There's an invisible force-field of calm around a ballpark --- an aura of mindfulness and peace. At least, that's how I feel when I settle down to watch a local amateur baseball game. The season is over now for my neighborhood Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts http://www.tbolts.org/. A wrap-up report on the final five games that I witnessed follows, with excerpts from Ed Sharp's splendid official commentary (indented, in italics) ...
The field is muddy and the stands are wet on this cloudy Sunday evening after a day of sprinkles. I donate veggie-dogs to the Tbolt snack bar where a kind volunteer grills them for me to buy back --- a feast well worth it. Pitching the first six innings for the Herndon Braves is J. J. Hollenbeck, a brilliant hurler who strikes out eight but gets off to a rocky start as Mike Epping strokes a smooth three-run homer over the right field fence in the bottom of the first. Tbolt shortstop Matt Capece is central to double plays in both the first and eighth innings.
The win brings the Thunderbolts season record to 21-14, and moves them to 2.5 games behind the Braves for second place. The top two teams in the league meet in a best of five championship series in the first week of August.
Hard rains for the past two days relocate this game to Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, a venue that I haven't visited since two years ago (see SummerBall2002). A phone call from Ed Sharp alerts me to the last-minute change. I arrive early and sit with a small group of Tbolt fans near third base. The groundskeeper sprays home plate with white paint, then goes to the pitcher's mound and likewise pigments the rubber. A tiny tractor drags a rake around the basepaths, followed by human touch-up with shovel and bucket. The Big Train field is first-class. And once the game begins another delightful undocumented feature of the ballpark emerges: the rifle-crack echo from the center field fence that comes back to me two-thirds of a second after wooden bat contacts ball. Lovely! Alas, swampy conditions have raised a crop of mosquitoes of fearsome proportions --- but even they can't perturb me tonight.
The game is a good one, with Tbolt pitcher Adam Mills completing eight strong innings, helped by excellent fielding. SS-T hitters marshall their forces most strongly in the fifth when they bat completely around the lineup and score four runs on three singles plus three walks and a hit batsman. Two teenagers behind me in the stands are themselves baseball players and add value with their color commentary. Bethesda left fielder Ben Grisham is the son of the author John Grisham, one of the boys says over my shoulder; he offers to lend some of the father's books to the other. Good to be literary-minded --- but some further research suggests that the two Grishams aren't actually so closely related.
And in another near-miss:
Mike Epping (TCU) hit a double in the 3rd that struck the piping on the top of the right field fence, missing a home run by a few inches.
A monster gibbous moon rises behind center field in mid-game tonight. The Baltimore Pride is a bit tired, having won a make-up game earlier in the afternoon here against Bethesda, 3-1. I arrive in the ninth inning of that contest to find the bases loaded and the Big Train threatening a sudden comeback ... but Baltimore escapes, deservedly so. Comrade Steve joins me at the game, and we share anecdotes and munchies.
Baltimore fielding is excellent: diving catches in the sixth and eighth innings snag near-certain hits. Unfortunately for the Pride their pitching is less successful. Ed Sharp describes it:
After plating single runs in the 1st and 3rd, for the second straight game the Thunderbolts brought 10 batters to the plate in an inning, scoring 5 runs on 2 hits and 5 walks in the 6th.
I venture far afield this hot Saturday afternoon, to Herndon High School stadium, GPS coordinates 38:59:16N 077:22:30W, where the first session of a double-header turns into a rout after a three-run first-inning Tbolt lead evaporates in the summer air. The Braves score run after run, including three strong homers over the left-field fence. Herndon centerfielder Brandon Bowser, batting in the fifth inning, is hit on the left wrist by a stray fastball. I find him behind the stands after the first game and give him a couple of packets of ibuprofen, along with my sympathies. (Fortunately he's in good enough shape to play in the second game.)
In stark contrast to the Tbolts' ordeal from 4-6:30pm, the evening brings cooler temperatures and an entirely different state of affairs. After the first two pitches the home plate umpire throws a Silver Spring staffer out of the game for his too-audible critique of the ump's judgment. (The dugout is quieter after that.) Little girls climb up and down on the bleachers as their mother power-walks around the adjacent track and pauses every lap to admonish them to stay put. A foul ball almost bops one of the girls on the head; she's protected at the last moment by a man (her father?) who holds out his hand to block it. Jets cruise by overhead on their final approach pattern to nearby Dulles International Airport. Cumulo-nimbus clouds develop and drift northwards in the distance, and later in the evening produce a distant flicker of lightning. At about 9:15pm fireworks are visible low in the east.
J. J. Hollenbeck, the losing Herndon pitcher, achieves an astounding feat: in 9 innings he throws 18 strikeouts, precisely two in every inning. He yields only one base-on-balls, and when he leaves the game in the 10th with the score tied 1-1 everyone in the stands, on both sides, gives him a strong round of applause. Sadly for him, however, Thunderbolt Corey Greene manages to score a critical run that inning after he hits a single and is advanced around the bases by his teammates.
There are some heated discussions at home plate late in the game, as Ed summarizes:
The tenth inning was punctuated by Thunderbolts protests of two separate umpire's rulings on consecutive plays which delayed the game for over 20 minutes. The first was after Mickey Shupin (GW) was called out for runner's interference while crossing first base after laying down a sacrifice bunt to move Andrew and Corey Greene up to second and third respectively. On the very next play, when Capece's ground rule double bounced over the short center field wall, the umpire ruled that Andrew Greene, who had passed second base before the ball left the playing field, would have to stop at third base. In the end the rulings didn't matter when James Belt retired the side in order in the bottom of the tenth.
The Tbolt's 2004 season ended on the next day when they were mathematically eliminated from the Clark Griffith League playoffs. They finished the season in third place.
(see also TboltMonkeysOnMyBack (19 Jul 2002), ThirdPlace (7 Nov 2002), QuiescentThunderbolts (10 Jun 2004), OfficialScorekeeper (3 Jul 2004), RainedOut (24 Jul 2004), The Grand Slam That Wasn't (14 June 2007), ... )