Shelton: It’s Still the National Pastime
Jun 06, 2007 | 308 views | 0 0 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print

JUCO, the Junior College World Series, just wrapped up its 50th annual tournament in Grand Junction. It’s an all-American festival: popcorn and peanuts and the seventh-inning stretch; sunburn, school’s-out, everybody stand and sing the national anthem.

It is also an all-time bargain. Our $20 tickets were good for 19 games over the course of the week – 10 regional champs from around the country compete through a double-elimination bracket – if we were fanatical enough to want to sit through all the double- and triple-headers. The tickets were such a deal, I bought two for Cecily and Mike, and the four of us drove down on Sunday before Memorial Day, for a day of baseball.

The air was still cool and quiet before the 10 a.m. game. The grass inside the fences was a green as shocking as an Irish postcard and manicured to within an inch of its life. The foul lines had just been chalked, and the red dirt of the infield was raked so that it resembled a Zen garden. The chaos would come later; it was perfection at the start.

I had checked the brackets on-line that morning and discovered that the first game was to be between the Western Iowa Reivers, out of Council Bluffs, and the Shelton State Community College Buccaneers of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We’re Sheltons! My mother and brother, life-long Californians, were received most graciously in Selma a few years back by strangers who recognized a common regional name. Cecily’s husband Mike hails from Alabama. He attended Birmingham Southern and knew well the name Shelton State. It may have been a grandfaloon, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s made-up word for life’s false groupings (like being a Hoosier), but we had found our home team.

We bonded right away with Shelton’s third baseman, Number 10. He had a scruffy, scrappy look. He had drawn his eye black down his cheekbones in long vertical lines so that he either appeared tiger-ish or like Gene Simmons of Kiss, depending on your perspective. He also had a hole in the seat of his pants, indicating some spirited play from the day before.

We were only a few yards from him in his defensive position at third base. That’s one of the beauties of baseball at an up-close stadium like Suplezio Field. You can hear the buzz of a hard curveball sizzling through the air. You can almost feel the slap of a hard-thrown ball in your own palm. And unlike on television, you choose what to look at: the on-deck hitter’s kung-fu warm-up ritual; panic in the bullpen when a pitcher walks in a run; the intimate reassurance in the way our Number 10 flipped the ball back to his pitcher, as if he were his psychiatrist as well as his third baseman.

Both teams played with the practiced nonchalance – though the players were only 19 and 20 years old – that is at the heart of baseball. But they also played with a barely-hidden desperation because both teams had, in fact, lost their first games the day before. So this was an elimination match: the loser went home to Iowa or Alabama, and the winner survived to play again.

Perhaps nerves contributed to early scores by the Reivers. (We had to look it up when we got home, but to reive is to “plunder” – so they were pirates, too.) A hit batsman in the first inning, an error by the Shelton leftfielder in the second. But by the seventh inning, the score was tied 3-3, and we’d seen some outstanding play. Iowa’s lithe freshman centerfielder (who would be signed to a professional contract by the Seattle Mariners two days after the tournament) was 2-for-3 with a couple of RBIs. Shelton’s rangy first baseman had made some sparkling plays in the field, had singled twice, and was robbed on a brilliant Reivers’ double play in the sixth. So brilliant, the gray-haired woman keeping score behind us gasped with pleasure.

In the bottom of the seventh, our man Number 10 reached on an error and promptly stole second. The throw from the catcher bounced off the second baseman and caromed into centerfield. Runner safe. But then the Reivers pulled the old hidden-ball trick. As Number 10 was dusting himself off, the second baseman pretended to toss the ball to the pitcher, who pretended to catch it and go about his business on the mound. When Number 10 took his lead off the base, the second baseman tagged him out.

Calumny! Instead of a man in scoring position with a chance to take the lead, the inning was over and our man was the goat, standing in the dirt waiting for his shortstop to bring him his cap and glove. To make matters worse, he threw the ball away on a tough chance to open the top of the eighth. 

Folk wisdom says that the man who makes a critical slip-up often comes back to redeem himself, to be the hero, in the end.  Statistical analyses have shown that this simply is not true in baseball, although the perception remains. I have seen it happen many times myself. Number 10 would have a couple of chances at redemption on this afternoon, but in the meantime, the game itself became so interesting that rutting 13-year-olds actually stopped texting their friends and started staring instead at the field.

Shelton took a 7-5 lead into the ninth inning. Iowa tied it with a dramatic two-run home run in the top of the inning.  In Shelton’s half of the frame, Number 10 popped up, and the Bucks went down one, two, three.

In the 10th, with two outs and one on, Iowa’s designated hitter, a 22-year-old freshman just back from his Mormon mission, clubbed a fastball deep over the centerfield wall, and the Reivers took the lead again. The visitors’ dugout wriggled like a boxful of delirious puppies.

To the bottom of the 10th. First man up walked. The old lady behind us hummed in excitement. Next man up lined out to shortstop. Gasp! Next up was Shelton’s rangy first baseman, and he pulled a ball so cleanly over the left-field wall (a “frozen rope” as they say) that nobody on defense bothered to move. They knew it was gone. It didn’t even make the usual aluminum ping as it left the bat; the impression was it happened so fast it made no sound at all.

Tie game, again. Next batter walks. Iowa changes pitchers. He takes his eight warm-up throws, alone with his catcher, while everyone waits. Fly ball out to right field. Two outs, but Shelton’s next hitter rolls a single up the middle. Two men on, and our Number 10 is up to bat with a chance to win it. 

His at-bat stretches out in time. He avoids striking out with one hacked foul ball after another. He is 0-for-4 so far and barely manages to get a piece of these pitches. The old lady and I have to remind ourselves to breathe. Finally, he makes awkward contact and sends a high-bounding ball toward the shortstop, who leaps for it but then in haste throws over the first baseman’s head. 

In that moment of confusion the Reivers’ season drains away, the lead base runner steams in to score – an unearned run – Shelton wins. Number 10, now 0-for-5, leaps into the happy mob at home plate.

We find ourselves standing, arms in the air as if we had been blood-thick Shelton State fans from before the beginning. No. It’s just baseball, the game without a clock, the game, as Yogi said, that ain’t over ‘til it’s over, the game that is most like life.

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