Today was the last day of the 2014 college baseball regular season here in the Lehigh Valley, and it went out in high style on the wind-whipped field of Lafayette College.
(The wind, like Chekhov’s gun, remains in the background for now, but will emerge as significant before our tale is told and done.)
The day began, oddly enough, with a case of white guilt … but first, a little background is in order.
I like to catch games with unfamiliar visiting teams. I’ll watch anybody play baseball. But, like a birder, I prefer a rarely seen species to something familiar.
There are certain colleges that come here a lot because they’re in the same league as our local schools. For instance, Bucknell, Army and Holy Cross are in the same league as Lehigh and Lafayette, so their teams are in town pretty frequently.
Then there are teams that seemingly only come here because they’re within bus-ride range and have a free weekend.
Lafayette’s opponent today, North Carolina Central University, was totally unknown to me. I could not recall having heard of the school before, and I looked forward to adding it to my collection of sightings.
Wikipedia tells me that North Carolina Central is a historically black university whose student body is still 85 percent African-American.
That’s probably why I’ve never heard of it.
And that embarrasses me deeply — to know there are 100-year-old public institutions of which I am completely ignorant, just because they’re not athletically prominent and my lily-white personal circles don’t include anyone who went there.
It reminded me of the way I felt about 10 years ago when I learned of the death of John H. Johnson, the founder and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.
It occurred to me I’d never read a complete issue of either publication — which seemed like a major blind spot in my knowledge of my country. We’re talking about the education and culture of millions of Americans, and I couldn’t know less about it.
Feeling like a cad, then, I settled in to watch the newly introduced Eagles of North Carolina Central do battle with the Leopards of Lafayette.
The fledglings flew upside-down for an inning or two. There was an errant pickoff throw to second, and an air-mailed throw to first by the shortstop, and a near-collision between two outfielders, and for a while the visitors had more errors than hits.
NCCU rallied in the fourth inning to tie things 3-3.
Two innings later, a Lafayette batter hit a long fly ball with the wind behind it. It bounced off the top of the yellow protective ribbing on the right-field fence and skipped over for a home run. I’d never seen that happen before; it seemed like luck might be going Lafayette’s way.
It was until the eighth, when the wind rose up and bit the Leopards. Lafayette’s left fielder dropped a playable fly ball, leading to a three-run rally that put North Carolina Central up 6-4.
Last time I saw Lafayette play, they dug themselves a hole, rallied in the ninth, but fell short.
I kinda expected the same result today. So I was — still am — a little stunned by the suddenness and ferocity of the Leopards’ response. The bottom of the ninth, play by play:
– Leadoff pinch-hit home run (to right field again); score 6-5
– Single (by senior center fielder Andrew Santomauro, one of four Leopards playing their last college game)
– Sacrifice bunt advancing the runner to second
– Two-run game-winning jack (guess where) by late-inning substitution Toby Schwartz, who was listed in the game program as a left-handed pitcher but was playing first base because … well, because fate commanded, I guess.
(Young Mr. Schwartz was an unlikely candidate for heroics. Or so I gathered from his teammates’ celebratory postgame whoops of “Fuckin’ Toby Schwartz, man!” The thought crossed my mind that Toby Bleeping Schwartz might be to North Carolina Central fans what Bucky Bleeping Dent used to be to Red Sox fans.)
As the saying goes, it was not the kind of game you would use to teach anybody how to play baseball.
But it was a damned entertaining game to watch, building to a wonderful climax. And next spring’s college baseball season is going to have to go a long way to beat it.
I took my usual 7,000 pictures while I was at the game. So I’ll stop frothing at the mouth and say goodbye to another season with a gallery of images. Click to see ’em larger if you want.