My Friday evening walk took me up Euclid Avenue and as I passed Lake Street, I heard the telltale roar of a crowd on the Oak Park and River Forest High School athletic fields, a block east. The last time this happened, it was OPRF girls softball winning in dramatic fashion. Was there another tale to be told? I walked over and this time it was boys baseball. The scoreboard showed 6-3 in favor of the visitors, bottom of the sixth. Could lightning strike twice?
Regardless of the outcome, it was a beautiful night for a ballgame. I found a spot down the third base line, past the outfield fence, just as the New Trier pitching staff came unglued. Walks and wild pitches, smart baserunning and a little timely hitting, plus an ill-advised pickoff attempt at third base, executed flawlessly, except for the absence of the third baseman who didn’t get the memo to cover the base and the pitcher who threw the ball anyway. New Trier went through three pitchers, and the game was tied by the end of the inning.
In the top of the seventh. The Trevians, undaunted, came right back with three more runs, one golfed over the 310 foot sign in right field, so the Huskies faced the same deficit starting the bottom of the seventh. I almost left. I was walking away and stopped myself. I knew better than that, and how many pitchers could New Trier have left? Besides, it was a great setting to watch baseball. The warm orange brick of the school catching the setting sun, the façade mortared with over a century of memories, providing a gorgeous backdrop. And a game of considerable consequence, the state sectional final, as one mom pointed out, answering a query from passersby. This was the place to be.
With one out, a husky Huskie made solid contact. I couldn’t follow the flight of the ball against the pale blue sky, but I heard the full round sound of the aluminum bat and saw kids running to retrieve the ball as it sailed over the left field fence.
Two runs down.
The fans were back in it again, strewn haphazardly down the third base line, peering through the fence, standing, arms folded, those who couldn’t possibly sit still on metal bleachers moving with nervous energy after each play. I’m familiar with the feeling.
A perfectly placed blooper dropped into short right field allowing the next batter to take an extra base. A walk put runners at first and second. The next hitter stroked a hard grounder to the third baseman, who did get the memo this time, stepped on third and tried for a game-ending double play, but the ball got past the first baseman. Runners now on second and third. A single through the left side scored the runner on third.
One run down, two out.
A new pitcher, this one a side-armer, borderline submariner. You don’t see much of that at the high school level. New Trier has a lot of pitchers.
An intentional walk loaded the bases, bringing to the plate the batter upon whose shoulders all hopes rested, who would decide whether the game would be tied or won or lost. That’s a lot of pressure for one set of shoulders.
Of course, the pitcher had his plate — not to mention the bases — full as well.
The batter worked the count to 3 and 2, two outs, bags loaded. Here we go again. The pitcher, to his considerable credit, put the ball over the plate. The batter, to his great credit, put the ball in play. You never know what might happen when you put the ball in play.
Did lightning strike? Not on this night. A grounder to the right side. My view was blocked, but I saw the mitts from the New Trier dugout soar skyward and I heard the quiet descend on the Huskies’ sideline, heads bowed, eyes searching the grass for what might have been. They came close. Very close.
Slowly, the crowd began bleeding back into the surrounding neighborhood.
Former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti famously said, “Baseball will break your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
For every happy ending, there is an unhappy ending — the only flaw in an otherwise perfect game.
The poet e.e. cummings wrote, “Life is the only game a man can proudly lose.”
On Friday night, the OPRF Huskies proved cummings wrong.
They lost a game they can be proud of.