No Pepper Games: A Night on the Pond
Post by Cincinnatus Van... on 7/30/2012 4:00pm
If Henry David Thoreau, age 195, still lived by the shores of the duck pond at Walden, he would not be a regular reader of this column.
Thoreau had no use for the gossipy chatter of newspapers. "Read not The Times," he wrote. "Read The Eternities."
One shudders to imagine how Thoreau would have reacted to the age of the internet.
The press box beside the Duck Pond is as close as I shall ever come to emulating Thoreau's cabin. I, not being Thoreau, have spent my life reporting on games. Ephemeral writing for insubstantial moments. Henry David would find my occupation ridiculous at best and a positive pestilence at worst.
Somewhere in my mind, Thoreau harrumphs at me and goes back to tending his beans.
It is Saturday night in the Northwoods League. Madison Mallards vs. the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters.
The grass is green, but not lush. Even the most diligent of groundskeepers struggles in the face of this infernal summer. The lawn clings to its chlorophyll like a brave cancer patient clings to Jell-O, with a wan, plucky strength belying the cell damage within.
The Mallards bullpen comes into tonight as exhausted as the grass. Friday night, thanks to the arcane arithmancy of Northwoods League pitch count rules, the starter was pulled after a single inning. The bullpen was forced to pick up the remaining eight.
There will be little help from the pen tonight.
The Mallards cling to hopes of a playoff berth. They come in three games behind the Wisconsin Woodchucks with two weeks left to play. The red-hot Woodchucks are scheduled at hapless Green Bay.
The Mallards can expect no help in the standings. Tonight is a must-win.
At this late point in the season, they're all must-win.
All the playoff hopes of the Madison squad rest on the right arm of starter Matt LaMothe.
LaMothe is to be a senior at Georgia College. He's skinny, almost slight, with a wild, whip-like motion that wills more velocity from his 6 feet and 165 pounds than a rational physicist would think possible.
There are opening ceremonies. No geriatric ex-Beatles or parachuting monarchs, just a long line of ceremonial first pitches. First up is Sandra Glick from the homeless charity The Road Home. Ms. Glick may have a warm heart, but she has a cold arm. If I report that her pitch traveled 20 feet, I am being 50% too generous.
Unfortunately, Matt LaMothe picks up some jitters from the guests. He's overthrowing early on. His control's not there and he's consistently missing high.
LaMothe walks the first batter he sees, Jordan Dreiling, and the frustration plays across his face. The crowd reacts with wild cheering. The ovation has nothing to do with the game. It's for the marketing interns tossing out free packages of cheese.
Up comes the right fielder, Brandon Downes.
Downes was the Rafters' home run hero on Friday night, and he strides to the plate with menacing intent. He carries a presence about him, as though he should have his own minor key theme song.
The authoritarian crack of his bat silences the crowd as he launches a towering fly to straightaway center. John Welborn is stationed too shallow in center to entertain hope of running it down.
Jon Lancaster Toyota gets their money's worth as 6,748 pairs of eyes watch the ball carom off the logo on the centerfield wall.
Downes, forgetting every precept of Aesop's fables, scoffs at the easy double and sets his greedy sights on third.
Welborn plays the hop off the wall perfectly, spins, and fires a strike to third base an acre away.
When the dust settles, Downes is out at third, a victim of his greed and hubris. The damage is limited to Dreiling's run.
Wisconsin Rapids leads 1-0.
It is Tyler Marincov who leads off the bottom of the second for the Mallards. Tyler Marincov, slumping ironman. Marincov, who alone has played in every Mallards game thus far this season. Marincov, who has spent July wilting like the beleaguered grass.
It is he who erases the Rafters' lead. He takes a 2-0 fastball and launches a shot to the picnic area in left. As of this writing, that ball has yet to come down.
Mallards 1, Rafters 1.
Bottom of the third, and the bottom of the Mallards order comes up.
Catcher Mike Reuvekamp, batting eighth, crowds the plate on a 3-0 pitch and takes a curveball to the ribs.
Shortstop Tom Verdi, batting ninth, takes a breaking ball to the calf.
Suddenly, two bruised runners are aboard, as the rest of the Mallards lineup search the dugout for kevlar.
DH Derek Fisher, batting from the left side, slaps a two-RBI double.
Up next is Marincov, the omnipresent. What is promised is delivered as he drives a double into the gap in left.
Derek Fisher rounds third and heads for home.
Alex Bacon in left fires for home. The throw comes in high and Ammirati, the Rafters catcher, leaps like a marlin to go up and get it. When he flops back down to the surface of the pond, he comes down on Derek Fisher's ankle.
Fisher limps off the field on the arm of a trainer.
Labbe comes out of the dugout to argue the out call.
The crowd erupts with applause. This time, it's for free T-shirts.
Mallards 3, Rafters 1.
Those two hit batsmen seem to rattle Kyle Wormington, the Rafters starter. He went on to hit two more batters, and commit a throwing error on a pickoff that allowed John Welborn to score.
He was gone after the sixth.
Fast forward to the eighth inning and the score is Mallards 5, Rafters 2. The orange spaghetti lights outline the Duck Blind against the darkened sky. Tints of pink to the west are all that remain of Saturday.
The slender shoulders of Matt LaMothe are tiring from their Atlas-like burden. He's leaving pitches up in the zone.
With Ammirati on first for the Rafters, and nobody out, the Rafters are back to the top of the order.
Jordan Dreiling bats from the left hand side and pulls a grounder toward first.
Jeff Zimmerman, the Mallards first baseman, reaches to his right for it. If he can pull it off, it will be a first to second to first double play. Who to What to Who.
The crowd erupts, and this time it's for the game. A full-throated double play yell is conceived in 6,748 throats and dies a-borning.
Who never gets the ball to What. Zimmerman's throw sails wide and high.
This is the mirror image of what should have been.
Where LaMothe should have had two outs and nobody on, he now has two on and nobody out.
Manager Greg Labbe walks out to the mound.
The bullpen is ready.
"I knew what I was going to do when I went out there," Labbe said after the game.
"My coach came out and tried to pull me. I said no way. It's my game," LaMothe said.
It is on such moments that the fates of seasons hang.
Thanks to the arithmancy, LaMothe only has 18 pitches left until he must leave the game.
18 pitches to get three outs.
Labbe wants to take the ball from his hand.
LaMothe accentuates the positive. "We'll get the next one. I just tried to stay positive, like, hey we got a ground ball, we'll get another double play."
"It's probably the one time I've been talked out of taking a guy out of a game," Labbe admitted afterwards.
The tired starter remains.
Godfrey grounds into a force, and there are runners at the corners. One out.
Up comes Downes, cue the minor key theme music.
Down goes Downes, as LaMothe reaches deep to pull out a who-could-have-seen-that-coming freight train of a pitch that slaps strike three into the waiting mitt of Mike Reuvekamp.
When DH Pat Kelly pops up to right to end the inning, the Mallards dugout rises as one to greet the conqueror as he ambles off the mound. LaMothe leaves the field with a smile that turned a night game back into a day game.
You may not tell me that such an act of heroism is not worth reporting. It was a small act. It was one pitcher working his way out of a jam in a small game in a small league in a small town, but I am ennobled for having seen it.
These small moments, these little victories and defeats, these are the stuff of sport. They are the stuff of life. They are the moments from which the fabric of eternity is woven and they are well worth reporting.
I ask Matt LaMothe about his post-college plans. "Clearly, I'd love to pursue baseball as long as I possibly can. If that doesn't work out, I'm going to be a journalist."
That's a good kid, no matter what Henry David Thoreau says.
Post Script: The Mallards fell to the LaCrosse Loggers on Sunday night 4-2, while the Woodchucks beat Battle Creek 4-3. The gap between the Mallards and the playoffs now stands at four games.