It’s funny what can trigger memories when watching sporting events, and the emotions they can evoke when heartbreak happens.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to follow my nephew (my sister’s son Rian Carpenter) compete at the highest level possible when it comes to Little League baseball over the past month.
Rian is a baseball junkie and has been the best player on his USSSA team each of the past several summers. The Johnston Little League 12U All-Star coach took notice this summer, too, and invited Rian onto his team to try and help the Dragons advance all the way to the Little League World Series.
Yes, THE Little League World Series.
Now, before you roll your eyes and snort ‘right, the Little League World Series,’ the Johnston team just about made it there, and if not for a meltdown in the final inning of their Midwest regional championship game in Westfield, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis Saturday, Aug. 10, Rian and his team would be in Williamsport, PA, right now.
Merely making that statement gives me goosebumps. The fact that Rian was a member of Iowa’s top 12U Little League team fills me with pride.
The level of talent you have possess to make it to the Little League World Series is mind boggling, yet Rian and his amazing collection of teammates just about did it, and wow did they ever represent Iowa well in the Midwest regional over an amazing stretch of baseball from Aug. 3-10.
Johnston (in my unbiased opinion) was the best team at the region, and had already defeated the Coon Rapids Andover American Little League team, from Minnesota, in a semi-final contest on Thursday, Aug. 8. Johnston had to play Coon Rapids again, this time in the championship game Saturday, to be the Midwest’s representative at the Little League World Series.
The region was a double elimination tournament, until the championship game, and as it turned out Johnston lost the wrong game dropping an absolutely heartbreaking 8-6 decision to Coon Rapids that actually left me in tears while watching it on ESPN.
Johnston was cruising leading 5-1 heading to fifth inning but were clutching to a narrow 5-4 advantage in the top of the sixth and final frame before Coon Rapids scored once to tie the it before one of their top hitters slugged a three-run home run to take a three-run lead.
I couldn’t believe what I had just watched.
I was starting to make plans with my wife to travel to Williamsport to support Rian in this incredible endeavor, and then in the blink of an eye everything changed.
But Johnston still had one more chance, even though momentum had been completely flipped to Coon Rapids’ side.
Johnston did put up a huge fight, too, and after scoring a run to make it 8-6, had the bases loaded before the final batter struck out, ending the amazing run.
My nephew (and his teammates) were that close to experiencing the thrill of a lifetime, and while I didn’t think I was THAT emotionally involved, obviously I must have been because tears poured down my face as I watched Rian and his teammate shake hands with the celebrating Coon Rapids players after the game.
What watching Rian’s deep run into the Little League tournament also did was bring back some pretty special memories for me, too. Yes, I played Little League baseball in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and our team was exceptionally good as well (as good as Rian’s? Maybe).
I however, was not that good. I played right field and batted last, but we had two brothers on my team who were simply incredible (they both went on to play professional baseball at the minor league level), and we rode those brothers (Eric and Darren) to all of our wins.
I struggle with the exact facts (this was over 40 years ago you know), but we advanced to a tournament that was just one away from making it to the Little League World Series, and in a semi-final game against a team from Indiana, we lost 1-0.
Guess who made the final out to end what had been an amazing run for us?
You guessed it, me.
I was so upset after the game I was inconsolable. Even Eric and Darren (who were my best friends) let me know it was okay, but I just felt like I had left everyone down. The tying run (Eric) was at third and the winning run (Darren) was at second. We were that close to advancing and I didn’t come through, grounding out to third base.
I’ve lived with that groundout all my life, and while it hurt (and still does at times), going through that experience helped me become a stronger person in the years to come. You have to deal with failure in life, and it’s how you deal with it that makes you the person that you are.
We made an amazing run back in the late 1970s, and I made some friends that I otherwise may not have made. I learned to appreciate those experiences more than fretting over the ground out.
It took me quite some time to come to grips with that groundout too, but when Rian’s team made their final out Saturday afternoon, I felt that same pain. As tough as it might be right now, I just hope those Johnston kids can learn to appreciate what they accomplished, because moments like those don’t come around very often in life, and it was a blessing just to have been able to experience it.
Talking to Rian after the game, he sure seemed ready to move on. Of course, Rian’s always been way ahead of where I was at the same age, in everything. Thank goodness for that!
Congrats Rian, you and your teammates made Iowa proud.