This is lengthybut it is a good read. – especially if you’ve played on any of our tournament teams, or have been in the league for a while.
by Rob Swanger
I am now posting the recap in its entirety
On an October evening in 2005, “Pittsburgh NABA” (Our team was technically called The Burgh) took the field, playing in its first tournament ever at the National tournament in Tempe, Arizona. The team was a ragtag group of Ducks, Black Sox, Pythons, Warriors, Rangers and Knights – players who loved the game and had played it hard since the league’s inaugural season two years before. The game would be meaningless – we had already suffered three difficult losses in pool play, including a heartbreaker in extra innings.
We were shocked by the elevated level of play, the Arizona heat, and perhaps by the pristine, Big League Spring Training fields located 3,000 miles from Spring Hill. Our league was still in its pre-modern era, still an aluminum bat league, still a league where former legion players were the most experienced, double digit errors were the norm for any game and many teams were sometimes forced to take the field with only eight men.
I was in centerfield that night, frustrated, and many of our guys had already resorted to goofing off and looking ahead to one last night of partying (in retrospect I don’t hold that against anyone, you have to do what’s necessary to feel better about a humiliation like that one). My legs and arm ached more and more with every gapper I chased after and every desperate hurl from the fence and I distinctly remember thinking that a city whose name adorned the uniforms of Wagner, Kiner and Clemete deserved better.
I missed the team’s first tournament in Virginia last summer, but was pleased to hear that the fresh-faced Pittsburgh Blues had made a strong showing, winning a game and earning its first national points. But it wasn’t until Saturday morning when the current incarnation of the team took the field and I saw Scott Dunn warming up that I realized that Pittsburgh baseball could actually compete on the larger stage.
When I think about everything, I find myself dividing it into Saturday’s low-scoring double header, the Sunday morning must-win, and the last two games.
Three separate sections, three separate baseball teams. The first was a team of unfamiliarity, everyone knew at least someone else, but it was a team largely divided by the fact that a lot of guys had never played together before and didn’t even know each others’ names.
Baseball is unlike football or basketball in that there are no elaborate plays, no special defenses or offensive packages that need to be learned and rehearsed repeatedly before a team can play a real game.
With the exceptions of maybe first and third situations or pickoffs to second baseball is always the same – a shortstop always has the same responsibilities – any variations are governed by the situation itself, not a game plan or playbook. Any nine guys that know the game can function in a game situation, but in any team sport, knowing and trusting your teammates counts – especially in baseball. In baseball it breeds that thing that makes rallies happen, it makes it possible for players to motivate each other, to calm each other, to come from behind to win in late innings. It’s what makes a mediocre player come through when destiny has decided that it’s he who is up with two outs and the winning run on third. It’s what we call chemistry and it’s what makes a good team great.
Those first two games, we didn’t have it.
Defense and Dunn won that first game for us against a tough Ghetto Goats opponent, a team I thought was one of the best we faced. We hit the ball well up and down the lineup but when it came to driving those runners in, we just didn’t do it. This failure is indicative of a team that does not trust itself. Perhaps demoralized by this, or maybe just worn out from a long day, our poor offensive play caught up with us in game two and we were defeated in an anti-climactic low scoring game.
We played more than half of that game down just that one run without being able to so much as manufacture an equalizer and what were we facing all that time? Not an ace, not a fireballer who located four pitches for strikes at will. We were kept at bay inning after inning by a junk-baller who grunted as he topped his fastball out at 75 MPH, stole a pair of socks from a court jester, and modeled his hairstyle after the late great goofball, Mark Fidrych. Spirits were less than high. The future, as it often is, was uncertain.
Hope, of course, is found in strange situations. Later that evening nine of us sat together at Hooter’s and in a bizarre, almost Mennonite uniformity, we all ordered Buffalo Chicken sandwiches. More than a few were vocally appalled by the lack of fries. I found this odd display of team unity eerie but exhilarating. Suddenly, I was looking at things differently. We had played two consecutive games as a team of relative strangers without an error, without throwing the ball around, and with exemplary pitching first by Dunn, then a no less dominant duo of Ben Sorosky and “Buddy” Skeels. The defense was better than solid.
In two close ball games Jeremy Barchie and Dunn at third and Anthony DeFillipo (sp.?)secured the left side so thoroughly that I can remember only one ground ball making it to me in left. Nate Heath made a number of fine plays at second and Vinnie Gala was bulletproof at first despite a pulled hamstring. As for the outfield, they remained largely untested in light of the brilliant pitching but when called upon, they made the plays.
Sunday, we arrived at the field, with an air of relaxation. The isolation into groups of players who knew each other from regular season teams had faded and in its place a more singular, collective joviality. DeFillipo hit our first home run, and we put up runs quickly and constantly. The little concern I had was that our scoring seemed to bottom out in the middle innings, but that was alleviated by the strong pitching of Barchie, the first of several pitching performance that can be labeled as nothing short of heroic. I roomed with Barchie, and that morning he told me that he was in no mood to pitch.
Aware of his situation, I was worried; Barchie is due for rotator cuff surgery and is forced to throw with his arm at an awkward forty-five degree angle. (Perhaps this unconventional delivery provided just the deception he needed.) Behind him, the almost flawless defense had his back through it all. The exception were some shaky reads and lapses in coordination by this leftfielder, which I later (sort of) redeemed by making a couple difficult catches. Nevertheless, Barchie battled through nine innings, some of them difficult, but through it all, we maintained our lead.
This game would be our turning point, not only because it marked the first time we played team baseball, but also because it marked the first of several instances of individual success which were the difference between a strong showing and championship. Clutch pitching, clutch defense, clutch baserunning, and timely hitting proved as always to be a winning combination. We would not look back.
The semi-final was one of the weirdest games I ever played.
The team we played did not expect to lose.
They in fact refused to lose.
We beat them anyway.
The pitching game plan of resting our top two after getting ahead early in the first games had gone out the window and it would be up to veteran Brian Strom keep a hard-hitting team at bay. Strom is fine pitcher who has gotten the better of me countless times, but he is a hitter first and a pitcher second. We were going to have to get him some runs.
At this point the specific details get a bit hazy. Everyone, literally everyone made something happen at the plate that night so it’s hard to keep track of who did what. Things started immediately as Joe Graff beat out a single, getting on base for what seemed like the millionth time of the tournament. I have now had the pleasure of playing with the A.E. Spalding of the Pittsburgh NABA on two separate occasions and I believe he plays the game the way it is meant to be played – hard and aggressive with a “by any means possible” approach.
After that, well, Rob Cool hit a bomb, a grand slam I believe. Scoscia [sp?] hit a bomb. Dunn hit a bomb. Everyone hit the ball, and hit it hard. Before the sun even went down we were up 10-0 and their starter was gone. They brought in Superman from centerfield. Dunn homered again, his third of the tournament. Inspired by this, I felt obligated to his a solo shot of my own in spite of my lousy tournament at the plate. On my way to the outfield after another round of mashing, their centerfielder asked, without irony, if we took batting practice every day. I told him
“no, we’re just sick.”
The shit was contagious.
Strom pitched great, better than anyone could have expected given that he hasn’t pitched since last season. He provided five solid innings before a few miscues with the catcher, which then carried over to reliever DeFillipo. DeFillipo settled down, and got us through a couple of innings. But by the seventh we were holding on to something like a two or three run lead, which given the pace of that game, seemed tenuous to say the least. This game was up for grabs. We added some much needed breathing room in the eighth with an important RBI single by Mr. Duck [edit: apparently this is me, Ben Gwin]. Then Dunn came in, the very definition of relief pitching.
There was talk that the other pitcher had thrown seven innings or nine innings or whatever the game before. And maybe what I’m about to say is pure speculation but I think that pissed Dunn off. I think the second he heard that, he decided he would pitch two games in two days, only he was going to win both of his. He shut them down in the eighth, he shut them down in the ninth adding a save to his previous win. Game Blues.
That game was incredible. I cannot describe the feeling I had after that, it was as if there was absolutely no way we could lose. We did everything well, as we had for each game, but now we were rallying, now everyone was chipping in at the plate, in the field. We were getting stellar pitching performances from the most unlikely sources.
But we were playing not for ourselves, not even for our team mates but as representatives of something bigger. This was Pittsburgh baseball – sometimes brilliant, sometimes ugly but always hardcore – tough and gritty. We could hit bombs, we could manufacture, we didn’t give a fuck. We were going to score runs, then we were going to shut you down. Battle back in middle innings if you want to, but we’ll score a couple more on top and we won’t let up. Then we’ll bring in Dunn, just to make you feel bad.
This game was a collective effort, with the Owlz representatives the obvious standouts. If the defending champions are any indication of the league’s future, then it is a bright future indeed for Pittsburgh baseball. Rob Cool’s Brian Cashman-like ability to bring talent to the league is what creates the competitive atmosphere that carries over into tournament play.
I won’t be surprised to hear that that pitcher from the semi-final that can also run like a gazelle and hit like a tyrannosaurus will be an Owl in ’10. If anyone cries foul on Cool’s tactics, it’s nothing but jealousy. I received reports that in my two years away from the league the level of play had increased – after seeing the ways these guys play, I believe it. Teams like this make the league better.
In retrospect, the championship game against the Hated NYC Metros was a foregone conclusion. We were riding high on momentum and there was no way were headed back west without the synthetic polyester championship shirts. As I said, I missed the ’08 Virginia tournament so my hatred of the Metros was limited to proxy although they did seem like arrogant jerk-offs one morning when I saw them at breakfast. I hoped we’d get a chance to play them. But, song-singing in the dugout? Chanting? Pitcher heckling? This was too much.
The only way a team like that wins is if you actually listen to them and then allow them to get the momentum. Skeels wasn’t going give them the pleasure. He pitched well without an initial lead and with the Metros chirping away at him like a jayvee softball team. He kept his composure all the same. Once we started scoring, the Metros had quieted to a whisper and in the sixth, one of them even emerged beyond the first baseline to begin his training for UFC. Arribe indeed. Once again, Dunn came in in the eighth, if the Metros still had it in them to heckle him, he only fed off it.
The Metros wouldn’t get another runner on base. The synthetic polyester shirts were ours.
I live in Central Pennsylvania now, and I can tell you that people who don’t know, people that suck off Philadelphia like it’s the greatest city in the world and in the state don’t think of Pittsburgh as much of a baseball town. The Pirates suck, therefore it’s automatically a hockey and football town. If we achieved anything last weekend, I think we disproved that erroneous conventional nonsense. We presented ourselves as sportsmanly, in victory and in defeat, and despite early hardship, we won a championship. I was proud to play on this team among the veterans of my day and the hot shots of the tomorrow – nothing has made me miss Pittsburgh more.
The league in Harrisburg where I play has similar talent to the league I left, but the thing most missing is the camaraderie, the passion – competition in the purest sense. In Harrisburg, we play hard, but it’s as if it really doesn’t matter. It’s a subtle thing – the way a player sighs as he arrives at the ball field, or the way a pitcher complains about a sore arm or a hangover. Baseball players should want to play ball. We don’t even have a league website, much less team blogs. People care about things in Pittsburgh, it isn’t that way everywhere.
Looking at the league standings, it’s going to be a very interesting, very competitive second half and I look forward to following it, wishing I was out there. Watch out for the Ducks.
Editors Note: Rob Swanger, P/OF played on the Ducks from ’05 to ’06, his number 9 hangs from the imaginary rafters on the blog. He was a dedicated Duck, and holds the Ducks single season batting average record of .608 one strike out that year is pretty solid, I think Strom got him.
Rob Swanger’s 2006 stat line.
PA AB R 1B 2B 3B HR RBI BB Sac SO HbP RE FC SB CS OBP Slg OPS Avg.
54 51 24 20 7 4 0 15 1 0 1 2 3 2 8 3 .630 .902 1.532 .608