching out, throwing with ease, and taking healthy hacks in the batting cage. We were ready for a nap. One giant, collective, sun-baking nap.
We may as well have slept for the first five innings of the game because I don’t think our offense performed much better than if we had literally been unconscious. Luckily, Avalon’s offense was equally unimpressive because off our mediocre and exhausted pitcher they scored few enough runs to make the game last more than five innings. (A mercy rule comes into effect after five innings if one team is ahead by at least 10 runs.)
Then in the sixth (or maybe it was the seventh, does it really matter?), once our second wind of the day had definitely fizzled, Avalon’s bats came alive enough to make us reconsider why again we had cleaned up the field just in time to turn around and get cleaned up ourselves.
From my territory in center field, there was nothing I could do. Walks, hits, errors in the infield, everything kept the line moving for their offense. Paul, playing right field, was normally just happy to be involved, but even he was getting fed up with the never-ending defensive half.
And finally, it happened. I got my chance to do something about this immortal inning that was sucking the last morsels of life from our soul-searching beings under the waning sun of this laborious day. A fly ball.
The right-handed batter struck a fly into the right-center field gap. Fly balls were my chew toys out there. I would literally jitter as a pitch was delivered in anticipation of where I might need to track a fly. It was no different for this pitch, but off the bat I knew the hit would challenge my range.
I bolted to my left in a dire sprint to apply a tourniquet to our defensive hemorrhage. The ball, since it was hit by a righty, was tailing away from me. But I knew I could catch it. Closing speed was my forte. And if I had to dive? Even better. That was the stuff of my dreams. In fact, I had made a head-long diving catch earlier in the season that was inspiring me to try it again. All this was racing through my head as I infringed further and further into the territory that probably fell under Paul’s jurisdiction, but I was racing too hard to notice.
The ball was tailing alright. I was going to need to sell out if I wanted any shot of it sticking in my glove. And so I did. With way too much confidence, and rather empty hope, I sprang off the ground in an airborne elongation that I could only pull off with the muscle memory of diving off starter blocks throughout my 13 years of competitive swimming.
But I’ll let Paul take it from here, because it was only his presence that turned this dive from a sad memory of yet another loss into an anecdote worthy of an essay:
The esteemed Sir Isaac Newton achieved acclaim for his laws of motion. The first, and possibly most notable of which states, “An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” As I watched the baseball travel towards me in right field, I knew there was only one way this scenario was going to play out.
Steve noted at length the nature of the game and the exhaustion many on the team were feeling at the time. It had been a long day, and after enduring a beatdown on the field, there were few signs of happiness to be seen. Needless to say, this fly ball into the right-center field gap provided an extraordinary opportunity for a pick-me-up for Steve.
The ball sailed off the bat, and it did indeed begin to tail in my direction. I sprinted over, in what I can only imagine Statcast would deem a moderately-efficient route. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Steve running, no…sprinting, no…hurling himself in the direction of this baseball. There was simply no way this object in motion was going to be stopped, and I was definitely not going to be the outside force to stop him in this situation in the game.
Finally, Steve and I were only feet apart. I knew it would take an incredible effort to lunge as far as he would need to in order to catch the ball. Could he do it? I was about to find out. I peeled off when I knew there was no stopping Steve, instead opting to back up and field the ball off the ground if he was not able to catch it.
Here it was. The moment of truth. Steve gave it everything he had, exploding off the surface. Then, in mid-air, with Steve’s body at 180 degrees and fully parallel to the earth, he uttered a phrase that so aptly described the entire debacle when he realized he could not catch the ball.
Time stood still for a moment. Steve, still airborne, completed his interjection, and hit the ground in full force.
The ball rolled to the wall, and I was laughing so hard I could barely pick it up and throw it to the cut-off man. I tried to control myself as Steve stood back up, trying to contain my laughter to not give off a nonchalant attitude. Did we come back to win the game? No we did not. Was that misplay a turning point in the affair? Also, a resounding no. Instead, it was an opportunity for a moment of cathartic release, and humor amidst a brutal day.
Ah, ambition. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It’s what makes the American Dream. We were ambitious that day. We sought to turn a swamp into a baseball field, play a baseball game, and win…all in the span of about 10 hours. We certainly shot for the moon.
If you shoot for the moon and miss, you will not necessarily land among the stars. In fact, you might fall hard, right back down to the parched earth. But at the very least, if you miss well enough, you’ll get a story that will live on a lot longer than nine innings.