My 5 favorite moments on the diamond this summer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Don’t look now, but baseball season’s over.

Oh, I know the professionals will keep at it until the week before Christmas or so. If the Major League season were any longer, they could start holding spring training/World Series doubleheaders.

But for the players in our area, it’s time to move on. Same goes for sports writers: between Babe Ruth League, Dixie Youth, Dixie Youth All-Stars, Dixie Softball, Dixie Softball All-Stars, American Legion juniors, and American Legion seniors, I’m estimating the number of ball games I’ve witnessed since taking over as Times sports editor at somewhere between 22 and eleventy-billion.

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Not that I’m complaining. Every hour spent at the ballpark is another hour not spent trying to decide between the Seinfeld episode I’ve seen 66 times and the Everybody Loves Raymond episode I’ve seen 42 times, and that’s plenty fine with me.

Plus there’s other perks, some of which (Slush Puppies!) I’ve covered before. But most importantly, there’s just the good ol’-fashioned excitement of baseball and softball. Those moments when, with the game in the balance, some player ignores the pressure and opponent and doubt and just makes a play that brings every fan in the park to their feet.

Seinfeld’s a funny guy. He has a funny show. But he’s never once cracked a joke that made me stand up and cheer and clap my hands.

And so in honor of those wondrous times this summer when our area players did yank me to my feet, here’s a list of my five favorite moments spent on this summer’s baseball/softball beat:

5. T.J. Reese’s catch. It’s hard enough making a diving catch of anything, at anytime. The ability to ignore the body’s loud instinctual voice that says “That’s going to hurt. I’m not doing that,” and actually extend one’s body to the point that no, the fall can’t be stopped and yes, it’s going to hurt…it’s just not an ability everyone has.

Now imagine having to make that diving catch in centerfield, of a sharp line drive, in the next-to-last inning of a game your team must win to extend your season, with your team clinging to a narrow lead–and if you miss, the ball rolls to the wall for a triple at least. Oh, and you’re ten years old. And still, Demopolis 9-and-10-year-old All-Star centerfielder T.J. Reese made that diving catch, against Wilcox County in the Dixie Youth Area tournament June 8. Simply the most thrilling defensive play I saw this summer at any level.

4. Joseph Reed steals home…sort of. Community Bank vs. New Era Cap Co., West Alabama Babe Ruth League regular season, June 8. Bottom of the final inning–it’s late and there’s lightning in the distance. Tie game. Two outs. Community Bank’s Joseph Reed is on third. He has a big lead. He edges further as New Era pitcher Jason Fondren enters his wind-up…and there he goes.

He has a huge jump. He’s nearly to the plate, it seems, by the time Fondren even releases the ball. His slide is perfect–head-first, full extension, left hand outstretched. And he is…out? Out! The game is over!

Sure, Reed looked safe from where I sat (Sorry, New Era fans). But I’m not here to second-guess the umpire. I’m here to say, whether the call was right or wrong, Reed’s steal remains a shocking, bang-bang play at the plate in the last inning, with the game on the line…as a baseball fan, can you really ask for anything more than that?

3. Demopolis Belles win pitcher’s duel to take District. Both the Demopolis 13-15-year-old Dixie softball All-Stars and their counterparts from Linden had lost once on their way to the District Tournament title game July 3 in Grove Hill. So no potential for a re-match, as in many double elimination championship rounds: win, and you play at the state tournament in two weeks. Lose, and the season’s over.

Both teams played up to the stakes and then some, making defensive play after defensive play. Linden pitcher Ashley Stokes gave up an unearned run in the top of the first on the game’s only error by either team, and then promptly shut Demopolis down for the next six innings. But even Stokes’s performance was bettered by the clinic put on by the Demopolis pitching rotation of Sara Davis and Shay Smith, who never allowed a Linden runner to reach third in preserving the razor-thin 1-0 Demopolis lead for all seven tension-filled innings.

2. Vick’s hit wins it for the Linden Angels. OK, so I wasn’t there personally. But even just looking at the scorebook later, you could feel the excitement jump off the page: top of the last inning. Bases loaded. Down 3-1 to Sand Mountain in the first game of the 9-and-10-year old softball All-Stars state tournament, where judging by the difference in numbers of eligible girls playing in Linden’s league (17) and their opponents’ league (50-plus), Linden’s team doesn’t even belong.

But in one swing of Ally Vick’s bat, none of that mattered. All that mattered was her double, the three runners each rounding third and coming home, the Moms and Dads and coaches screaming–I have absolutely no doubt–all their fool heads off. One half-inning later Linden had taken it 4-3, and I will never forgive the Dixie Softball official who scheduled the game for 8 in the morning. Scorebook or no scorebook.

1.Josh Mangum’s walk-off double for Demopolis’s 9-and-10’s. For all the games I saw this summer, and all the bottoms of sixth-and-seventh innings I watched, only one ended with a walk-off hit: the 9-and-10-year-old Dixie Youth All-Star Sub-District tournament game between Demopolis and Butler June 28. As with the other games and other players on this list, the tension could not have been higher when Demopolis’s Josh Mangum stepped to the plate for his final at-bat. Tie game, bottom of the sixth, two outs, runner on third.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, a coach, a player, an impartial observer, or the guy sent to cover the game: there’s no way your heart isn’t going to be doing a series of vigorous calisthenics across your chest as Mangum steps in. There’s no way it’s not going to hop straight to the back of your mouth when he knocks it over the first baseman’s head and for the tiniest of moments, there’s no way to know whether it will land fair or foul.

When it touches down fair, though, there’s to very different reactions, of course. Whichever one you experienced–the soaring joy of the Demopolis players and supporters as Mangum strides in safe at second and Michael Brooker comes home, or the blank dejection on the Butler side of the field–there’s no way to argue it’s not a remarkable moment. I doubt there’s any way to argue, carrying that moment with you, that even raspberry Slush Puppies are a better reason to come out to the ballpark.