[Originally published in September, 2015]
I confess I’ve seen a lot of baseball in my life. But I don’t remember ever seeing a stretch of games like the first 64 that the ThunderBolts played this year. Exactly two thirds of the way through the season, after watching this team play day after day for more than two months, I still didn’t know what to make of them.
Here was a ballclub that went on an eight-game losing streak and an eight-game winning streak, separated by just a week, all within the first month of the season. This is a team that struggled in close games, going 10-20 in one-run contests and 1-6 in extra innings, yet still found time for four walk-off wins an d several others that were won in the final few innings. This same team that went a franchise-record 40 straight innings without scoring, later set a franchise record with ten or more runs in four straight games and scored 70 times over a six-day period.
No, I didn’t know what to make of these guys. At one point in June, I remember saying (and believing!) that this ThunderBolts team could win 60 games or lose 60 games and neither would surprise me. Unfortunately, when all had been settled, they were much closer to the latter, posting a final mark of 41-55, 5.5 games better than last year, but still eight games outside of the playoffs.
This was the fifth straight year the Bolts finished short of their goal to reach the Frontier League playoffs. That does not, however, make the season a disappointment. There are far too many fond memories that come with it for that to be the case.
When I think back on the 2015 season, for instance, I will probably be reminded of June 27, a beautiful Saturday evening at Standard Bank Stadium with a near sell-out crowd and a game that couldn’t have started worse for the ThunderBolts. They rebounded, though, and turned a 5-0 deficit into an 8-6 win, a game that culminated in a spectacular Max White catch for the final out in the ninth inning.
Then there was August 1. This was at the end of the weeklong offensive explosion. They had scored, in order, 14, 10, 11 and 11 runs in a four-game stretch before “cooling down” to seven on July 31. While it seemed like the offense was finally starting to come back to earth, they had other plans. In front of another great home crowd, White and Austin Gallagher combined to hit five home runs as the Bolts scored 17 times, the most in any home game in more than nine years.
The team finished with a winning record at home and succeeded much less frequently as the visitors, but life on the road, too, was full of fine moments. June 17 was the 100th birthday of venerable Bosse Field in Evansville and I looked forward to the accompanying celebration as excitedly as I can remember for any road game. Unfortunately, those ceremonies were rudely interrupted by rain. We sat, along with thousands of Otters fans, for three hours before the game – preceded by fireworks – finally got underway. The Bolts recorded the final out of their win just shy of one in the morning.
With a doubleheader the next day, I went researching, trying to find out if any team had ever won three games in one calendar day. The point was rendered irrelevant though, not just because the ThunderBolts lost game one of the doubleheader, but because rain again interceded and the game two win did not end until almost two a.m. I’m not sure how many in our party enjoyed the late nights in Evansville, but I loved them.
A few weeks later, we were in Lake Erie for a weekend series beginning July 3. Again, a great crowd contributed to a great atmosphere as Travis Tingle pitched his best game of the season. Although the Bolts lost a devastating 2-1 decision, the feelings lingered only briefly as they played one of their best games of the season in a 7-0 4th of July win the next night.
But just as every loss, no matter how painful, can quickly be erased with a win just 21 hours later, so too must we move past even the most satisfying victories in short order. And to dwell solely on those positive moments would be to ignore what is perhaps the most important and most enjoyable aspect of the game anyway. While those memorable games will stay with me, they would probably be worthless were it not for the constancy of the game that makes it what it is. Baseball is so wonderful because it is so omnipresent. While I search for those small triumphant incidents, I recognize their grander context, which is to say that they are only valuable because baseball itself is. With that context comes the understanding that even if there is no triumph, no joy in Mudville, there is no reason for disappointment because, win or lose, I still get to watch baseball every day.
Apropos of my earlier confession, I like to walk through life with a haughty air, finding it easy to look down on more casual baseball fans when the subject of the game comes up. In reality, I have always felt somewhat embarrassed by my devotion to the sport. I feel as though those casual fans have the enjoyment factor figured out much more than I do. Maybe recognizing it simply as a game, a hobby or pastime is a healthier way to live. Still, I wouldn’t trade my summers in baseball for anything.
While a faint hope may have persisted longer, any real playoff hopes for the ThunderBolts were extinguished by the all-star break this year, leaving me to try to find meaning in late-season games. As a broadcaster, it is not my job to get caught up in the wins and losses but to find a way to stay interested and interesting no matter what the score or the standings. I didn’t find that task too hard this year. What I’ve come to realize is that life in baseball just feels better than life outside of it.
When I got to the stadium each day this year, I had no idea what I was going to see on the field. I was just happy that I knew I’d have the chance to see it.