Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, May 12, 2016, 8:31 a.m.
Some of the finest young men Clinton High School ever produced wandered around aimlessly on a field about 90 miles away. Many wore eye-black smeared across their cheeks, now running down their faces with the tears virtually all of them cried.
Go ahead, I thought. Get it out. Let the tears do their jobs. Rage against the dying of a season’s light.
Some screamed in agony. They had aimed higher than their fate. They had aspired to greatness and considered themselves a team of destiny.
They were. The last time a Red Devil baseball team went further was 42 years ago, but they yearned for it all, never stopped believing, and the shock didn’t hit their collective system until the last bat waved in search of impact.
The looks on their faces said “you don’t know what it’s like,” but I do. I experienced it. It was a football game. I was on the field. I did my little job, stepping to the right and preventing the opposition from bursting in on our kick. Then I watched the intended field goal soar end-over-end over the top of the right upright. I couldn’t tell whether it was good or not. A referee was standing underneath that upright. He signaled no good.
James Island 17, Clinton 15. That was over 41 years ago. It seems as if it were last night, but last night was another, entirely different heartbreak, in another time, place and sport. How does one compare and contrast agony? Agony doesn’t have degrees. It either is or it isn’t.
I was on assignment in Lugoff or Elgin, watching both Lugoff and Elgin play Ninety Six in a football playoff during the final gasps of 1981. The game went into overtime. Lugoff-Elgin scored but missed the extra point. The Wildcats scored. All they had to do was kick the extra point. The game didn’t even continue. A kid from Lugoff, or Elgin, scooped it up and ran all the way into the opposite end zone. I remember the field, littered with souls in agony, lying on their backs, legs pumping, arms waving. It looked like the charismatic ending of a tent revival.
Sudden death was richly descriptive, and so was it on Wednesday night in Seneca when the homestanding Bobcats lost a no-hitter but not the game against a Clinton team that won 20 straight but not the last two.
After I watched it all, I packed up my laptop and camera and drove to a nearby McDonald’s, the Official Free Wi-Fi of Sportswriters on Assignment, and started sending the photos I had already edited while the game was going and finished the story I had already started writing. I left McDonald’s armed with a large cup of coffee and a tank of gas that didn’t have enough to make it home. At a truck stop, I refilled one tank with fuel and another with more coffee.
I felt a little like the last man out of Saigon.
Daytona Beach is nice in February, but it wasn’t on the day that Dale Earnhardt died. That long day’s journey into night left me feeling as if I were Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London during the bombing raids. I just kept my head down and my fingers typing.
Words can ill describe the agony that characterized the third-base dugout while the first-base side went ecstatic. I strolled over there to talk to the Seneca coach, Mac Field, while teeth were still gnashing across the way.
The Red Devils’ last gasp occurred with the Seneca pitcher, Tristan Hudson, having faced 23 batters without allowing any of them to get so much as a hit. He struck out the first. Then along came Braeden Webb to stroke a double that was as much a result of his legs as his bat.
Clinton coach Sean McCarthy pinch-hit Davis Cunningham, who hurt his elbow while pitching a complete-game earlier in the playoffs. I could tell he wasn’t at his best, even while swinging a bat instead of hurling a ball. He couldn’t swing hard. All he could do was concentrate and put his bat squarely on Hudson’s baseball, which he did. He singled to left. Webb sprinted for dear life. Seneca’s left fielder, Braxton Gambrell, scooped up Cunningham’s single and yanked the ball plateward. Webb represented the tying run. He ran with all his might, and Gambrell threw with all his. The catcher, Petey Ridley, caught it and applied a tag to the area around Webb’s knee. Whether his feet reached the plate before Ridley’s tag reached his knee was anyone’s guess, and opinion was sharply divided between those wearing red and those wearing blue, but the decision was the home-plate umpire’s and the call was “out.”
One last strikeout, Hudson’s 10th, and the season was over for the Red Devils. It was the type of call that is often overruled in the major leagues, but there are no replay cameras in Seneca or Clinton or a thousand other burgs where baseball is played for pride and not money. In terms of pride, both teams were rich.
Braeden Webb’s grandfather coached me in junior high school. He asked me what I thought. I told him I thought he would be called out. The umpire wasn’t out of position, but he watched from behind the catcher, and from that view, it was hard to see whether or not Braeden’s feet beat the tag. Sitting, oh, 10 or 12 yards away, looking through interconnected wire, I expected the call to be “out,” and I hated being right.
Barry Whitman said it would take a long time for Braeden to get over it. He will, though. Character is shaped by one’s reaction to the worst things that ever happen. Victory sure is great, but it doesn’t make anyone a better person. A victory is a result of character, not a builder of it. The character of the players on the Clinton team left Seneca High School rock solid, if deeply perturbed.
As impossible as it must still be for them to believe, they will be better men because it happened.
Yes. Easy for me to write. I do have some sense of déjà vu, however.
Miracle of miracles. All four of my novels are available in both Kindle (and free apps usable in virtually anything electronic and communicative) and print. The latest is called Forgive Us Our Trespasses. It’s a bold ripsnorter of a crime novel.
My fable on life’s absurdity, in the person of a football coach subjected to all manner of crises, is called Crazy of Natural Causes.
I’ve put together a collection of short stories, all 11 born in songs I wrote, aptly entitled Longer Songs.
My historical novel, set in the 1960s, of the South, civil rights, integration, bigotry, and high school football, is called The Intangibles.
The adventures of a pot-smoking songwriter turned national hero is known as The Audacity of Dope.
If you’ve read them, particularly Forgive Us Our Trespasses, I’d appreciate a customer review at amazon.com and/or goodreads.com.