1994 STATE TOURNAMENT
There was magic at the ballpark . . .
One Wednesday in August
(Originally Printed Friday, August 12, 1994)
Never mind, for the time being at least, all the crud and slime associated with big time sports these days.
The place to which the sports fan can cast his gaze instead is the hometown sports scene where, once in awhile -- and more often than we realize -- there comes along an instant so glisteningly pure, so absolutely perfect when everything that is wonderful about athletics comes together and creates a moment to be savored, a scene ensconced in our memory bank, a happening to be recalled with joy, a lump in the throat and yet another tear in the eye, over and over for a lifetime.
There was the 1991 Lady Govs' state basketball tournament that totally defied any logical explanation. There were Toby Bryant's and Chance Stoeser's state wrestling championships last winter with their dads at mat-side, the kind of stuff about which they write movie scripts.
And then there was Wednesday afternoon in the midday sun of beautiful old-turned-new Hyde Stadium.
The third inning became the fourth, and the fourth became the fifth, and still the underdog home boys were playing the gods of American Legion baseball dead even. A Miracle on Ree Street was in the making.
In the early going a play great enough for "Plays of the Week" kept Post 8 even. With a man on second base, a sharp ground ball went third to first and back to third -- Ty to Ry to Ty -- for a marvelous double play to wipe out an early Rapid City threat.
But one knew it wouldn't continue. It couldn't possibly continue. Something would happen. After all, what were the odds? This was Rapid City Post 22 in the red uniforms -- the national champs, the best team in this country or probably any other, a team that certainly doesn't lose a big game to a fellow South Dakota ballclub. There was their ace on the mound, the best player in the whole nation, for heaven's sake, sent to the hill on this day to close out the whipper-snappers who dared to believe they might be good enough to even stand on the same diamond with Post 22.
He wouldn't have, because really they're rather nice people out there and they wear their baseball tradition well, but if a Rapid City player or fan had tapped me on the chest with his finger and said "You can't beat us, and you won't beat us because we're better than you are," I probably would have said, "Yes, sir; sorry sir," and sat down.
Ten to 1? 100 to 1? What were the odds that these kids we know in blue jeans and T-shirts as well as Post 8 green and black could handle this insurmountable challenge? Three days earlier, they had been somewhat embarrassed by the same team, 12-2, in a game that lasted only five innings. Post 22 had, in fact, taken over the 10-run rule as its own personal piece of baseball legislation, clubbing anybody and everybody into submission, doing it to perfection and doing it early.
But nobody has yet devised a way to place odds on the hearts and souls and potentials of young athletes. So they go ahead and play a game, even when its final result is a foregone conclusion.
So here we were on this midweek afternoon -- some of us with weightier things on our minds because it was also "pull the plug on the video lottery" day, and a rather large number of us taking a busman's holiday from the office. In fact, a stadium full, would you believe. And as the 2 o'clock hour wore past 3, that foregone conclusion was nowhere to be found. Rhyme and reason had also taken a holiday.
Rapid City had gone ahead, but only 1-0, in the fifth, but there before our very eyes in the sixth were Chance Stoeser and Dave Gordon churning around third on Ty Lindekugel's blast to the right field wall on an 0-2 count. Pierre led Rapid City 2-1 in the sixth inning? This late in the game?
The Black Hills bombers were set down in order in the sixth. Across the city people must have begun to pay closer attention to their radios. The crowd continued to grow. The Capitol Avenue bridge railing became lined with people, elbow to elbow.
And in the seventh, after their leadoff man got aboard, Justin Gilmore retired three in a row on fly balls.
The breaks between half-innings became time to recover from having held one's breath for 10 minutes without daring to exhale. Time to squeeze together because here were some more fans entering the park. Time to forget about announcements of lucky-number pizza and gas winners. Time to pat the arm of the player's parent in the next seat who was holding her hands over her face or clenching his sweaty fist.
It went to the eight, and who would you want coming up to the plate when having another base runner was crucial! Gordon, of course and he waited out a 3-2 pitch for a walk. And Derek Larson did the same thing to advance Gordon to second. Nervous? Impatient? Heck, these kids were cool as cucumbers!
With two out and Gordon begging to be brought home, Lindekugel came through again, and, good grief, it was 3-1.
A Pierre crowed reserved and conservative? Sometimes, but not on this day! There was a Pierre crowd, believe it or not, roaring on every pitch.
There was a lanky blond named Gilmore staring down the barrels of Post 22's artillery as he pitched the game of his life while his dad, the sportscaster upstairs, said to his colleague, "If I faint, you take over."
There were the players' buddies from high school, just above the dugout in the territory to which they had staked claim early in the tournament, up out of their lawn chairs, on their feet, yelling support.
There was their fiery coach, his face beat red as usual from sunburn or intensity or both, a chap, a chap who doesn't demand a whole lot from his players except that they never let up, that they use their heads as well as their physical abilities, and that they, not for a second, do anything less than strive to do their best.
So there came the top of the ninth. The home kids threatened to score but for the life of them couldn't punch across any more insurance. But after that half-inning anyway, they were carried back out to their defensive positions on the wings of another roaring standing ovation.
Suddenly it was the bottom of the ninth. Of course, if it were to happen at all, it wouldn't come easily. Of course Rapid City put its first batter on base. Of course the tying run came to the plate.
But there was a well-stroked fly ball to center, and that's Gordon's Ground. One out.
And then there was another fly to center. Two out.
And just like in the big-league parks, when there is only one out to go, the home crowd rose to cheer.
Even the players' fathers, who have to pace, pace, pace to keep their sanity stopped pacing, frozen to the press box floor.
Was it my imagination, or had the traffic on the streets come to a halt?
If, at that precise moment, the bottom had fallen out and the bubble had indeed burst, it would have been heartbreaking for these kids, to be sure, but it wouldn't have mattered. They had triumphed in this game long before the ninth inning arrived.
If I had been on that field at that moment with a glove on my hand, I most certainly would have been praying aloud, "Please God, don't let them hit it to me."
Whom they hit it to was Derek Larson at short, and that's not a bad choice. He scooped it up and fired it straight and true to first where Ryan Merriam would have caught it in his teeth if necessary.
Then the young pitcher came off the mound. By the time he reached the baseline, his teammates mobbed him and each other. They broke away to parade single-file for handshakes with the opponents. Then their broad smiles returned on their way to the dugout as the bleacher crowd roared.
There were hugs -- player's mom with player's mom, not needing to say anything to each other. After years of dirty uniforms, coping with disheartened kids who had struck out with the tying run at third, after years of hot, sticky evenings on hard Little League bleachers, they knew. Words were unnecessary.
There were the young kids with foul balls, taking them down for autographs from the patient Post 8 heroes. Eighteen-year-old sports stars are, after all, role models to 10-year-old Little Leaguers, whether they feel comfortable in that role or not. Somewhere in Pierre later that day, a kid burst into the house and held up a ball saying, "I got their autographs, Dad!"
There was the winning pitcher, grinning sheepishly as he autographed a pretty girl's left arm.
And there were some of the rest of us just standing around, absorbing it all, too swept up in the moment to leave.
Yes, I know that victory didn't do anything except require a second championship game to be played in the evening.
Yes, I know that the sun would have risen Thursday morning no matter the outcome -- 3-1 or 33-1.
Yes, I know that it was just a ballgame and that Rapid City went ahead and won the night game and that Post 8 was going to the regional tournament anyway.
I also know, however, that in a few days that game will not have been dismissed as history. It left an indelible memory on anybody closely connected with it -- player, mom, dad, coach, friend.
Some day when Coach Raue has grandkids and some of his players are bald and fat, they will have a reunion. The likes of Kuchta and Fouts and Sulzle, Gordon and Van Roekel and Lindekugel, Merriam and Stoeser and Larson, Gilmore and Bryant and Conzemius, Pier and Weber and Larson will tell tall tales about that Wednesday in August they played Rapid City in the state tournament.
No matter how exaggerated their recollections become, they will never be able to improve on the way it actually was that day.
There will be other victories and certainly defeats for these young athletes in the real world. But for a couple of hours out of their young lives, they were part of a moment of sheer perfection.
And thankfully, so were a thousand or so of the rest of us.