In a world filled with biannual Sports Illustrated covers featuring the next Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan, and eighth graders receiving college scholarship offers, The Hightower Hooters Senior Babe Ruth League baseball team stood as an oasis of rockwellian beauty. This summer league for players 16-18 years old remained highly competitive despite the American Legion League being where all the best players still trying to impress coaches or scouts chose to play. The Hightower Hooters, were built on the philosophy of the founding coach Bill McCrum, who believed: if you take away the pressure and give kids an opportunity to succeed, more often than not they will surprise everyone, even themselves, with what they accomplish. The genius of this philosophy proved itself in memorable achievements for individual players and perennial League Championship hardware for the team. Athletes played with the verve and joy that they had lost over years in a sporting world seduced by the pursuit of fame and status. They found the Hooters as a last vestige of sport for the sake of growth and fun.
One July Saturday afternoon halfway through the regular season the essence of the team played out in spectacular fashion. The starting pitcher did not have his best stuff and the Hooters quickly found themselves losing 8-0 on the road. The coaches, Pat and Mikey decided to put in a towel to pitch. A ‘towel’ is a pitcher you throw in when it’s already over, as to not waste good arms on a lost cause, as in “Let’s throw in the towel, Frank you’re pitching next inning.”
Frank was a type of player common to the Hooters roster. A natural athlete who played baseball growing up but quit early in his high school career to pursue other sports. However, to enjoy this story you must understand that Frank is a certain type of guy that has both earned and relishes being the butt of every joke. It’s not as though he is some sadist whipping boy, he just grew up in a family with a biting sense of humor and is accustomed to catching flack for his actions. Despite his comfort being teased, he carried himself with the confidence of a J. Crew model, when at best he looked like a stock photograph used for Real Estate website. This slight overconfidence often drew ire and ridicule from everyone who loved him most.
Frank had pestered the coaches throughout the season for his chance to revive his pitching career and when this towel opportunity presented itself, they threw in Frank. He trotted out to the mound with his incessant swagger despite the complete lack of significance at this moment in the game, or in life. His first pitch was such a meatball, the hitter go too excited, over swang and popped out to the first baseman. The second batter watched a few balls and then grounded out to third. Then Frank retired the side in order with a line out to shortstop that would have been a double had it not rocketed directly into the fielder’s glove. Frank walked off the mound hopping over the baseline with a smirk that could only be read as, “See guys, I told you I was this good.”
The following inning played out similarly, this time with a single sprinkled in, but no runs scored. In his third inning, a double deep to left was nullified as the runner got thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. Frank returned to the bench with three scoreless innings in the book.
Throughout these three innings, the Hooters slowly chipped away at the lead and in the top of the last inning, a double into left field pushed the tying and go-ahead runs across the plate. The home team made a call for the bullpen and Frank waited for his at-bat as the new pitcher warmed up.
Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw the first base coach address his own bench and the Hooters closer started to warm up for the bottom of the last inning. Per the team philosophy, the coaches had given the shortstop, Zach, an opportunity to succeed as the closer even though he had never really pitched in his career. He could hit 84 MPH on the radar gun but he struggled with the mental aspect of pitching. In his first save attempt he had finished the game three up, three down. The subsequent two save attempts were blown on walk off home runs.
Frank insisted that Zach get canned from the closer role. His vocal opposition, while often good-humored, ran contrary to team philosophy. Frank didn’t covet the role for himself, he just didn’t want to see another walk-off loss. For people like the coaches, who could see how the emphasis on the joy of the process instead of the result, helped players return to their best play on the field, Frank’s attitude was frustrating. He had benefited more than anyone from the Hooters culture, starting the season batting 9th, Frank worked his way up to batting third and the best average on the team.
Eying the ill-fated closer, Frank sauntered down to his third base coach and uttered six words that will forever live in Hooters folklore, “Let me finish my game coach.”
Pat the third base coach responded the way any coach would, seeing his player’s confidence overreaching his skill, “Go check with Mikey, if it’s OK with him, it’s OK with me.”
Frank trotted around home while the pitcher finished his warm up and approached his first base coach, and repeated his mantra. “Let me finish my game coach.”
Mikey spat on the ground as a wry smile creeper across his face. “Sure,” was all he said.
Frank promptly grounded out to end the inning heading into the bottom half with a one run lead.
Brimming with confidence Frank, walked out to the mound as though his performance had elevated him above the need to hustle. After a few warmup pitches he circled the mound, and approached the rubber. He addressed the batter, shook off a sign, nodded and began his wind up. The first pitch on the outside corner thumped into the catcher’s mitt as the umpires bellowed, “Striiike!”
Frank followed up with a ball, high and inside, then took the sign and enter the windup on his third pitch. A fastball left belt high floated into the zone. The hitter turned on it, and with a thunderous crack, launched the ball over the left field wall. It was hit so hard, the batter watched it soar for a second, and broke into a home run trot right out of the batter box.
Now with the game tied the coaches we’re faced with the decision; leave Frank in, or bring in the closer to try to send it into extra Innings. With a lefty coming to bat, Frank as a left-handed pitcher would generally have the advantage. The coaches made eye contact and no words were needed. They left Frank in the game, not for the favorable lefty-lefty matchup but to let him lie in the bed he made.
Frank steeled himself ready to finish what he started, took the sign and started his windup. The players close enough to the mound could even hear a small grunt come from Frank as he put everything he had behind the pitch. CRACK!
No body in the field moved watching the trajectory of the ball, which towered over the right field wall. Back-to-back home runs on back-to-back pitches for his very own walk off loss.
With his eyes fixed on his shoes, Frank shuffled off of the mound toward the bench. The winning team circled around home plate, jumping and cheering to welcome the hero like they do in the pros, pounding his helmet and slapping his back. The only people having more fun than the celebration at home plate were the losing teammates laughing their way off of the field, echoing a joyous refrain of everyone’s new favorite catchphrase, “Let me finish my game coach!”
Once you outgrow the need to win and the terror of losing, you learn that not all results are created equal. Even playing for fun, winning tends to be the most fun outcome. Yet, there are times when the risk of losing is worth the opportunity for a kid to experience success they never thought possible. And provided there is no hardware on the line, there are times when an epic loss makes for a much better story than any win, especially when it comes with a catch phrase.
Dedicated to the great Bill McCrum.