Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Final Out

            The evening chill has added its November bite, the jack-o’-lanterns are starting to sag, and the darkness is upon us an hour earlier. This can mean only one thing: Another baseball season has ended. Indeed, the parade has already been held in San Francisco, where the Giants are world champions once again. And a season-ending celebration has taken place in Kansas City, where the Royals took pride in going from also-rans for 29 straight years to World Series runners-up in 2014.

            For all who follow baseball, though, the end of a season is sad no matter which team you follow. The odyssey that began with Spring Training in mid-February has wound its way through a six-month, 162-game regular season, followed by another month of Wild Card games and three full rounds of playoff series. And now it’s over.

            The bitter chill arrives. Bundle up, and bake some cookies.

            While the season’s end brings a kind of mourning for many of us, it’s also a time of more poignant regret for those who made their teams’ final out of the year. Those players have the added bonus of reliving a moment of failure again and again, wondering what might have happened had they taken a different swing, or managed their at-bat differently. Salvador Perez of the Royals will see his ninth-inning pop-up to Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval on repeat in his mind, wishing he had just made better contact. But he didn’t, and he can’t get that moment back again.
            In our family, we’ve got a ballplayer who made her team’s final out of the year. Chelsea, our 9-year-old, enjoyed her travel team’s fall season very much, and she clubbed her share of hits for her team, the Wolves. But on a drizzly Monday evening a few weeks ago, Chelsea found herself up at bat with her team trailing in the last inning of a single-elimination playoff game. The Wolves were down by three runs, the bases were loaded, and there were two outs. As her team cheered her on, Chelsea smacked a shot toward second base. And then … the ball landed right in the glove of the opposing team’s second baseman.

            As the teams congratulated each other and the winning club celebrated, Chelsea felt the tears begin to stream down her cheeks. Her coaches assured her that there was nothing to feel sorry about, that she had done a great job all year. But Chelsea had wanted to win, and she felt embarrassed that she had made the last out.
            When we got home that night, I told Chelsea that some of the best hitters in baseball history have made the final out in playoff games. I showed her the line drive that Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit to second base to end Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. I showed her Bob Welch’s strikeout of Reggie Jackson to end Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. This at-bat is one of the more electrifying playoff encounters you’ll ever see, and Chelsea found herself captivated by the competitive fire of that moment.

This week, I shared with her the news that another player had made his team’s last out. Perez popped up to third with the tying run on third base, 90 feet away. Perez was an All-Star this year, and he started more games at catcher in one season than any player in Major League history. He had been hit in the knee with a pitch earlier in Game 7, making it difficult for him to stride at full strength. Perez’s season was anything but a failure. And yet, here he was, making that dreaded last out – just as Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, had done two weeks earlier against Perez’s Royals in the Division Series.

The best thing about baseball is that there is always another season ahead, another set of games to play. But for a few dark months between November and March, there is no baseball. And that is sadder than any final out – the reality that balls and strikes and pitches and swings are gone for now.

Chelsea has her uniform ready for the spring softball season. She wants her glove to be oiled some more, and she’d love a new softball bag. The final out was a sad one for her, but it was also a motivator. She’ll keep practicing. And somewhere out there, beyond the darkness, spring awaits. There will be more games, and more chances. Whether you’re the Royals or the Wolves, you know it’s true. Baseball never dies.