Saturday, February 8, 2014

Brothers, Baseball, and Beer: Perfect Pat

When half your life is hanging out with your younger brother in the backyard playing Wiffle ball, why wouldn’t you make him a central character in your novel about baseball?

My brother Patrick was a pretty damn good pitcher in Little League, and I had the privilege of being his assistant coach throughout his career. When I started writing Pastime in high school, I knew I was going to base a character on him and make him do something memorable (my older brother Tom makes an appearance later in the novel as Dante’s Pony League coach).

So enjoy the tale of “Perfect Pat” while you wait for Spring Training to start. And I don’t care how cold it is, I’m going to find a way to have a catch with my brothers.

My brother Patrick during his last year on the Phillies
Little League World Series: International Championship

Italy is known for food, wine, and beautiful women, but not its baseball. That’s because their Little League team in recent years hasn’t played much better than a tee-ball team.

However, this year, the Italian team had been struck by the destiny bug and had swept their way unto the Little League World Series’ biggest stage. Two teams of destiny in one game? Which team would the baseball gods’ favor, and which would be tormented by baseball demons?
“All the hoopla crap going into that game was totally bogus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m Italian and I love Italians, but there was no way they were going to even try to beat Patrick Russell.”—Dante Cimadamore 
Both teams had more than each other to contend with. When Russell took the mound, the temperature had risen to a sweltering 97 degrees. There was a slight breeze that had, but it scalded rather than soothed. Russell showed no signs of being affected by the heat.
“I had a job to do and I wasn’t going to let a little hot weather keep me from doing it right.”—Patrick Russell 
Italy’s first batter grounded out weakly to second baseman Simon Capodi who easily scooped up the ball and threw to first base in plenty of time to get the out. The second batter whiffed on three straight pitches. The last batter of the inning hit a lazy fly ball that Tim Nix tucked away in his glove for the final out. Russell had thrown five pitches.

Italy’s pitcher Franco Vennero was no slouch. He hadn’t given up a run in the two games he’d pitched in Williamsport, and at the start of the tournament he pitched a one-hitter against powerhouse Japan. He looked to put the U.S. team of destiny to sleep from the start.
“I never saw the first three pitches he throw at me. He had to be throwing 85 m.p.h.”—John Machado 
Jeff Prince willed a bloop single down the right field line with two outs. Capodi followed with another to left. It was time for Vennero to meet Dante.
“Everyone who watched ESPN knew the kind of season he was having. I pretty much wanted to wet myself when he stepped to the plate with runners on.”—Franco Vennero 
He handled the slugger with ease. Dante hit a weak liner to the Italian shortstop who stepped on second base to double up Prince who had strayed too far off the bag. The first inning was in the books.

Russell went back to work. The heart of Italy’s lineup had done damage throughout the tournament, but left the plate with broken hearts after their first at-bats. The third batter of the inning tried to bunt one by the American pitcher, but Russell darted off the mound and made a strong through to first base. Italy had nothing to show for their six weak at-bats.
“Looking back it was tough to say who had the upper hand early on. It was a pitcher’s duel from the word go.”—U.S. coach Tom Doyle 
Vennero didn’t give the next three batters in the U.S. lineup any chances. Two strikeouts and a fly out later and the Italians were back in their dugout. The pitchers weren’t letting up and neither was the weather.

The temperature at the top half of the third inning was nearing 100 degrees. Tournament officials debated on whether to let the kids keep playing or have them take a break from the heat. Russell was on the mound throwing warm up pitches before they could rule one way or the other. The game continued and so did Russell’s dominance.
“There is no other way to put it folks, this kid from Connecticut is the real deal.”—ESPN television announcer 
Russell actually threw three balls to the first batter he faced in the third. He quickly found his focus again and blazed three straight fastballs by him. It would turn out to be the only three-ball count from either pitcher. Another strikeout followed. Dante and company headed back to their dugout after Russell left the last batter in Italy’s lineup crying for pasta.

All of the American parents thought Vennero was finally going to falter in the bottom half of the inning. All they got was three groundballs and a smile from the Italian pitcher.
“This guy, what’s his name, Franco? He wasn’t making things any easier for me.”—Patrick Russell 
Italy’s first batter the next inning became Russell’s sixth strikeout victim, and his fourth in a row. The next batter fouled out to catcher Kurt Saucier, affectionately known as Pig Pen. The last batter of the inning upped Russell’s strikeout total to seven. Vennero got Dante to hit into a nifty double play to end the bottom of the inning. It seemed the game had lasted mere minutes.

As the U.S. team trotted out the field once again, it began to dawn on them that their pitcher was unscathed. With only six more outs left in the game, the players behind Russell were 100 times more focused and serious about winning. And they didn’t say another word to Russell. Well, with one exception.
“After the fifth, I was the only one who could get away with talking to him.”—Jocelyn Nocera 
The heart of Italy’s lineup gave Russell his first scare. The crowd held its breath as it heard the high-pitched ping! emanate from the bat of Italy’s cleanup hitter. Tim Nix dove for the ball headed for the outfield, snared it in his glove, and stepped on first base.
“Let’s just say, whenever we play poker and we go up against each other on a hand, Russell always folds.”—Tim Nix 
Another Italian batter tried to bunt his way on base. Russell once again made an easy play to get the out. Three strikes latter the last batter of the inning was wearing his glove again.

Vennero was too busy trying to get outs that he didn’t realize at first what was going on. It wasn’t until the bottom of the fifth inning that he felt the electricity of the crowd reach another level. Instead of being intimidated, Vennero used the crowd noise as fuel to strike out the next two batters. Russell and Vennero exchanged smiles as Russell made his way to the batter’s box. He was a great hitter, but up to that point hadn’t done anything worth remembering with a bat that day. The crowd buzzed with anticipation that the game was about to be decided by the two kids who had so far defined it.
“Yeah, no would believe this story if it hadn’t actually happened. There’s video footage, and I still have trouble believing it.”—Dante Cimadamore 
The young competitors showed no sign of fear. Russell fouled off two pitches and eyeballed two others out of the strike zone. Russell knocked the dirt off of his cleats with his bat and stepped in to face Vennero’s next pitch.
“Here’s the pitch from young Franco Vennero…Russel takes a swing and launches one to deep center…the fielder is drifting back…the outfielder just hunched over…that ball is gone! On the verge of pitching a perfect game, Patrick Russell just gave his team a one-run lead with a monster homerun! The only thing hotter on this field is this kid from Connecticut!”—ESPN television announcer
The entire stadium was shaking. No one was sitting down, not even Italy’s cheering section. Russell stepped on home plate and was out of breath because he had run the bases so fast. Everyone low-keyed the celebration at home plate because there was still work to be done. Russell looked back to the mound and Vennero was still smiling at him. The two pitchers tipped their caps to each other and Vennero finished his near-perfect outing with a strikeout. He didn’t feel anything but pride in himself and his country as he walked off the mound to a hearty applause.

The temperature at the start of the top of the sixth pushed past 100 degrees. It seemed everyone in the crowd was pounding Gatorade. Russell looked unperturbed as always, and finished up his warm up pitches. He wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t anxious, and he wasn’t unfocused. He was ready. The first batter struck out. The crowd gasped as Russell lost his grip on a pitch and it came close to hitting the next batter. Once the batter recovered from the accidental brush back, he saw Russell mouth a silent “sorry.” Three pitches later, the batter was headed to the dugout. The next batter stepped to the plate eager to put an end to perfection.
“He had our number all day and I felt like I was going to be the one to steal his glory.”—Italian Little Leaguer 
Confidence would get the young Italian nowhere this day. Russell fired a quick strike. The next pitch beautifully caught the outside corner for strike two. If anyone was still sitting in the state of Pennsylvania, they were deaf, blind, and dumb. Russell didn’t hear any of that. His focus was on Pig Pen’ glove. It looked as big as a beanbag chair. He went into his pitching motion and fluidly threw the ball toward the plate. The batter put his head down and ripped the ball to the gap in right center.

Neither Dante nor Tim heard the other call for the ball because the crowd was so loud. The two boys collided. Dante was about to spring up and chase after the ball that undoubtedly skipped past the two outfielders when he heard Tim whisper,

“Sorry, pal. You got the homerun record, but I caught the ball that won us the Little League World Series.”
“Bastard.”—Dante Cimadamore 
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Dante replied. “Oh, you might want to show the umpire you caught the ball so we can start celebrating.” Tim smiled and shoved his hand in the air. The pure white baseball was clutched in his dirty hand.
“I really could have used all the Gatorade in the park at that point. My teammates pig-piled on top of me instead.”—Patrick Russell 
The U.S. team that year started out as underdogs and ended up perfect American heroes. The players stayed on that field for as long as they could before worried officials and parents made them return to the shade. However, they would always stand in the summer sunshine of glory and their story became baseball legend. 
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