I stood at the foul line with two seconds left on the clock. It had all come down to this. We were down by three points, and all I needed was to sink the next three foul shots. For a moment, the gym went silent. A few teammates offered me encouragement and patted me on the back. I took a deep breath and exhaled. As I approached the line, the opposing team barked comments at me calling me a “choke” and a “bum.” I paid them no mind. It was only me, the ball, and the hoop.
I held the ball, bent my knees, and flicked my wrist. The ball rotated in slow motion toward the hoop. It bounced softly off the rim four times before it fell just outside the cylinder. I had missed. I had choked. The game was over.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I wondered how many times an ordinary Joe gets to be a hero on the court, the field, or the diamond. This game wasn’t for the championship, and I wasn’t getting paid, but it was still a hero situation; one of those memories that you store in your mind forever; one of those moments that you reminisce about with your friends years later.
As I lied in bed with my eyes wide open, I scrolled my mind for sports hero moments in my life. A few benign memories sprung in my head, but only one stood out.
There was one day that I was the hero. It was back in seventh grade.
Growing up in the suburbs, Little League was something every kid went through. You could be awkward and clumsy or athletic and coordinated, it didn’t matter. You were going to take part in Little League.
In seventh grade, I was on the Cardinals. We were a combination of awkward, clumsy, athletic and coordinated. I can’t remember my entire team, but one player stuck out for me: Big Mike. He was the tallest seventh grader in town. He was probably around 5’ 9”, but I swear he was 7 feet tall. He was our catcher. Even as he squatted, he seemed to rise over the batter at the plate. This was Big Mike’s greatest asset. Unfortunately, he couldn’t really catch the ball. But we figured it out as we went along.
And as for me, I was the utility guy. I was an above average player, but nothing to hang my hat on. I played second base, wasn’t the greatest hitter or fielder, but did the best I could.
We were a scrappy bunch that scratched out runs, and somehow advanced to the NLCS. Our opponent was the Cubs.
The Cubs were no mere Little League team. They were stacked. They had seventh graders who must have been on some kind of performance enhancing drugs. They were huge, skilled, and probably on HGH. Gossip floated around town that a few parents rigged the draft placing all the best kids on one team: the Cubs.
We didn’t have a shot, and the odds makers pegged us as 100-1 underdogs. Things got worse when our ace pitcher fell to an injury and couldn’t pitch. And our next pitcher couldn’t play either, but I can’t remember why. (Maybe it was Bar Mitzvah lessons or maybe he was getting his braces tightened. I’m not sure.)
All I knew is that we were in deep trouble. We didn’t have a third pitcher, and our options were bare. A few minutes before game time, my coach sauntered over to me as I tossed the ball around with my teammates. She patted me on the back and told me I was going in. I had only pitched once before. Earlier in the season, I had baffled the Pirates with a mixture of meatballs and a whole lot of luck. It was a fluke. I was not a pitcher.
But now I was the starting pitcher against the best Little League team in the world in the most important athletic competition of my young life.
I relished the opportunity. The adrenaline coursed through my veins as I stepped onto the mound. I focused on Big Mike’s target and mowed down the Cubs in the first inning. I was in the zone.
But it was a long game, and I struggled through the next three innings. The never ending line of bash brothers slammed the ball around the diamond.
In the fourth inning, one of my pitches got by Big Mike with a man on third. The Cubs player sprinted home as I covered the plate. Big Mike tossed me the ball, I squeezed it, and somehow managed to miss the tag. The player was safe, and another run was on the board for the Cubs. I barked at the umpire, my longtime friend’s father, Mr. Jordan. He shook his head indicating he was clearly safe. I wiped away tears from my eyes as he tried to console me. I was choking. I was blowing it. We were going to lose.
I somehow escaped a bases loaded jam and got out of the inning. My teammates made amends for my mistakes, and put together a little rally. We chipped away against the Cubs. They were human. They were not machines. They could be beaten.
The sidelines were now filling up. The town had heard about this game, and it seemed like every kid in the seventh grade was cheering from the bleachers. This wasn’t just an ordinary Little League game. This was a battle. We were playing for every little guy out there; every team that didn’t have a shot; every team that was counted out. And we weren’t going to let our fans down.
In the last inning, we were able to squeak ahead by one run. All I had to do was record 3 outs, and the Cardinals would go down in the record books as pulling off the biggest upset in Sharon, MA Little League history.
I stepped to the mound. For a moment, the park went silent. A few teammates offered me encouragement and patted me on the back. I took a deep breath and exhaled.
The first batter came to the plate filled with confidence. He looked forward to ruining me. But I had the upper hand. My pitches were precise, nipping the outside corners of the plate. He struck out on three pitches.
The second Cubs batter strutted to the plate. He was going to end my night too. But once again, I had the upper hand. My pitches were crisp, and although a few got by Big Mike, I managed to strike him out too.
There were now two outs and we were up by one run. One more out, we would win, and I would be an instant legend. I would be a hero.
I felt anxious as their gigantic left fielder stepped up to the plate. He was a thick kid who used his body weight to knock the ball out of the park. He had already crushed a few balls off me earlier in the game.
The Giant planted himself in the batter’s box. I stepped to the mound, released the ball, and fired it towards the outside edge of the plate. The bat clung to his shoulder as the ball zipped by: strike one!
My teammates cheered me on. “Two more!,” they screamed. I wielded another pitch and he swung and missed: strike two! “One more! One more!”
As I let go of the third pitch, I pictured the Giant swinging and missing and my team celebrating. My fantasy tore apart as the Giant walloped the ball off the meat of the bat. The thing sailed into deep right center past all of our outfielders. My heart leapt out of my throat. I had choked.
The Giant rounded first base and sprinted around second. Our speedy outfielder grabbed the ball and whipped it to the cut-off man. But it looped over his head. The ball dribbled across the grass and now lied silently next to second base. Everyone was out of position. It was total chaos.
I urgently chased down the ball.
The Giant reached third as I clutched the worn out baseball. The third base coach motioned for him to stop, but the crowd chanted for the Giant to keep going. Feeling the rush of the crowd, the Giant kept moving. He was heading home.
I gripped the ball and fired it to our catcher. As soon as I released it, I knew something was wrong. The ball was overthrown. No seventh grader was going to catch it, except for one: Big Mike.
Big Mike rose to his feet and his wing span miraculously allowed him to grab for the ball. The Giant trudged home ready to take him out. The ball floated in slow motion toward Big Mike’s glove.
He squeezed it as the Giant barreled into him. The collision sprayed a cloud of dirt into the air. I ran in for a closer look. Mr. Jordan, the umpire, made the signal. He was out. We beat the Cubs. We had won!
Our team piled on top of each other in ecstasy. We tried to pick up Big Mike, but he was just too big. Instead, a few kids hoisted me on their shoulders and I was carried off the field. Tears of joy streamed down my face. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I was a hero.