I got an email from an old buddy of mine, who announced that his team had won the New Hampshire state championship in the over-40 baseball league. My friend has a history as a prankster of sorts, so I looked it up. And sure enough, he was telling the truth.
The Nashua Tigers
His story got me thinking about the only real championship team I played on – the mighty Sea Slugs. We were a softball team in the Naval Postgraduate School league, and we were not what you would consider “championship caliber.” Tryouts consisted of a detailed question-and-answer session:
1. Do you know how to play softball?
2. Will you bring the beer every once in awhile?
3. You’re in!
Our season of destiny began like all the rest, but ended differently because in the end – to our surprise – we found ourselves in the playoffs. To get to the finals we had to play the perpetual winners, the team that was loaded with talent and was considered unbeatable, the Mixed Nuts (involuntary shudder). They hit home runs like a Phalanx close-in weapons system spits out partially depleted uranium projectiles. Nobody beat them. Nobody.
And we were going to be facing them in about ten minutes. Our coach, however, was a man of steel and would not be intimidated. He got us together in a huddle before the game and gave us words of encouragement that will echo through the ages as one of the great pre-game speeches of all time. He said, “We can’t beat these guys.”
But as he talked, a strange aura surrounded him, and like John Belushi in the Blues Brothers movie, he was struck with sudden inspiration. “A plan! I have a plan!”
Our coach’s strategy was to shift the entire team to one side of the field each time one of their sluggers came up. “They’ll try to hit where we aren’t and it’ll screw them up.”
We looked at each other with a mixture of dispair and amazement. The only logic we could see in the plan was that with the mercy rule in effect (the game is called if you get behind by 10 runs) the game would be over quickly and we’d be able to eat sooner. So we did what he said, and to our shock – IT WORKED!
The Mixed Nuts couldn’t resist the temptation to try to hit to the empty side of the field. They abandoned the long ball, and in the process lost their poise. They fell apart. In the end, we won and went on to win the championship. David had slain Goliath. It was one of the most remarkable – and risky – coaching decisions I have ever seen. “We Beat Mixed Nuts” became our metaphor for the underdog vanquishing the overdog.
So it goes to show you that talent isn’t everything. Leadership counts. Teamwork counts.
And if all that fails, there’s always the mercy rule.
This story brings to mind my own softball story. I was a student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and I worked for the student newspaper, The Northern Star. Anyway, the campus paper and radio station, and the town TV and radio stations (maybe the town newspaper, too) formed a just-for-fun league. Having only four or five teams in our little league, we played each other. A lot. We got to know each others’ playing styles really well.
Now, I was never very athletic (although I had come in 6th in a 50-mile canoe race in high school, but that’s another story), but my friends convinced me to play (and I use that term loosely) softball on our team. I would step up to the plate, ready the bat, swing, and miss. I would repeat the process. And again I would repeat the process. Once in a great while, I would get lucky and the ball would actually hit the bat. But my feet never touched first base.
Finally, one fine day, I stepped up to the plate, I swung, I connected, and I ran. I actually made it to first base. AND THE OTHER TEAM CHEERED FOR ME!