Friday, April 27, 2007

Twenty-Five Years

Twenty-five years used to seem like a long time to me but recently, I was invited to attend a 25th anniversary celebration of my high school baseball team’s 1982 state championship in Mesick, Michigan. Suddenly 25 years doesn’t seem to be that long ago.

I still remember that Monday in June, after we had been rained out on the weekend, warming up at Central Michigan University with standing water in the outfield. You could still smell the rain in the air. The infield grass was wet and a few loose blades of grass stuck to my shoes when I ran through it to get from the dugout to left field. The diamond dust between third base and shortstop crunched with each step as my spikes penetrated the surface of the dirt. The sun was out, and it felt warm on the black part of my jersey that read “Bulldogs” in white across the front...

In my junior year in high school, 1981-1982, our school was an athletic powerhouse. What you have to remember is that we were a class D school. In Michigan in the 1980s that was as small as you could get. Mesick Consolidated High School had around 250 students. Those students were brought in from as far as 15 miles away. When we were younger we had exactly one little league team in our town.

Mesick had never been known as a football town, since one of our athletes had broken his neck in a football game several years before, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. My freshman year we were 0-9, the next year we went 1-8. So no one expected it when in the fall of 1981 we went 6-3, defeating some state-ranked teams. Moving right into basketball, all 12 of us varsity basketball players had been on that football team. We did even better in basketball, going 24-2 and making it all the way to the state semifinals.

Eleven of the 12 basketball players played baseball that year. The one who didn't was a track star. John Chandler was the state champion that year in both shot put and discus, setting class D state records in both events. The rest of us made our way to Detroit that year for our annual trip to Tiger Stadium. There was a buzz in the air because people actually knew who we were. We had been state runners-up the year before and we wanted more. It was like nothing we'd ever felt before.

The season started out as usual, playing a few non-conference games. Now for those of you who didn't play high school ball in northern Michigan, conference games were started at 4:00 and were always 7-inning doubleheaders. That means we got to leave school early at least twice a week because time was tight. The games had to be finished before dark.

After a few games, we hadn't lost. I was the fourth pitcher on the team with a 2-3 man rotation. I got to pitch the third non-conference game of the season, throwing a four-hitter. When the conference season started, we still hadn't lost. As the season progressed, we were simply mowing down every team we faced. Our fiercest rival, Frankfort, was on the same path. We were 10-0 and the head-to-head confrontation was coming. Our left-handed pitcher, Eric McNitt had already thrown one no-hitter that season, and he was primed to hand Frankfort their first loss. Both pitchers threw outstanding games. Eric threw his second no-hitter of the season; their pitcher scattered six hits over the whole game. I had hit a long fly to right field that broke off the top of the fence (we used a wooden snow fence) for a ground rule double. When I tried to score from second on the only other hit in the inning, a bloop single, I was thrown out at the plate. It was closer than I thought it was going to be and I didn't slide. The game ended a 0-0 tie. That's right, no extra innings allowed. We had two seven-inning games to get in.

In the second game we were down 3-0 going into the bottom of the fourth inning when we exploded for four runs. I knocked the winning run in, which sort of made up for my baserunning mistake. We ended up taking the conference that day, thanks to some great pitching by my friend Steve Coger. We didn't lose a single game for the rest of the regular season. I still feel bad to this day that we had the tie.

As the state tournaments started, we cruised through to the semifinals, where we faced Frankfort again, this time handling them fairly easily. This set us up for the state championship.

When we met Colon High School (insert your own joke here), we played at Central Michigan University after several days of rain. As I mentioned, there was standing water in the outfield. We had already been rained out for two days, so we were playing on a Monday. Still, I think our whole town was there. The game was tight, incredibly tight all the way through. In the top of the 6th inning, I got my moment to shine.

It wasn't a happy day for me up to that point, since I had gone into a major slump. I had gone 3-for-7 in the district tournament, but was hitless in the next two games. My coach put in a designated hitter for me in the state championship. I stewed about it, but at least I was still starting in left field. In the top of the 6th we were down 2-1 with two outs, and Colon had loaded the bases. When Jeff Thrams came up, he blasted a liner that I thought was going to fall in front of me. I charged it, not wanting to give up the runs, when I realized it was carrying over my head. I turned, sprinted for all I was worth, and somehow caught the ball over my shoulder. The crowd went crazy. We scored in the bottom half of the inning and tied the game. In the bottom of the 7th, we scored the winning run when my friend Ken LaFountain scampered home from third base on a weak grounder to short, and won the state championship, 3-2.

We finished 30-0-1 that season, undefeated class D state champions, to cap off a great year for our small school and town. I still have the glove I used that day. I've had it relaced, but I still use it. There's a baseball in it right now, keeping its shape.

You’ve seen movies like “Mr. Destiny,” where a defining moment changes the way a person’s life goes. That was one of mine. It’s still a big part of who I am that I know I contributed to our team reaching the pinnacle of success to which a high school sports team can aspire.

I just can’t believe it was 25 years ago.

1 comment:

wgudmund2001 said...

Thank you for sharing your story Jim. I still have the newspaper clipping you sent me from when your team won. It's a picture of you jumping up for joy! Hard to believe it's been 25 years!!