Glorious endings: Walk-offs and strikeouts

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RIGHT NEXT TO MY CAT IN BRIGHTON, MA — On Thursday night, Derek Jeter played his last game at Yankee Stadium. Captain Clutch — damn right I’m calling him Captain Clutch — came up to the plate in the ninth inning with the game tied, a runner on second and an entire crowd chanting his name. He hit the first pitch to right field — right-field hits are what will pop into my head if I’m ever asked to describe Jeter, along with jump throws and a certain flip throw — and the Yankees won the game. It was a magical end to a Hall of Fame career (yeah, I know, he might play at Fenway Park this weekend).

In the summer of 2004, right before the start of my senior year of college, I was at a baseball field in Bergen Beach with my younger brother, Kevin. He wanted to play catch, field some grounders, have me throw him some batting practice so he could get ready for his sophomore year playing baseball at the University of Scranton, noted Division III baseball powerhouse. I did not play baseball at the University of Scranton. There was a time when I thought I might play collegiate baseball, but when I arrived at the UofS my freshman year, I decided I was done with baseball. Not due to any dislike of the game, I was just 18 and figured I had better things to spend my time doing.

When Kevin and I finished practicing, I picked up a bat and stepped to the plate. I told Kev, a lefty, to throw me one pitch. If I hit it over the fence, I would try out for the Varsity baseball team my senior year. He threw a pitch. I hit it over the fence. (Kevin might deny this, but it’s how I remember it).

We returned to school, and despite my friend Steve telling me that baseball practices and games would get in the way of all the drinking I could do senior year, I tried out. And I made the team! I mean the coach told me outright that he was going to keep me on the roster because he wanted to have an extra catcher to catch bullpens and there was an outside chance he might have me catch when my brother pitched, but, either way, I made the team! No matter how shitty the team, making one is a good feeling.

And it was fun. There were early practices, I quickly realized I was not very/any good at baseball anymore, and we had to run laps on occasion, but it was fun. Playing catch, taking swings in batting practice, team parties, my buddy Dennis hating nearly everything. Despite the fact that it was, indeed, cutting into my senior-year drinking time, I had a great time. I also barely played — rightly so!

The last home game of the season, we played at Red Barons Stadium (which is now home of the Triple-A RailRiders, if I’m not mistaken). One of the cool things about playing at a Minor League stadium was the fact that the bullpen was located all the way out in right field, so the pitchers and catchers could straight up lounge with no coaches around. We goofed around, chewed on sunflower seeds (or dipped tobacco like true badasses) and, every once in a while, I had to help a pitcher warm up. Our team stunk, we were playing a team that started this 6-foot-3 dude who threw gas and we were losing. In the last inning, Dennis — who was also a senior — ran out and said, “McGrath, you’re batting this inning.”

“What?”

“You’re batting this inning.”

“Why?”

“It’s Senior Day.”

“Ohhhhh.”

“You’re definitely going to strike out.”

“Thanks, Dennis.”

So I ran from the bullpen to the dugout. I had no idea it was Senior Day, not that I would’ve asked my parents to drive up from Brooklyn for the game, despite the fact that they probably would have since my parents are great. But, hey, an at-bat is an at-bat. I had actually had one previously, but it went like so:

Me in the on-deck circle, to my buddy JP: “I don’t care if the first pitch is over my head, I’m swinging at it.”

First pitch: Over my head. Me: Swing.

Second pitch: Don’t remember, but it was a strike.

Third pitch: Pitcher threw a curveball. I thought to myself, “That’s a nice curveball.” Strike 3.

So I had experience at the plate that year, but not much. I put on a batting helmet, grabbed a bat and strolled to the plate. I was leading off. As I approached the plate, I heard one of the guys on the team, Steve, say, “Imagine McGrath hits a home run!” I thought to myself, “Imagine McGrath hits a home run!” I stepped in the batter’s box.

Now, as previously noted, the dude pitching was like 6-foot-3 and threw gas. I’m not gonna call him the second coming of Clayton Kershaw, but I’m not not going to, either.

First pitch: Slider. Nasty slider! I did not swing. Strike 1.

Second pitch: Slider. Garbage slider. Slider that bounces two feet before the plate. I swing. Strike 2.

Third pitch: Slider. Most garbage slider ever thrown. Slider that bounces five feet from the plate. I swing. Strike 3.

However …

The slider was so garbage and bounced so far from the plate, it bounces over the catcher’s head. I, rally starter that I am, sprint down the first-base line and am safe at first.

First-base coach: “What the hell was that, McGrath?”

Me: “Whatever. I’m safe.”

Next batter: Hits into a double play. End of my baseball career.

Later that night, I was talking to my friend Dan’s younger brother, who was visiting, and he told me that he attended the game. I asked him if he saw my at-bat. He said, “Yes, that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

My baseball career ended with arguably the worst at-bat in collegiate baseball history. Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium ended with him hitting a walk-off single. Baseball is glorious.

Brian Cougar

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Glorious endings: Walk-offs and strikeouts

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