For the last time, a proud father relives another high school classic
Posted: Monday May 17, 2004 10:16AM; Updated: Tuesday May 18, 2004 5:02PM
MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- The linescore from last Thursday's Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League showdown between Essex County rivals Nutley and Montclair at theMontclair State University Softball Complex:
WP: Maria Gabriele. LP: Mary Beth King.
That's right. One-zip. Sixteen innings.
Welcome to my annual -- and final -- column about high school sports, where I wax for far too long about the greatest show on earth. That, to me, is what high school sports are. Now that crafty southpaw Mary Beth King is in her final days as a high school athlete, you won't have my high school musings to kick around anymore.
It's interesting to read the responses I get every year after I write about my daughters' high school experiences. Some of you like what it reminds you of, and say it takes you back to your high school roots. Some of you loathe it; you think it's anywhere from shameless promotion of my kids to a waste of space that should be used for writing about pro football. This is how I fall on that: This column has become a lot about me over the years, for better or for worse, and a lot of my non-job life, and a big part of that has been Laura's and Mary Beth's field hockey and mock trial and softball experiences. And so this will be my high school sports swan song.
I'm not sure why these games are so compelling to me, more than they are to Mary Beth, who is far more concerned with this week's prom than a softball game. They just are. I think of how important sports were to me as a kid, league games against rival teams, and it heartens me to see my daughter standing in the middle of the field, all eyes on her, controlling the situation so much better than I ever did as a first baseman/outfielder. I was linguini. She is steely. I think of pitching 16 innings -- which, as my brother Ken pointed out in an e-mail from England, happened once in the majors, when Juan Marichal outdueled fellow Hall of Famer Warren Spahn as each went the distance. And I am just amazed at Mary Beth and her pitching rival that day, Maria Gabriele. "Mary joins Warren Spahn,'' Ken wrote. "Man, baseball is the web of life.'' And softball. Laura, up at Tufts, calls me the obsessed softball dad.
To set the stage, Montclair State has a pristine new softball complex. It's where the local women's pro fastpitch softball team, the New York/New Jersey Juggernaut, will debut this summer, and where we're playing a few home games this spring because our regular field is under construction. Mary Beth had a three-game winning streak -- all shutouts -- going against Nutley over the past two seasons entering the game. But Nutley has been playing great softball in recent weeks, and we've been struggling to hit. A crowd of maybe 75 (mostly parents and relatives) sat in the unseasonably warm 85-degree sun when the game started, shortly after 4:30. Both pitchers were on, with terrific control. Mary Beth had four three-ball counts all Daycare didn't walk anyone till the 10th. Neither girl is a strikeout pitcher, so infield defense was vital, and it was impressive. Mary Beth threw out five of six Raiders trying to get on via the bunt or sacrificing, and both infields were virtually flawless throughout. In the first 11 innings, each pitcher had six 1-2-3 innings.
I thought Nutley was going to end it in the ninth. After Mary Beth struck out the first kid looking, the second batter had an infield single in the shortstop hole. Then the No. 6 hitter nailed a hard grounder up the middle, just to the shortstop side. Our fluid and rangy shortstop, sophomore Courtney Taylor, ran and leaned far to her left, scooped up a tough hop, tagged second and threw to first, just nipping the batter for a double play. Wow. That was a play worthy of DerekJeter, not an Algebra II-taking sophomore.
After nine, our coach, Lonnie Smith, approached Mary Beth. "Do you want me to warm somebody up? How long can you go?'' he asked.
"I'm in it to the end,'' Mary Beth said.
"After that,'' Smith said later, "several times the assistant coaches asked me if we needed to warm somebody up and I said no. Mary Beth told me she'd go the distance.''
"Every inning I'd go in and the girls would start rubbing my arm,'' Mary Beth said.
We had two singles in the 11th, both erased the baserunner was caught trying to steal. In the 12th, their six-hitter led off with a clean single to center, their sixth hit of the day. Mary Beth K'd the next batter swinging. The next kid put down a sacrifice, and we botched the throw to first; the runner went all the way to third. When the batter stole second on the first pitch, they had second and third, one out, and the maroon-clad Nutleys were whooping and hollering in the dugout. They smelled blood. The seven-hitter hit a medium-range can of corn to right field, which freshman right fielder Ali Andre settled under. "Sacrifice fly!'' I yelled. "No!'' And I looked over at third, and the runner was a third of the way home. A break from the gods! She went back to tag up, but it was too late for her to try to score. What a gift. A humpback liner to second ended the inning.
We had our best shot in the 13th, with runners on second and third and one out. But their pitcher, as relentless and reliable Mary Beth, buckled down to get a strikeout looking and a popout.
The MSU softball coach, Anita Kubicka, huddled with the umps and was told to turn the lights on. It was 7:30, and natural light was scarce. Now the temperature was 25 degrees cooler than the start of the game, maybe 60. May in New Jersey.
"At one point, I forget when, I thought, 'Passaic Valley [a neighboring school] played a 21-inning game a couple of years ago,''' Mary Beth said. "And I thought, 'I don't know if I can throw 21.' But I just didn't see anyone scoring.''
Top of the 14th. Mary Beth thought, Why not? Why not throw the cleanup hitter, who's had two hits already, a change on her first pitch? She'd never be expecting it. Would she? WHACK! Greatest hit of the day, a long, majestic, high fly to deep left.
"I thought it was gone,'' Mary Beth said. "Home run. I think at that moment I said a profane word. And then I saw Caitlyn put her glove up and start running back.''
Caitlyn Bishop, one of the quietest kids on a young team, a freshman with what appears to be a strong safety's mindset (we're not sure, because she doesn't speak much), starting only her sixth or seventh game, started tracking the ball, fading back, back, back toward the 200-foot fence in left. Would she have room? Would this be it? The ball came down, down, down ... into the webbing of Caitlyn's outstretched glove, just on the verge of the warning track.
Big noise. Mary Beth broke into the biggest grin I'd seen her have in the circle, ever, and she started laughing.
We went quietly in the 14th and 15th, as did they, after the towering fly.
In the 16th, a Montclair miscue put the leadoff Nutley runner on second. She was sacrificed to third. With a 1-1 count, the five-hitter turned to bunt, and once the 178th pitch of the day was out of Mary Beth's hand, the runner on third came screaming home.
Fouled off. One and two.
On the next pitch, a low fastball over the middle of the dish, the hitter whacked a liner up the middle. THWACK! It met Mary Beth's shin, three inches from where her glove nearly corralled it for what would have been the second out of the inning. No such luck. The ball wizzed on a line to left field. Base hit. Nutley, 1-0.
I looked for pain or emotion on Mary Beth's face. None. She took a ginger step or two and could only put a little weight on the leg. Coach Smith rushed out. "I'm fine,'' she said. The ump asked if she wanted to take a few warm-up tosses. "I'm fine,'' she said. She got the final two outs and hobbled in.
Our indefatigable leadoff hitter, Roni Herbst, led the bottom of the 16th with a slapped single to center. She tried to steal, but her way to the base was blocked, there was heavy contact, the ump looked long at the fielder with the ball and punched her out. Then we went quietly. Ballgame.
When our team huddled after the game, one girl cried. Coach Smith told the girls he was proud of their effort. "You played a great game,'' he said. One of the things I like about this coach is that he doesn't treat games like they're the seventh game of the World Series; he knew the girls played their hearts out, and rather than pointing out the flaws in a 16-inning gem, he concentrated on the good, which there was so much of, on both sides. It's tough for him, because he's a one-year replacement for the incumbent Montclair coach, who is out on a personal leave. But he and the staff have coached the girls to a 14-9 record and into the quarterfinals of our state sectional tournament.
Then Smith asked if the captains had anything to say. The junior catcher, Meg Mylan, a terrific Division I prospect who has Notre Dame written all over her, said no. Mary Beth, the lone senior on the team, hesitated for a minute. "Don't hang your heads,'' she said. "You played great. Nobody should be ashamed of how we played.'' And that was it.
It was 8:05 when they walked out of the stadium. Mary Beth was not crushed. I figured she wouldn't be. Rarely does she emote much after games, or relive them. The old man always has to prod her, and then maybe I get a few three-sentence answers. But Mary Beth is always one thing after games.
"Can we get baked ziti from Vinny's?'' Mary Beth asked.
Of course we could. At that point if she'd asked for prime rib at Morton's -- the steak house of her dreams -- I probably would have gotten one to go.
I began to think that there wouldn't be many more days like this, when her mom and dad waited outside the fence for her, to hug her and tell her we're proud of her. It's sad, because we've loved watching Laura, first, grow up with field hockey, mostly, and softball as a thread in her adolescence, and then Mary Beth. Sports have been so good for both of them. I think the best thing about their experiences is this: You find out what you're made of. You line up with your friends across from peers from other towns, and there are tough situations, and you stare them down, and you beat them or they beat you, but when it's over you know you've left it all out there. We all love winning, but winning isn't the moral of the story in high school sports. The effort is. The commitment is. I look out at Mary Beth in the white circle, staring in blankly for the sign, getting razzed by the other bench, throwing a strike, then doing it all again, over and over. I found myself thinking last week: "I'm pretty confident in the kid who's leaving the nest in August.'' And really, isn't that what you want to say about your son or daughter as their high school life ends?
As we walked to the car, Mary Beth saw three of the Nutley players walking to their bus. "Great game,'' she said. "Tell your pitcher she pitched great.''
I hate to be so picayune after a great sports event, but a big reason why the NBA is more annoying than enjoyable to me is that the last 13 minutes of the Nets' triple-overtime classic with the Pistons Friday night took about three days. Thirteen minutes, 12 timeouts. Why does the NBA give these teams so many timeouts to murder the pure drama of a great event?
My May Super Bowl pick -- Seattle over Jacksonville-- raised a lot of eyebrows. That's good. It's a harebrained matchup.
YOU ARE CLUELESS. From B.J. Burrow of Austin, Texas: "Seattle vs. Jacksonville? You are either trying to bait us or give a heart attack to the network execs over what kind of rating that matchup would pull. We all know it's going to be the Cowboys and the Bengals, anyway.''
Now that's a matchup I love. It's interesting how much mail I got telling me basically that I'm a lamebrain. Let's review. The Rams and Titans went 4-12 and 8-8, respectively, in 1998 and were in the Super Bowl the next year. Baltimore and the Giants finished 8-8 and 7-9 in 1999 and ended up in the Super Bowl the next year. The Pats and Rams were 5-11 and 10-6 in 2000 and in the Super Bowl the next. Bucs and Raiders, 9-7 and 10-6 in 2001, in the big one the next. Pats and Panthers, 9-7 and 7-9 in 2002, in the Super Bowl the next. Sense a pattern?
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
NOW JUST HOLD ON. THERE'S A JAGS FAN IN SASKATCHEWAN. From Ted Casteneda of Regina, Saskatchewan: "Atta boy, Peter! I love reading MMQB, and to see the leap-of-faith prediction of a Seattle-Jacksonville Super Bowl really put a smile on my face. As a huge Jags fan, I'd like to know why you said it, and I'd like to shake your hand for making such a bold prediction.''
Well, it was some combination of how they played late in the year (beating Houston, Indy and the Bucs, with a respectable showing on a brutal day in New England), that they have a young quarterback with a big arm who is getting better and the one stat I always value in team defense: yards per rush. The young Jags D allowed 3.2 yards per rush. (New England gave up 3.6 and Carolina 4.0, and they were supposed to be the two state-of-the-art defenses by season's end.) Who knows? The Jags might go 6-10. I just think they're about to turn the corner.
OH NO! I HAVE UPSET LATTE LAND! From Tim Douglas of Tumalo, Ore.: "How can you do this to us!? Predicting a Seattle-Jax Super Bowl just ruined all hope we Seahawks fans have of ever getting to the big game in our lifetime. We appreciate the recognition, but every time anyone predicts anything good for the Hawks it jinxes them, so cool it, OK?''
Tim, I am not the SI cover jinx.
COUCH SHOULDN'T GO TO GREEN BAY, ACCORDING TO MURRAY. From Murray Powers of San Francisco: "You ask, 'What's the downside of Tim Couch going to Green Bay?' It's this: With very, very few exceptions, great players are lousy teachers. Can you really think of anyone who learned from a great one and then succeeded? Most fail dismally like Steve Bono following Joe Montana in Kansas City. I don't rate Couch very highly anyway, but the downside for him will be to waste his prime years watching Brett Favre do things that most people can't do -- including Tim Couch. And then, when Favre's done, Couch will be right back where he is today -- starting over but under a huge shadow.''
Murray, beggars can't be choosers. How many options, exactly, does Tim Couch have?
WOW. THIS SURPRISES ME. From Kent Reese of Los Angeles: "I thought you did an amazing job sitting in for Dan Patrick. You were very conversational and extremely pleasant to listen to. I hope to hear you on the radio again soon.''
Check's in the mail, Kent.
THIS SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD IDEA TO ME. From Matt Green of Richmond, Va.: "Great report on Rohan Davey and the benefit he is deriving playing in NFL Europe. Given the success many franchises have had using that league to develop QBs, I wonder why the NFL seems to have an unwritten rule against assigning first-round draft picks to NFL Europe. Wouldn't a guy like new Steeler Ben Roethlisberger also benefit by spending next spring in Europe?''
Most teams like their rookies to be around the practice facility if they're going to play the next season, to get the offense down and to avoid the risk of injury playing in a 10-game season. The biggest problem with your thought -- and I think there is some merit to it if a guy needs the work -- is that a Roethlisberger would likely be working in a different offense with different terminology and coaching. Then, a month later, he'd be in training camp getting used to the offense he's supposed to run.
"Eric 'Gave Up Meat' Valent.''
-- ESPN anchor ChrisBerman's nickname for the Mets' new leadoff hitter.
1. I think the most eyebrow-raising note of the week comes from Nick Cafardo in Sunday's Boston Globe: The Patriots and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis are at an impasse in trying to get a contract extension beyond 2004, and Weis' agent, Bob LaMonte, says his client will coach out this year and likely move to another team in 2005. Top coordinators in the league make significantly more than Weis' $500,000 (Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will make an estimated $1 million this year, and he's not alone at that benchmark), and the Patriots likely won't offer Weis much more than what he's currently making. It's an interesting dilemma. I think if the Patriots thought Weis invaluable, they'd pay him the going rate for top coordinators.
2. I think all current information suggests that Tim Rattay will be close to full strength in mid-August after last week's groin surgery. And so I don't see the 49ers getting in the Kerry Collins sweepstakes, or any sweepstakes much past the Damon Huard level.
3. I think the Browns lost a very good man in capologist Lal Heneghan, who was dismissed last week by the Butch Davis regime. That's not helping the team, Butch.
4. I think I have all the respect in the world for people paying respect to loved ones who have died. But I was floored by Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress last week. He told James Brown on Sporting News Radio that he skipped the Steelers' mandatory mini-camp without telling the team because it fell on Mother's Day weekend, and Mother's Day is a time for him to grieve for his mother, who died two years ago. Here's my question: If Mother's Day fell on an October Sunday and the Steelers had a game, would Burress miss the game?
5. I think these are my personal thoughts of the week:
a. You don't have to be warned about not reading this Sopranos update. But has David Chase gone mad? I suppose imaginative TV was given a boost last night, when Chase's show featured a 25ish-minute dream sequence
b. Ah, the Yankees. They know how to make a buck. I listened to radio announcers John Sterling and Charlie Steiner talk about the Yankee Broadcast Booth (sponsored by Lowe's) and the first-pitch speed (sponsored by Roadrunner High Speed Online), the umpires (sponsored by the Fox News Channel) and the defensive alignment (sponsored by AXA Financial, whatever that is).
c. I am not kidding about "b,'' by the way.
d. Coffeenerdness: Seattle, I am begging you. Put a second floor on the Upper Montclair Starbucks. Spring has sprung, and the lines in the place are long and the tables are scarce. We need space. What if I offer to help underwrite it?
e. Every time I watch Vlad Guerrero on TV, I say: There is a back injury waiting to happen. The man is a muscular corkscrew. He has the hardest swing in baseball.
6. I think sometimes in this business, we get bad information, and we get it from people we think are reliable, but that is no excuse if we run with it. Such was the case last week. I can find no corroborating evidence that first-round pick Sean Taylor wants out of Washington. I apologize to the Redskins faithful who got very nervous over the note I ran last week, and to Taylor.
7. I think the NFL Players Association and the league will probably agree to some wrist-slapping of the Giants (like taking away some organized team practices in June, the way the league did to the Rams last year) for a couple of trivial offseason violations of the Tom Coughlin regime. There won't be anything severe.
8. I think when Deion Sanders spurned $1.3 million a year last week to stay with CBS' pre-game show (he wanted a raise from $1 million to $2 million), I immediately thought of Phil Simms. The story goes that Simms once told Lawrence Taylor: "Big boy, when you first get out of the game, TV might pay you for your name for a year, but then you've got to say something.'' I'm not suggesting Deion didn't have anything to say, but, to me, he created a sideshow that had very little to do with football. What he says sure ain't worth $2 million a year. And the chemistry on that set was so bad. Maybe Shannon Sharpe would make the set seem a little less angry.
9. I think the one free agent I'd like to sign now, for, say, a million a year, is defensive end Rick Lyle. Very good role player. Can chew up 25 downs a game effectively for someone.
10. I think there won't be much action, except for Kurt Warner gaining his freedom, on June 1.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.