Monday, May 21, 2012

Opening Day Dramatics

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I feel about the excitement that was the Azerbaijan Interregional Softball League’s 2012 season opening day. It was a complete and utter failure – one of epic proportions. The day was also an immense success – the kind that creates lifelong memories and leaves a smile on your face for weeks to come. Both the failure and success of this antithetical day will set the foundation for the future of softball in Balakan, as well as for the rest of the Dragon’s 2012 season. However, they were reciprocal occurrences, the failure and success; we could not have had one without the other. In that regard, I guess I really don’t have much to complain about. I guess that when I stop and reflect, this day is perfectly reconcilable and should only lead to greater success in the future. One can only hope!

I rose early this morning, soaked some laundry, replied to a couple of emails, and had a good breakfast, putting myself through a calming routine like I used to before lacrosse games, as if I were the one actually competing today. The team was supposed to meet in front of my house at 8:30 in order to catch a 9am bus to Zaqatala, where we would catch another bus to Jane’s village where the tournament was being held. The kids slowly started trickling in. Within 10 minutes, 5 of them had arrived, small gym bags with snacks and water in tow. I went out to meet them. They were anxious. Only 1 of the 5 played in a tournament last year, and although the other four had come a long way over the last month and were definitely ready for real competition, their nerves were starting to show. They kept asking simple, useless questions, somehow probing for a magical answer that would calm them down. Trey arrived with the hats and uniforms and we fitted the present 5. The excitement started to build. We then waited for everyone else to show up. They never came. That excitement quickly deflated to worry. The minutes passed in sets of 10, but still just 5 players remained. The kids looked at us, as if it were our fault no one else was showing up. Trey and I looked at each other, no answers or explanations. Everyone had been called last night; everyone should be here. I retreated to my house to call the missing players, the frustration setting in.
Each call came with the same response. Mothers and fathers were too worried about the earthquakes that had been “ravaging” the regions to allow their kids to go. Zaqatala, after all, was the epicenter of most of these small rumblings. I did my best to calm and dissuade them.
On a straight line, we’re only about 10km away from the epicenter, so there’s not too much of a difference in danger between here and there. That was dismissed.
We’ll be outside on a field all day, the safest place to be should another occur – much safer than in the apartment buildings where they were forcing our players to remain. Nope, not good enough.
You can’t predict earthquakes, there’s just no way of knowing. Didn’t stand a chance.
There was no shaking them (haha), no dissuading a mother or father’s protective instinct. We would be going to opening day with only 5 players.

Miraculously, one more showed up at the last second. Although this wouldn’t change anything in terms of not having enough players to field a team, it somehow brought life back to the team. Somehow, 6 would be enough; we’d make it work. So, trucker hats and spray painted t-shirts on, we set out for Danachi for opening day.

Danachi and Oguz both had full teams. We made arrangements to have a couple of Oguz’s extra players join our team for the day. At first, I felt embarrassed. Trey and I are both on the 4-person committee that runs the entire softball league. We spend much of our time working out the finances and schedule of the league and doing all we can to help other volunteers establish their teams. We do all of this, yet somehow we couldn’t manage to field a full team for opening day. It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment. That was until Danachi and Oguz started playing in their first game. I strayed away from my team to talk to some other volunteers and guests who made the trip to watch the tournament. For a second, I lost track of my kids. I looked back in their direction to check on them. Instead of seeing 6 boys sword fighting with bats and horsing around, I saw 6 boys sitting in a group watching the game, analyzing the mistakes being made, working out field positions and batting order, plotting and preparing for their own upcoming match. They weren’t phased by the fact that they were younger, smaller, or that there were only 6 of them. We were going to be just fine!
The rest if history.

We lost both games, by mere hairs. Last year we lost to Oguz 15-1 on a mercy rule in the second inning, I think. This year, 9-8 on a walk-off double in the bottom of the final inning.
We lost to Danachi 7-6, stranding the tying and go-ahead runs at second and third after a brilliant catch by the Danachi shortstop.

Our pitcher Sabuhi, one of our newest players, played like a veteran. He pitched both games and was an absolute defensive stalwart.
Muslim and Emil played like the veterans they are, captaining the team and providing some much needed leadership and composure.
Zaur, by far the youngest and smallest player from any of the teams, played like a giant. Despite struggling to catch and hit in practice, he played third base with such poise and came up with a big play in the Danachi game to keep the team’s hopes alive. He also failed to strike out once, making it on base in every single one of his at-bats.
Rashad was the late addition. He’d played in practices back in Balakan before, but had not played at all this season. Out of no where he became our best base runner.
We had a seventh player named Ruslan join our team at the last second. He was Muslim’s friend from ABLE camp and showed up just to watch. Just like Fulton Reed in D1, we gave the lanky 6-footer a t-shirt and hat and through him in the mix, never having played before. On his second at bat, EVER, he hit a double over the centerfielders head!

It’s hard to explain how excited Trey and I were, and still are. Last year, we got clobbered every single game. It was difficult to get our kids eager to play because they didn’t stand a chance. We couldn’t figure out why. What were we doing wrong? Today, Trey and I kept looking at each other from across the field (he’s coaches third base while I take first) with these dumbfounded looks of amazement, ear-to-ear grins on our faces. Where did this come from?! We weren’t just hanging in there, we were making it a game, and we were having fun! Our failure to produce a full team on the most anticipated day of the season quickly and seamlessly transformed into our greatest success. Our small group of boys had finally become a team, they had come together and were starting to believe. The whole bus ride home, all we could hear was, “If only we had a few more players.”, “If only I hadn’t dropped that ball.”, “If only I had tagged up.”. If only, if only, if only. They boys realized how close they were to winning both those games. Just one mistake, one little thing different and the games could have easily gone the other way! They were learning!

Before we even got home they had scheduled practices for Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday of the upcoming week and were on the phone with the players who had not come, telling them the news and explaining the importance of them showing up in the future.

There are no guarantees that we’ll get more players to come, and we’re still 0-2, but the future is brighter than ever and for the first time, the Balakan Dragons expect to win!

The Balakan Dragons
Trey and Rashad
Sabuhi sporting our uniforms
Emil with the first at-bat of the season

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