North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

One from the Vault – Dispatches from a baseball championship

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I’m working on a longish piece about the baseball season and one about social media on top of my picks column, which is why this place has been slow in one of the best sports times of the year. For that, I apologize. In place of new content is new-to-you content, a mostly-unpublished piece I wrote in college.

My second year of college, I wrote for the student newspaper. I remember one of the first days of class, the Editor-in-chief, a very nice guy named Jerry, asked the entire staff of the paper who wanted to cover sports. Something like five if us put our hands up. We gathered in a semi-circle over one of the desks we used to lay out the paper on and Gerry presented us with a list of each sport. “Each person can choose one.” We went around the circle, each prospective sportswriter choosing what they wanted.

One, a former NHL prospect named Mike, chose OHL hockey. Another, a guy we called Nabber, chose the schools hockey team. Dwayne chose men’s basketball. When I was up, it was down to women’s basketball, womens softball, both soccer teams and men’s baseball. I chose baseball.

I lucked out. Durham’s baseball team lost something like one game that season, and that was in 11 innings to a school from down in New York State. The Lords tore through the season and the postseason and I wound up traveling with them to Moncton, NB, to cover the CIBA Championship Tournament.

What follows is a couple fragments from an extended piece I wrote on the trip. I thought about including everything I have written, but a big chunk is frankly kind of dull.

I forget where it was intended to go; it’s way too long for the newspaper and I can’t think of a magazine that would have run it. As it were, I never finished the thing and the paper ended up running an abridged version of the final part.

On the whole, this isn’t one of my best pieces, but it’s one of my favourites from college. My writing is still really terse, probably from my reading Raymond Chandler on the bus, and it feels somewhat constrained. Still, I like it; it’s the first longish piece of mine that really has any flow to it. More notes at the end, should you get that that far. Enjoy.

Foggy and warm, Durham College in the wee hours is an odd place, but is espicially so in mid-term season, when some students stay the night inside the school, preparing for the next day. Windows fog up, coffee is kept on all night and little clumps of people dot the halls, the doorways and cubbyholes on campus.

And perhaps most odd is the large gathering of people, some 15 odd, in a parking lot next to a large bus. Normally, parking lots are far from this busy at 4am.

But today is the day when the Durham Lords, Ontario division champions and the number 1 ranked team in Canada, head off to Moncton, to compete for the national championship.

Slowly they show up, usually in pairs, and load their stuff – and the teams equipment – onto the bus. Most of them show up pillow in hand, perhaps hoping to catch up on some sleep; after all, this is a trip that will take all day and a good portion of the night.

“We can make Montreal in five hours,” said the bus driver, “if we don’t make any stops.”

At about five o’clock, coach Sam Dempster decides that they’ve waited long enough, and that it’s time to leave, even if Chris Jones hasn’t shown up yet. The bus lurches into motion with a jerk and in a blink, cuts through the fog. Fortunately for the Lords, they run into Jones on their way out, and as he gets on the bus somebody in back yells “Giddy up!”

*******

When we get to Quebec the bus has fallen silent. If somebody sitting in the front of the bus were to turn around in their seat, the bus would look nearly empty.

Until you stand up and look down the isle.

More then half of the bus is sleeping, lying down on their seats, their legs spread across the isle of the bus. Believe me, walking to the bathroom in the back is a hazardous trip. However, the coaching staff is awake and preoccupied, be it with crossword puzzles or just watching the countryside go by…

However, the bus slows down as we near a traffic accident. A car has hit the median and flipped over, maybe several times, and is in rough shape. The team rouses from their slumber and stands up, almost prairie dog-like, hoping to get a look at what happened.

As one of the paramedics pulls out a body bag, the team slinks back, murmuring.

“Welcome to Quebec,” I hear over my shoulder.

*******

As the Lords sat along the third base line at Kiwanis Park in Moncton, N.B., watching the Ottawa Gee Gees self-destruct against the Atlantic Baptist University Mets, they were still emotionally pumped from that afternoon, when they beat Ottawa in 12 innings.

They must have been at least a little relieved, too.

The CIBA National championships had not been easy for them. So far that weekend, they had lost a close game to Dalhousie University. And then they took 12 innings to beat the Gee Gees the next day in a game that was an emotional rollercoaster.

That win gave the Lords a fighting chance with a 1-1 record. ABU’s win placed them, Concordia and Dalhousie in the semi-finals, leaving two teams competing for the final spot: Durham and the University of New Brunswick Cougars.

So as ABU wrapped up a 3-2 win, the Lords season came down to one more game, seven innings against the Cougars.

All of the day’s games were delayed because of rain and Durham’s extra innings battle against Ottawa, so this last game started at 10pm, some two and half hours late. It was chilly, windy and the stands were full of leftover hometown fans with nothing better to do.

“This is do-or-die,” said Dale Kryway before the game. “There’s more pressure now than in the first game… and the pressure got to us in the first game.”

Starting the game for the Lords was Gary Rose, who had been unbeaten in the regular season with an ERA of 0.95.

For the UNB Cougars, Ryan McDonald was on the mound. 2-1 during the regular season, posted a 3.20 ERA and with 17 strikeouts, McDonald was one their aces.

The Cougars got off to a hot start, scoring in the first inning on Andrew McNeill single. While that was the only run, a close out at the plate ended the inning.

The Lords started with a Jonathan Thiebaud double with two out. Nothing came of it.

In the fourth inning, The Lords found themselves in trouble. The Cougars loaded the bases with two out and had the crowd solidly behind them. However, Rose buckled down, and the Lords escaped unscathed.

In the bottom half, the Lords finally responded, putting two runners in scoring position with only one out. However, shortstop Craig Megill and right fielder Chris Jones grounded and flew out, respectively, to end the inning.

A defensive lapse helped to do in the Lords in the next inning. A throwing error put two on with one out, and the Cougars scored two unearned runs.

The Lords had another chance to score in the sixth. A single by Thiebaud and two walks loaded the bases with two out – but again the Lords couldn’t capitalize, and the inning ended without a Lords run.

After a quick seventh, which included a strikeout and Vince Carbone picking off a runner at first, the Lords entered the bottom of the seventh down by three runs: this was it, the last chance for their season.

At the dugout, Megill called the team together for a huddle.

“We’ve come this far and had a great season,” he said. “We’ve put too much effort into the season to let it end like this.”

Derek Howe led off with a strikeout and Kyle Sisson hit a fly ball, putting the Lords in a two-out hole early. But Carbone walked and stole second. Suddenly, the Lords seemed to wake up and began to cheer. Rob McNab walked in five pitches, bringing Thiebaud to the plate.

In the first game of the tournament, Thiebaud had hit an RBI to start a late inning rally and averaged at least one hit a game. And now, with the season on his shoulders, he came up once again.

He struck out. Tournament over.

All game, Durham couldn’t get anything going at the plate. True, they did work McDonald, making him throw 133 pitches, and drew a fair number of walks. But they had only five hits between the 12 batters.

While they had played well defensively, it was a costly error in the fifth that put the game out of reach.

Still, their pitching was what kept them close throughout the tournament, and this game was no exception. Pitching a complete game, Rose allowed only one earned run, six hits and struck out three and was named game MVP for the Lords.

The longest bus rides are the quiet ones, and the post-game trip to the hotel was perhaps the quietest of all. Nobody talked, preferring to stare out the windows with a blank face or listen to music instead. It was the total opposite that afternoon.

Coach Sam Dempster broke the silence about a quarter of the way back, admitting it was a tough defeat and thanked the team for the work they put in, for the way they played all season.

“I’ve often said that I remember most are not the wins or losses, but the people.”

The next morning they had an early checkout from the hotel at 9 a.m. They didn’t stick around any longer than they had to, nor did they watch the championship games.

As the bus pulled away, the Lords had already come down from the highs – and the lows – of the tournament, preferring to sleep and do homework than anything else.

******

I remember almost a year after this tournament, I covered a concert at the student pub. I was having a hell of time getting the band to talk to me on camera – their tour manager kept telling me “five more minutes, five more minutes” at 15-minute intervals for close to an hour before settling on ignoring me. Craig Megill happened to be working the event (he was a music management student, as it turned out). He recognized me, we chatted and five minutes later he brought the band out. College is a funny place.

 


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Written by M.

October 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm

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