June 12th, 2012

Beginnings with No Ends


            It was June 1st, but, of course it was June 1st.  It had to be June 1st, because it had to be the beginning of something.  But before the game began, June 1st was only the beginning of normal things: the beginning of the College World Series post-season tournament, the beginning of the Gary, Indiana Regional, and the beginning of a double-header of baseball for me and three friends (Scott, Matt V, and his girlfriend, Lauren).  Little did we know, June 1st was the beginning of much, much more.

            We got to the field – The US Steel Yard – around two, after winding through the deserted, worn-down streets of Gary.  Only in Gary, by the way, could a baseball stadium be named “The US Steel Yard.”  Parking was free, fitting to the small crowd, small town feel of the place, and we found a spot near the back of the lot before ambling up to the ticket booth.  At the booth, the ticket lady asked which game we were there to see.  The Gary Regional was playing host to four teams which would compete in a round-robin type tournament over the weekend; according to the ticket lady, we could buy tickets for any or all of the games to come.  I said we were just there for the day and wanted tickets for both games: the 3:00 pm match-up between Kentucky and Kent State, and the late game, the 7:00 pm match-up between Purdue and Valparaiso.

            The truth was, we were really only there to see Purdue play, as they were the first Big Ten team to get a national ranking in several years.  But we figured that if we were going to travel out to see Purdue play, we might as well take in a couple of Regional games while we were at it.  It cost sixteen dollars total; only eight bucks a game.  But before the lady printed our tickets, she asked where we wanted to sit.  I turned to Scott and repeated the question.  Where did we want to sit?

            It’s common at college baseball games for the stadium to be divided into halves for the fans of each team, with the area behind a team’s dugout designated as their cheering section.  I interpreted the ticket lady’s question as, “Which team’s section do you want to sit in, Kentucky or Kent State?”  But because I had no particular interest in either of the teams, I left the choice up to Scott.  He stepped to the ticket window and spoke, “The best seats available.”  It made sense to me.  Why choose a side?  Let fate and the ticket lady decide.

            She gave us our tickets and we filed into the stadium to find where fate had placed us.  Looking back, it makes perfect sense where we ended up: on Kent State’s side…directly behind their dugout.  The best seats in the house.  Row A.  Seats 1-4.  If you were given the choice of any seats in the stadium, these would have been the obvious choice.  They were perfect. 

            The stadium, too, was nicer than I’d imagined, as I didn’t expect much of a baseball stadium in Gary, Indiana whose home team was the “Southshore RailCats.”  But it was a big, beautiful field with outfield walls at major league distances (320’ down the lines, 400’ in straightaway center).  The only odd thing about the park was the lack of bleacher seats in left-field; a result of the elevated freeway which rose up just beyond the homerun wall, creating the illusion that if a car were to careen off the road, it might skip past the warning track and crush the left-fielder.

We took our VIP seats and caught the last of Kentucky taking their infield reps before both teams retreated to their dugouts for the national anthem and the player introductions.  I leaned back into my seat and stretched my legs onto the top of the dugout, damn near dangling them over the edge to where the players could see.  This was the closest I’d ever sat to pseudo-professional baseball; I was going to enjoy it.  The only thing I regretted was that they didn’t serve beer at the Steel Yard, but I had a mega-pack of sunflower seeds, the weather was mild, and there was an entire day of baseball to take in.  I was ready.

Then the game began.  The trouble started when the game wouldn’t end.


1st Inning


The game started innocently enough.  Kent State went in order in the first and though Kentucky managed two base-runners, they too failed to score.  It seemed apparent to us that Kentucky was the better team, but that was mostly conjecture, as none of us knew much about either team.  But still, we considered Kentucky the favorite as they came from a far superior conference, and that meant better recruiting and better competition during the regular season.  On the other hand, everything about Kent State made them seem like the underdog, from the old-timer uniforms they wore (complete with short pants and stirrups), to their off-kilter mascot (the Golden Flashes), to the shortness of their lineup (George Roberts, their cleanup hitter, appeared to be no taller than 5’8”).


2nd Inning


There were little things to remind me that this was no professional ballpark.  For example, though there was an immense scoreboard in left field with a jumbo digital screen, the park operators had nothing to broadcast except grainy, pixilated images of the players as they came to the plate.  There were no season statistics shown, and for subsequent at-bats, no game stats either.  Later in the game, Scott and I would regret not having bought the one-dollar scorecards they were selling near the entrance to the park.  George Roberts led off for Kent State by singling up the middle.  Several batters later, Roberts scored the game’s first run and the Flashes had the bases loaded with nobody out.  But after two quick strikeouts by the eight and nine hitters and a line-out by the leadoff man, who was now hitless in two at-bats, the score stuck at 1-0.  In the bottom half, Kentucky got a single out of Zac Zellers, prompting Matt V to question whether we knew anyone with the initials Z.Z.  We thought of Zinedine Zidane, but that was it.  Regardless, Zellers was quickly picked off of first base and caught in a run down to end the inning.


3rd Inning


As we cycled through the lineups for the second time, we got to know the names a bit better.  We started to make nicknames for them.  There was a Tony Cousino on Kentucky who we dubbed “Kirk Cousins.”  When Jimmy Rider came to the plate to lead off the third inning for Kent State, Matt V asked, “You think his middle name is Easy?”  I said it might be “Knight.”  “Easy Rider” sounded a little better, so we went with that.  Either way, Easy Rider struck out swinging for the second time, George Roberts collected his second hit (another single), and Kent State failed to score.  Kentucky, however, used a few hits and some aggressive base-running to get two across.  The score, after three, was Kentucky 2, Kent State 1.


4th Inning


The weather fluctuated depending on the sun and the clouds.  When the sun was out, you could feel it pressing down upon you.  But when the clouds shielded you, a cold breeze wisped through the seats.  There were a lot of long at-bats and pitcher/catcher meetings; the game already seemed to be taking a long time.  Kent State only exacerbated this feeling by stringing together its best inning yet, scoring three runs, capped off by an RBI double by George Roberts (who we were now calling “Georgey Boy”).  He was 3-3.  Kentucky pulled their starting pitcher and finally got out of the jam.  After they failed to score in the bottom half of the inning, the score stood at 4-2 in favor of the Flashes.


5th Inning


Our favorite nickname was “Toad,” which we applied to Kent State’s nine-hole hitter (who also happened to be the only black player on either team): Derek Toadvine.  Toad was a typical college second baseman; he couldn’t hit, but had a good glove and blazed around the base-paths.  Toad had bunted his way on base and scored one of the runs in the fourth inning, but with his other two at-bats, in the second and in the fifth, he looked miserable, striking out both times.  Kent State went scoreless in the fifth, but Kentucky got a run across on a wild pitch.  After five, Kent State led 4-3.


6th Inning


Scott was starting to get extremely agitated that he hadn’t gotten a foul ball.  Sitting directly behind the dugout, with fans spread thin throughout the stadium, it appeared likely that we would have a chance at a few.  But, strangely, it seemed that every foul ball popped in our direction would sail up over the roof and towards the parking lot.  Scott went on several “smoke breaks” in search of the runaway balls, with no luck.  He returned to his seat each time further agitated.  George Roberts doubled again, but no one could get him home.  Kentucky couldn’t score either and the score remained the same.


7th Inning


I finally left my seat to get something to eat, as the sunflower seeds weren’t really filling me up.  I ended up getting a Polish, though I was disappointed to find out later that they sold Brats on the other side of the stadium, shaking my belief that we had been given the right seats after all.  But a positive was that the toppings were do-it-yourself, which I always love, not only for avoiding unwanted toppings, but for gorging on the toppings I love.  I returned to my seat with a Polish piled high with white onions and jalapenos.  Kent State finally pulled their starting pitcher, after 108 pitches, but not before Kentucky scored a run to tie the game at 4.  I devoured the Polish and my medium Coke in under thirty seconds.


8th Inning


Easy Rider singled with one out in the eighth and advanced to second after a walk by the three-hole.  Georgey Boy came through again, singling to right, scoring Easy Rider and breaking the tie.  Georgey Boy was now 5-5 on the day with two doubles and two RBI.  I guess height isn’t necessary to be a great clean-up hitter; Georgey Boy was putting on a clinic.  Kentucky threatened in the bottom half but came up empty.  Heading into the ninth, Kent State, the underdogs, led 5-4.


9th Inning


Kentucky put in their ace for the ninth inning to stop Kent State from adding any insurance runs.  Whispers in the crowd confirmed that the new pitcher, Trevor Golt, was an All-American closer.  He looked like it too.  He fanned all three hitters Kent State sent to the dish in the ninth.  Kent State, on the other hand, stuck with their reliever when Kentucky came to hit and it cost them: Kirk Cousins scored on an RBI single by Luke “You’ve Got” Maile and the game was sent into extras, knotted up at five runs a piece.


10th Inning


Golt sent down Kent State’s batters in short order once again, striking out Toad along the way.  Kentucky used some none-too-bright base-running to squander their chance and the score remained tied.


11th Inning


The scoreboard at The US Steel Yard was like other scoreboards, in that there was only room for ten innings.  By the eleventh, the scoreboard reset, erasing all of the innings that had been played, leaving only the Runs, Hits, and Errors.  Looking up at that blank scoreboard, it felt like an entirely new game had started.  When Georgey Boy got out for the first time all day and neither team scored yet again, that feeling amplified.  A new game had started.


12th Inning


The medium Coke was coming back to haunt me and I really had to pee.  But it was extra innings; the winning run could come at any time.  I resolved to wait until the game was over, which I didn’t think would take long, and then find a bathroom before the Purdue game started.  Toad got his second hit of the day (on another bunt), but Kent State couldn’t get him across.  Kentucky started the bottom half promisingly, with their catcher knocking a drive to the wall.  Unfortunately, he forgot to touch first base and Kent State won the appeal; the umpire emphatically called him out.  No runs were scored.


13th Inning


It was already close to seven o’clock at night, which was when the Purdue/Valparaiso game was supposed to begin.  The fans and players who had arrived for that game stood on the tarmac area behind the seats, begging for the Kentucky/Kent State game to end.  I didn’t blame them; most of us just wanted the game to get over with too.  Kentucky brought in their fifth pitcher: big AJ “Fulton” Reed, the first basemen.  Both teams managed a single base-runner in the 13th, but neither advanced past first.  Going into the fourteenth, Scott assured me he had a feeling that it would be the deciding inning.


14th Inning


Kent State got a runner over to third with two outs, but Toad struck out for the fourth time, stranding him ninety feet from home.  For the second or third time, with Kentucky hitting, a bench coach from Kent State emerged from the dugout to call out a shift for his outfielders.  For the second or third time, the Kentucky hitter smacked a ball to exactly where the bench coach told the fielders to go.  It was amazing.  At this point, both teams had made so many substitutions, both in the field and in their lineups, that we now knew the names of every bench player as well.  Unfortunately, none of the new subs made any difference and the inning went scoreless.


15th Inning


Scott continued to moan about not having caught a foul ball, watching them continue to sail over the roof and into the parking lot.  Every time I laughed at his despair over this he said he hoped they all hit my car.  Kent State grounded into a double play to end their half of the inning.  Kentucky, however, got a double with one man out from double-Z (Zac Zellers).  A strikeout and two walks followed, leaving the bases loaded.  The winning run seemed so close.  The Kentucky hitter dug into the batter’s box.  After several tense pitches, the count was full.  The Kent State pitcher wound and hurled.  The runners ran with the pitch.  The batter swung.  Scott moaned again as another foul ball went sailing over the back roof and out of reach.  The very next pitch, the batter popped out to third to end the inning.


16th Inning


My huge bag of sunflower seeds was empty.  The discarded shells were strewn all over the top of the dugout.  It was after eight P.M.  Night had fallen almost completely.  Both teams went in order.  Scott assured me, for the fourth inning in a row, that the next inning would be the last.


17th Inning


Apparently the stadium had run out of songs to play in between innings, because they started to repeat ones we had already heard.  Matt V asked if we had somehow been transplanted into the movie Groundhog Day.  Toad got out again and Kentucky squandered another chance to score by playing small-ball, and I turned to Matt V and shrugged my shoulders, not really sure that we hadn’t.


18th Inning


Kent State’s leadoff hitter started the inning with a single (his first and only hit of the game).  After a sacrifice bunt by Easy Rider and a sacrifice fly by Georgey Boy, a pinch-hit by “Billy” Koch brought in the go-ahead run for the Flashes.  After a quick fly-out, Kentucky got things going as well, with a base-on-balls and a single that advanced the runner to third.  With runners at first and third with only one out, Kentucky seemed on the verge, especially with their best hitter (who was also their catcher) coming to the plate.  Scott was optimistic, “If they blow it, the game is over.  If they score two, the game is over.  Either way, we’re good.”  Sure enough, the brawny back-stop nailed a drive out to the gap in right center.  The first runner scored easily, but the runner from first tweaked something in his leg while rounding third.  The relay came in on time and he was tagged out many steps away from scoring the winning run.  The next batter grounded out on the first pitch.  Both teams had scored a run for the first time in nine extra innings, yet, the game would go on, tied 6-6.  Scott collapsed onto the top of the dugout with his eyes closed, exasperated.  When he finally stood back up minutes later, he had a mess of sunflower shells stuck to his back.


19th Inning


We could see the headlights of cars streaming past on the freeway.  It was nine P.M.  Lauren seemed on the edge of mutiny.  When she agreed to come to the ballpark with her boyfriend, she surely hadn’t agreed to this.  I wouldn’t have blamed her if he had dumped Matt V on the spot.  Neither team scored.  We looked to the twentieth.  Scott had finally stopped making his predictions that the next inning would be the last, content to spend his time picking the sunflower shells off his shirt.


20th Inning


Kent State went down quickly, with Georgey Boy striking out to retire the side.  Georgey Boy had pulled an impossible one-hundred and eighty degree turnaround: he started the game with five hits in a row, only to follow that up with five outs in a row.  We were all sure this was some type of unbreakable, impossible record for a single game.  Kentucky then looked to end the game once and for all in the bottom half.  After a HBP, they loaded the bases with only one man out.  All it would take is a simple fly ball to score the winning run.  Instead, the hitter grounded back to the pitcher, who hurled it home to the catcher for the force out, who then sent it over to first to complete the inning-ending double play.  Scott collapsed back onto the dugout.


21st Inning


The scoreboard “reset” trick must only work once, because the operators were baffled at what to do in the 21st inning.  The bulbs blinked all sorts of strange numbers before finally settling on six runs a piece in the first inning-slot on the board, which must have been the only way to make the total score read correctly.  It was after 9:30 when Alex Miklos (“The Greek”) tripled to dead center and brought in another go-ahead run for Kent State.  Though they only scored one, to take the lead 7-6, the scoreboard read that Kent State had scored seven runs in the inning.  With how foggy my brain felt with numbers, they very well might have scored seven runs and I hadn’t noticed.  I realized that I still needed to pee very badly.  I wondered in the game would ever end.  Kentucky, of course, threatened right away, getting runners at second and third with two outs.  I turned to Scott, who seemed terrified to say anything.  At that moment, the Purdue and Valparaiso fans were indistinguishable from the Kent State fans, joined in their hope for the game to end.  Three strikes later, it did.






            There were plenty of crazy statistics that resulted from this 21-inning marathon.  Ten pitchers were used, most for long stretches (eight of them threw 50 pitches or more).  AJ Reed, who spent the first twelve innings playing first base, came in to pitch a complete game, or nine full innings, and threw 108 pitches.  There were 678 pitches thrown in all, with 15 walks and 47 strikeouts.  The teams combined for 38 hits in 154 at-bats, but not a single homerun.  More shocking than anything, perhaps, was that there were only two errors made; one by each team.

            But the real takeaway was that the game took six hours and thirty-seven minutes to complete.  It was the second longest game in College World Series history.

            Even scarier for us, we still had tickets for the second game.  We had seen our share of baseball, no doubt, but we didn’t really want to let the tickets go to waste.  It was a tough decision.  As it turns out, NCAA rules state that a game cannot start any later than 11:00 P.M.  It was only 9:40, so this was not a problem.  Then came the announcement that the Purdue/Valparaiso game would begin an hour later, at 10:40 (almost four full hours after it was supposed to begin).  The prospect of waiting an entire hour for the game even to begin was too much to deal with.  Matt V reasoned that we had paid for two games and, if counting by innings, we had actually seen more than two full games anyway.  In my tired mind, this made sense.  We headed back to the car (which was free of any foul-ball dents) and drove towards Chicago and home.  I considered the ordeal over with.  But, like I said at the outset, June 1st was only the beginning of the story.

            The next day, Kent State beat Purdue easily (who was a #1 seed and hosting the Gary Regional), by a score of 7-3.  On Sunday, Kent State played Kentucky again.  After seven innings, the score was 0-0.  I wasn’t there, but I’m sure most of the fans hunkered down, expecting another drawn-out battle.  Then, in the top of the eighth, Kent State’s leadoff man launched a three-run homer over the right-field wall.  Kentucky would tack on two runs in the bottom half of the inning to keep things close, but would go scoreless in the ninth and fall yet again to Kent State by a single run.

Improbably, Kent State had won the Regional and was advancing to the Super-Regional, which is played best two-out-of-three.  Their opponent was to be Oregon (ranked sixth in the country, as opposed to Kent State, ranked 74th in the country).  If the Flashes weren’t huge underdogs in Gary, they surely would be against the Ducks.  Worse yet, the CWS affords home-field advantage to the higher-seeded teams, which is a caveat of college baseball that no other sport shares.  Can you imagine March Madness being played with home-court advantage?  It would be an almost insurmountable disadvantage to the lower seeds.  But, though Kent State had gone undefeated in the Regional, they had to travel all the way across the country to Eugene, Oregon to play one of the best teams in the country on their own twenty-million dollar home-field, with the winner earning a spot in Omaha and the Elite Eight.

None of the games would be easy, with each decided by exactly one run.  Kent State took the first game 7-6.  Oregon took the second game 3-2.  The third and deciding game was yet another thriller, threatening for more extra innings.  Kent State was batting last, as the home team, in the bottom of the ninth with the score knotted at two a piece.  Toad drew a walk to start the inning and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt.  Easy Rider stepped to the plate and lifted a harmless-looking fly ball down the left-field line.  The Oregon outfielder lost it in the sun and it dropped fair by a few inches.  Toad scored easily.  Oregon’s season was over.  Kent State was headed to Omaha.

June 1st was just the beginning.  The end…well, just like in that 21-inning game, seems like it might never come.