By Herb Appenzeller, Ed.D.
Coaches more times than not use their hearts instead of their heads to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case when I realized we had a baseball conference game scheduled when our seniors would be in Washington, D.C. for the annual senior field trip. We were a team dominated by seniors, and for the first time in many years, we were in the conference race for first place. I knew we couldn’t win without our seniors, so I called the rival coach and asked to reschedule the game when everyone was available to play.
“No way,” he replied. The seniors were crushed and offered to skip the much-awaited traditional trip. I assured them they needed to go on the trip as part of their educational experience, though I really wanted to accept their offer and win and go on to the conference championship. But I did not, and on that fateful Tuesday, I wished they were there to play.
I had nine underclass players eager and excited that they finally had a chance to play. The most excited player was a young mentally challenged boy we will call Billy. Billy was, I believe, overage, but because he loved sports so much, an understanding principal had given him permission to be on the football and baseball teams. Billy lived and breathed sports and now he would finally get his chance to play. I think his happiness captured the imagination of the eight other substitute players. Billy was very small in size, but he had a big heart and had earned the respect of his teammates with his effort and enthusiasm. He was a left-handed hitter and had good baseball skills. His favorite pastime, except for the time he practiced sports, was to sit with the men at a local rural store talking about sports. On this day, I began to feel that a loss might even be worth Billy’s chance to play.
Our opponents jumped off to a four-run lead early in the game, just as expected. Somehow we came back to within one run, and that was the situation when we went to bat in the bottom of the ninth. I was pleased with our team’s effort and the constant grin on Billy’s face. If only we could win..., I thought, but that’s asking too much. If we lose by one run, it will be a victory in itself. The weakest part of our lineup was scheduled to hit, and the opposing coach put his ace pitcher in to seal the victory.
To our surprise, with two outs, a batter walked, and the tying run was on first base. Our next hitter was Billy. The crowd cheered as if this were the final inning of the conference championship, and Billy waved jubilantly. I knew he would be unable to hit this pitcher, but what a day it had been for all of us. Strike one. Strike two. A fastball. Billy hit it down the middle over the right fielder’s head for a triple to tie the score. Billy was beside himself, and the crowd went wild.
Ben, our next hitter, however, hadn’t hit the ball even once in batting practice or intrasquad games. I knew there was absolutely no way for the impossible dream to continue. Besides, our opponents had the top of their lineup if we went into overtime. It was a crazy situation and one that needed reckless strategy.
I called a time-out, and everyone seemed confused when I walked to third base and whispered something to Billy. As expected, Ben swung on the first two pitches, not coming close to either. When the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher Billy broke from third base sprinting as hard as he could. The pitcher didn’t see him break, and when he did he whirled around wildly and fired the ball home. Billy dove in head first, beat the throw, and scored the winning run. This was not the World Series, but don’t tell that to anyone present that day. Tears were shed as Billy, the hero, was lifted on the shoulders of all eight team members.
If you go through town today, forty-two years later, you’ll likely see Billy at that same country store relating to an admiring group the story of the day he won the game that no one expected to win. Of all the spectacular events in my sports career, this memory is the highlight. It exemplified what sports can do for people, and Billy’s great day proved that to everyone who saw the game.
J. M. Barrie, the playwright, may have said it best when he wrote, “God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.” Billy gave all of us a rose garden.