Recent games show baseball truly unique
Baseball is just different. A lot of it is the game’s sheer unpredictability, combined with downtime between delivery of pitches that allows for speculation, strategy and — a fan favorite — second-guessing.
Baseball does not resemble the constant flow of lacrosse and hockey, the solo artistry of tennis and golf, or the sheer athleticism of track and field.
It is true, however, that other sports, like baseball, do offer pauses for reflection. Some football fans like to say baseball is boring, for example. Now, I like American football fine, but the entire structure revolves around committee meetings followed by brief bursts of action, usually further interrupted by commercials, timeouts and calls for medical attention.
Soccer and field hockey offer speed and nuances and up to 90 minutes of low-percentage scoring strategies employed in hopes that a few might work; certainly, like baseball, there is time for thought.
Still, baseball is different. One thing that sets baseball apart is that it is a team sport in which an individual has to perform alone on an island — be it a mound, batter’s box or patch of ground where a ball is hit — while teammates watch, and sometimes pray.
Another is that the possibilities seem limitless. All hell can break loose at any given time. Truly, one never knows what will happen. A fan of the game — even one like me who has played in, watched as a fan, or covered probably thousands of baseball or softball games for 48 years — can show up and be stunned in a manner unlike in any other sport.
And that’s just what happened twice in a recent 13-day span: I saw two of the wildest — maybe even the two most unusual — sporting events I’ve ever witnessed.
One ended in heartbreak for a local nine — Vergennes Union High School lost a first-round home playoff game in 10 innings, but not before appearing to score the winning run on three consecutive plays in the bottom of the 8th inning.
In a still-scoreless outing, one Commodore was called out at home on a squeeze bunt on a close play; on the next play, another runner was awarded home on an overthrow, but then sent back to third when the umpires changed their call; and, finally, the same runner came home again when Hans Westenfeld beat out an infield hit. But the umpires ruled the runner at second base had deliberately danced in front of the shortstop making the play, and called him out for interference. Inning over.
No, I had never seen anything like it. In a work of fiction, that sequence would strain what English teachers call the willing suspension of disbelief. After the game, VUHS coach George Ringer told his team, rightly, they had played well enough to win. Westenfeld, understandably, found the second two calls hard to accept. “But George, we had the game won twice,” he said.
And who but a pulp novelist would dare to write anything based on the June 14 Mount Abraham championship game up in Montpelier. There, the Eagles took a seemingly safe 4-1 lead into the 7th and, they hoped, final inning, over Burr & Burton.
Except normally reliable senior third baseman Sam Lieberman committed two costly errors with reliever Mickey O’Connor on the mound. Four runs scored to put the Eagles down, 5-4. O’Connor, who admits he used to lose his composure when things didn’t go well, surveyed the wreckage and calmly kept throwing strikes to keep the Eagles in the game, and Ryan Siegle singled in Adam Pouliot in the bottom of the 7th to force extra innings.
What happened next only blurs in memory; in real time, suspense built almost intolerably between each point in the sequence.
Lieberman led off the ninth with a slow roller to third and hustled toward first base to force a quick throw that drew the first baseman an inch off the base as Lieberman fell over the bag in a heap and everyone wondered if he were either hurt or out or both.
But he was neither and then the pitcher threw two wild pitches and Lieberman was on third. Ethan Heffernan fell behind on the count but then laid down a perfect two-strike squeeze bunt and Lieberman slid home safely and there were two happy piles of Eagles.
One pile landed on Heffernan and one on the guy who went from being desperately alone on the island at third base to being the happiest person in Vermont.
Only in baseball.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].