Posted on February 27, 2019
by Steve Janowick
It was the bottom of the 7th. Playoffs. Winner advances to the championship game.
And since we only played 7 innings in 13-14 pony league, the tension was high. The starting pitcher, our best ace, claimed a sore arm and had just (uncharacteristically) given up three runs and we were now only one run ahead and, suddenly, I was the guy brought in there to stop the bleeding. All the pitchers were used up-but me. I was going to either shut them down and end the game-or not.
My first couple warm-up pitches found the backstop. The other team began to yell and taunt me. They were trying to rattle me-and it was working. I was already a predisposed nervous kid. And this situation ramped it up a million notches.
There was a man on first and one out when I threw my first pitch. It was way low and way outside-which allowed the runner to easily steal second. The jeers from my opponents were now deafening. They were sensing a comeback. I looked down and literally saw the fabric of my shirt moving with each racing thump of my heart. After four pitches, the batter was on first via an ugly walk. Men now on first and second with still only one out.
Part of me wanted so bad to be pulled for someone else. I didn’t know if I was mentally strong enough to handle this pressure. I glanced over to my bench and saw my coach give me a fist pump. I took a deep breath and gathered myself. This was only my second time pitching the whole year. I had a lanky arm that could really rip a fastball-but that lanky arm was also very wild at times. And this was one of those times.
The next batter lined a frozen rope to the first baseman, who made a spectacular play just to keep it in front of him. Unfortunately, it was still a hit and the bases were now loaded. Still only one out.
All eyes were on me. I was going to blow this game for us. I could see it in my head it. End our season. I was actually feeling myself crumble from the pressure. My legs were like jelly and I couldn’t catch my breath. I stepped off the mound to try and collect myself but couldn’t. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. And right at that moment I heard the coach yell for a timeout.
Mr. Frank was a portly, old, widower who never had any kids. He lived for only three things: Budweiser beer, Red Man chewing tobacco…and baseball. And coaching us kids was his way of staying in the game-and being around baseball too. He was a great teacher and an even better motivator. For a lot of us he was a second Dad. A first for some. He always preached life lessons and manhood and how they all related to baseball. He was a solid, good man. He could also be scary as hell when you screwed up. He’d let you have it with both barrels-especially for mental errors or a bad attitude. And as he wobbled toward me, I was anticipating my ass-chewing.
“You okay, Stevie?”
He took the ball from me. Oddly, his tone wasn’t angry at all. Just the opposite.
I didn’t say anything. I was just fighting back the tears. Trying my dam-nest to not look like a baby in front of my coach and teammates.
“Can I ask you something?” He said.
I just shook my head yes.
“What is your favorite pizza topping? Are you a vegetable guy or a meat guy?”
“Answer the question.”
“Uh, I like pepperoni and mushrooms”
The fans were getting restless. But for some reason I didn’t hear them anymore. I wasn’t thinking about them or the other team or the bases loaded…or anything. I was having a weird conversation with my coach about pizza.
“Good”, he said. “Because no matter what happens in this game. No matter what you do. And no matter if we win or lose…we’re all going to Pappy’s Pizza and we’re having the pizza party to end all pizza parties.”
I was speechless. And I was also feeling myself calming down.
“Look, I believe in you. Your teammates believe in you. Just relax and play a little catch-that’s all. It’s just catch. You and Pete (the catcher) having a catch. But no matter what happens we’re all going to walk off this field together as a family.” He patted me on the head and gave me the ball back. “Now, do me a favor. Strike these next two bums out so we can go eat! My fat ass is starving.”
A smile, a wink, and he waddled back to the bench.
That night we made good on coach Frank’s promise. We ate 10 large pies and probably guzzled an ocean’s worth of Coke. We were so rowdy in Pappy’s that the manager had to come out twice to warn us to settle down. But instead, coach Frank warned him.
“These are my sons”, he said. “All of them. And by golly if they want to cause a little ruckus-you’re gonna let um!”
A big grin spread across his face and he turned and looked directly at me. “Because they just won the biggest game of their lives and are headed to the championship!”
Thanks for everything, Coach. You’ll always live in our hearts.
1982 Loch Raven Red Sox
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