This week's piece is very special to me. It is probably the single most important ball I have in my collection.
Every kid grows up and dreams of hitting a game-winning homerun. It's even more special if the knock wins a series or a championship. How many of us have dreamed about hitting a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth in game 7 of the Series to win it all? Sadly, the overwhelming majority of us will never have the opportunity to play professionally, much less get the Series-winning homer.
However, most of us baseball lovers play organized baseball at some point in our lives. I played t-ball all the way through high school baseball, until having career-ending knee reconstructive surgery when I was 16. I'm thankful for the at-bats I did get. I'm even more thankful that I was a pretty good player, playing on the All-Star teams almost every year that I played. But there is one year, and one at-bat, that always stands apart from the rest of my time on the diamond.
I was 12 years old. My team, the Orioles, trailed the Marlins in the city-league standings by one game. We had already defeated them once, earlier in the season. Six-and-a-half innings played out, and we came to bat in the bottom of the seventh (of a seven-inning game) tied at 10. I had already homered once in the game.
My teammate Michael stepped in the box and grounded a single through the middle. The Marlins decided to change pitchers, bringing in a kid by the name of Angel (a starter any other day, but this was an important spot). He stood 6 foot tall and had a 65-70 mile-per-hour fastball. When you're 12, that might as well be 105.
I took a deep breath and walked to the box, staring at Angel the entire way. I batted third in our lineup; I wasn't afraid of any pitcher, though that fastball was intimidating. I knew it was my job to, if nothing else, get Michael into scoring position. But that's not what my primary goal was. I was looking fastball, and I intended to end the game.
I step in the box, dig out my hole, bend my knees, and take one last deep breath.
The pitch comes in, low and outside. Ball one.
The next pitch comes in, he's grooved a fastball. I take my swing, a very healthy cut, and watch as the ball takes flight. It carries...and carries...and carries...
Until it hits about half-way up the flagpole in dead center field. I've just hit a walk-off, two-run homerun to put my team into a tie for first place!
I don't remember rounding the bases. The next thing I do remember is trying to claw my way from the bottom of the dogpile at home plate. I remember being so happy that I cried. I'll admit it.
Then a kid brings the ball to me. My coach gives me a Sharpie and tells me that I need to sign the ball so I remember what it's from:
Looking back...I should have worked on my penmanship. As soon as I'm done, Michael grabs the ball and Sharpie and leaves his mark:
His writing isn't any better than mine. But perhaps the most important mark is this one:
The mark my bright-blue Easton left on the ball. It even left paint on the laces. That was probably my favorite moment from my entire baseball career. I hit plenty of homeruns and made some pretty great catches in the outfield, but nothing ever topped this moment from when I was 12 years old.
I know this is a lot of detail, but you remember those things in moments like that. And I know this isn't a post about a piece of memorabilia from a professional player. But this is literally a moment in time that grew my heart even more for the sport we all love. It gave me a moment in time that I will never forget, a moment that I will share with my children (if I ever have any). It will be the memory that reminds me why I'm driving my son or daughter to practice after a long day at work, hoping that they will get a moment like that.
After all, isn't that why we love baseball?
It's hard not to be romantic about baseball.