Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Team sports inspire heroes to emerge

I just listened to Ole Miss beat Missouri in an NCAA Regional Tournament at Miami, to advance to the championship game of the tourney tonight.

I won’t hear that one, because I’ll be involved in one of the most fun and inspiring church musicals I’ve ever participated in.

“Testify” is an upbeat cantata, and the Calvary Baptist Church (Greenville) Choir I direct has combined with the Eastwood Baptist Church (Indianola) Choir, for a 40-voice effort tonight at Calvary. We sang it at Eastwood a couple of weeks ago.  It’s well worth missing the baseball game for!

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Over the years, Betsy and I put our time in on bleacher seats, for 16 years, to be exact. Adam started out in Leland Little League, graduated to Dizzy Dean ball, from thence to Dixie Majors, after that to American Legion, won a High School State Championship with the Washington School team, then played at Millsaps College, where the Majors won their Conference his Junior and Senior years, and qualified for the Division III NCAA World Series. A left-handed relief specialist, he was scouted by the Braves, Giants, and Rangers, but injuries incurred in our house fire ended any hopes of a further baseball career.

The heroics in the Rebel-Missouri game just concluded were by the left fielder, Logan Power, who hammered a grand slam homer in the bottom of the eighth inning, for a 9 to 6 Reb victory. Relief pitcher Scott Bittle also struck out a career-high 12 batters in five innings of work, a nice piece of heroics, as well. It’s a team game, yet a great play can inspire the whole team to a higher level of play.

I’ll never forget one of those plays, and some of us were discussing it not long ago.  Adam is getting married this summer to a Nawth Cahlinuh lass, and had brought Cynthia to Brownspur to meet neighbors, friends, and old teammates.  

Anyhoo, Adam had gotten selected to a Mid-Delta Dizzy Dean League All-Star Team, to play in a state tournament toward the end of the summer. Coach Jimmy Slater of Indianola had several of his stars, of course, and seems like there were kids from maybe Drew and Shaw, as well as the Leland boys: Adam, George, J.P., I recall, but probably also Torrey and Joe.

In the first inning of the first game, the clean-up batter for the opposing team got all of a Delta fastball, and parked it. Everyone knew it was going over the left field fence as it left the bat.

Except for George, our left-fielder. He was playing deep anyway, and the ball was hit high and long, so he just kept backing up, backing up – until he hit the fence, which was about five feet high, and green – I remember the color, even.

As the baseball descended and the opposing crowd and players cheered, George gathered his muscles and, at the last possible second, leaped high into the air with his glove aloft.

Wonder of wonders, he snagged the baseball in the top webbing of his mitt, but the force of the ball carried him backwards, completely somersaulting over the fence. He disappeared from view for a moment, then stood and peered over the fence, apparently dazed from the fall. The whole ballpark was silent, seemingly breathless, including the homer-hitter, who was nearly to second base.

The Delta Assistant Coach, Rocky Landi, suddenly broke the silence, bellowing through cupped hands, “George!  The ball!”

And the dazed left fielder remembered why he’d been knocked over the fence. He raised his fielder’s glove, for the umpire to see the white baseball still nestled into the brown webbing.

The third base ump yelled, “Yer Out!” The Delta fans, players, and coaches went wild, celebrating the catch of a first inning, first game home run ball, that inspired the whole team.

That team went all the way to the State Finals, losing a late-night, extra-inning championship game to a team from Columbia, I believe, and it seems like they finally beat us on a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 12th inning, a well-played game for both teams that just ended up with one team being one run short.

The odds were against the Rebels winning the NCAA Regional, I know.  But stranger things have happened in baseball.  

Maybe another hero will step up and inspire the team to play over their heads. That’s what team sports are about.