"The prudent see only the difficulties, the bold only the advantages, of a great enterprise; the hero sees both; diminishes the former and makes the latter preponderate, and so conquers."
-Johann Kasper Levater, Swiss theologian.
The post-season: a time for heroes
Every deep post-season run in any sport will produce it's share of heroes. Often they are the unexpected, those players seeking to re-write their legacies, to re-define careers conspicuously lacking success or triumphant moments -- Will Crouch, David Maroul. Sometimes the hero is simply a fresh face, waiting for that first defining moment. Sometimes the hero must overcome an injury -- Willis Reed, Kirk Gibson, Chance Wheeless.
The 2009 Texas Longhorn baseball team still has at least one chapter to write in their saga and perhaps more heroes to emerge, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Regional chapter of the tale produced more than it's share of heroes and defining moments in only three games. Forced to diminish difficulties and make advantages preponderate, four Longhorns forever lent their names to be enshrined in the glorious, winning history of Longhorn baseball.
He wasn't even supposed to be there. No, fate nearly wrote a tragic tale for Cole Green, saved from certain death only by the quick reaction of his father. Helping with father and grandfather load oil pipes on the back of a trailer, the fourteen-year-old Green had his shoelaces caught underneath the wheel of the trailer and was pulled underneath as more than 3,000 pounds of metal inched up his leg, up his chest, and onto his shoulder. His grandfather frantically shouted to stop the truck. He did, just in time, but the youngest Green was left with a punctured lung, lacerated liver, ruptured vertebrae, fractured ribs, and tread marks up and down his leg.
He wasn't supposed to take bat in hand on Friday night either, or ever during his Longhorn career, for that matter. Only after the bean ball to the head of Brandon Belt forced designated hitter Preston Clark into the field did Green have the opportunity to swing a bat in a game situation for the first time in more than two years. The former Coppell High standout hit .370 with eight home runs in his final season of high school baseball, but, as Cedric Golden noted, the Regional opener at UFCUDFF was a long way from Coppell.
In his first plate appearance, Green received a curtain call for his successful sacrifice bunt, then followed it up by driving a 1-2 pitch into left field for a single as his fellow pitchers sat in the bullpen taking bets on how many pitches it would take for him to strike out. Hey, at least they were happy for him when he succeeded, turning the bullpen into a mosh pit as the Texas fans gave Green another standing ovation. Green may have let it get to his head a little, informing roommate Tant Shepherd that he's a better hitter than the Longhorn left-fielder, lording his 1.000 batting average over his teammate.
Augie Garrido certainly appreciated the performance, if Green's teammates may have had mixed feelings:
If it had not been for the magic of Cole Green, this game would have been a different story altogether. He proved this game is very easy. I think he lost a lot of friends in the locker room because the designated hitters are very jealous.
Hey, who needs to be friends with the designated hitters when all of Longhorn Nation loves you?
As unexpected as his success at the plate was, his performance on the mound was equally, if not more impressive. Holding a strong Army offense to four hits and one run over seven innings, Green was magnificent. The first time through the order, it was his sinking fastball confounding Army hitters and forcing them into weak ground outs. The second time, it was his devastating breaking ball that helped him record six strikeouts on the evening and left the Army hitters appearing as if they had never faced an off-speed pitch in their lives.
Sometimes baseball is an easy game, according to the Longhorn head coach:
Cole proved this game really is not that difficult. You get the ball. You throw it over the plate. You strike people out. You give them one run. You give them four hits. You lay down a perfect bunt. Practicing is very overrated for Cole. He walks up with two strikes and hits a single to left. Nothing to it. It was a brilliant moment for him.
On Friday evening, it did truly appear easy for the Longhorn sophomore as he become the first Longhorn hero of the weekend, but certainly not the last.
A rubber arm and superhuman will
Navigating through the several thousand comments from the multiple game threads isn't exactly at the top of my list of things to do at this point, but suffice it to say that Austin Wood proved me wrong many times as Saturday evening turned to Sunday morning. After roughly the ninth inning concluded, I stated seemingly every inning that I thought Wood would have to come out of the game. By about his seventh inning of work or so, I recognized the futility of my statements and simply sat back in awe of what I was witnessing.
What exactly I was witnessing wouldn't truly sink in until after moving past the concerns for Wood's overused left arm -- an incredible pitching performance above and beyond anything I had ever seen and likely will ever see. I think we can all believe Augie Garrido when he said that it was the greatest pitching performance he had ever seen, which is no small feat considering the 41 years Garrido has spent in the business of college baseball and the thousands of games that time encompasses.
The numbers nearly tell the story themselves: 13 innings pitched, two hits allowed, no runs, 14 strikeouts, three walks, 46 batters faced, 169 pitches, 120 pitches thrown for strikes, 12.1 innings of no-hit baseball, one new Longhorn hero. For each of the last 11.2 innings, each pitch that Wood threw could have been his last as a visiting pitcher on his own home field. Each out that he recorded after retiring the second became the longest outing of his season, one day after pitching two innings and throwing 30 pitches to save the game against Army.
It wasn't just the fact that Wood's left arm could withstand the 169 pitches thrown without falling off, it was the fact that he fought exhaustion and dehydration and cramping in the 15th inning, but still kept pitching. When Augie Garrido and Skip Johnson stood in the dugout discussing whether they should remove their valuable closer from the game, Wood wasn't having any of it.
"I'm not coming out of this game. This is my game. We need it," said Wood, unconcerned about anything other than helping his team win.
Wood would keep his word, drinking so much Gatorade, Pedialyte, and water between innings (he estimates about 30 cups) that he eventually threw up after the 17th inning because he had drank more than his body could handle -- more than 200 ounces in total. Still, Wood refused to leave the game, stretching with the help of the Longhorn trainer between innings.
For Wood, it became about more than winning the game -- it was about having fun, enjoying the incredible moment:
I'd come into the bench, and all I could do was laugh. What an incredible ball game! I was so involved in the moment, but I knew what a great game it was, what a fun game it was -- the funnest, easily, that I've ever been involved in. And if I'm never involved in a more fun game than that, fine; I mean, who ever could be in a game this enjoyable? And every time I'd come in, the guys would say, 'Hey, don't worry, we'll pick you up. We'll score this inning.'
The offense never did, but that just added to the incredible mystique of the game.
When Wood finally did leave the game after allowing two baserunners in the 20th inning, he did so defiantly, telling Skip Johnson that he could keep on pitching, even as the Longhorn fans saluted his performance by chanting his name. The chants subsided into the full-throated roar of the Texas faithful, as even the Boston College players, in a show of tremendous class, stood in their own dugout and applauded Wood's effort. Two even gave him what Alan Trubow aptly described as the "worship treatment," no doubt as happy to see him leave the mound as they were impressed.
Boston College's Barry Butera, standing on second base after getting one of the two base hits against Wood and advancing on the subsequent hit batsman, was certainly happay to see him go. "Thank God he's out of the game," Longhorn second baseman Travis Tucker heard him say.
Despite not wanting to come out of the game, the moment was a memorable one for Wood:
The coolest feeling I ever had on a baseball field. I can't lie. I wanted to soak in every second of it. The BC kids, what class. That was incredible. I just wanted to make sure I enjoyed the best moment I've ever had in baseball. But I wasn't satisfied. Not at all. We had to win this game.
And win the Longhorns eventually would more than four innings later, thanks to Wood's epic performance, which was the best athletic performance that Texas president William Powers ever saw, as he would inform Wood after the game.
When Wood finally fell asleep in the early hours of Sunday morning, he did so with a smile on his face, one that remained firmly implanted there when he awoke, even as the soreness in his arm set in.
It's hard to keep from smiling when you've put your name among the greatest ever to wear a Longhorn uniform, in any sport. It's hard to keep from smiling when you're a newly-minted Longhorn hero.
The Glove Man becomes the Hit Man
Brandon Loy arrived at the University of Texas with a reputation. A reputation as a slick-fielding shortstop, the vacuum cleaner of the infield and a potential savior for the terrible Longhorn infield defense the year before.
Early in the season, the problem was that Loy was't doing anything other than fielding, hitting .222 while playing third base. Everything changed when Loy switched back his natural position at shortstop to replace the struggling David Hernandez, who had committed eight errors at the position. Since then, Loy has hit .370, including a 9-14 performance in Oklahoma City in helping the Longhorns win the Big 12 Tournament that earned him recognition as the Most Outstanding Player.
Before Preston Clark could become the ultimate hero of the Longhorn comeback from down 10-6 in the ninth inning, Brandon Loy nearly stole his thunder. With the bases loaded and his team down 10-7, Loy hammered a ball into left-center field that hit near the top of the wall and cleared the bases, tying the game at 10 and graciously allowing his teammate Clark (aka "old Papa") to take center stage...
The definition of re-definition
Heading into the Big 12 Tournament, it was easy to see Preston Clark's last season of eligibility as a lost season. Highly touted out of high school as the replacement to Taylor Teagarden, Clark persevered through a knee injury that kept him out of the 2007 post-season and two shoulder surgeries. He accepted the role of utility player during his last season on the 40 Acres, remaining the consummate teammate, filling in where he could, but struggling at the plate, hitting only .236 at the end of the regular season.
The road to redemption began against Missouri in the championship game, when he took advantage of an injured Cameron Rupp to homer in a rare start behind the plate, his first of the season. Perhaps the power stroke was returning for Clark, who worked hard to diligently rehab his surgically-repaired shoulder.
On Fiday night, Clark was called on again to fill in, this time for the injured Brandon Belt. Stepping in at first base from his designated hitter role, Clark went 2-4 and scored two critical runs -- the difference in the ball game. The following day, Cark went 4-11, enough to keep earn a fateful spot in the Sunday lineup as the designated hitter. In the midst of a 8-19 streak at the plate, Clark had raised his average almost 30 points in only four games. The swing that helped make him a top prospect out of high school had returned.
So it was that the only remaining member of the 2005 National Championship team (he didn't play that season as he focused on academics) stepped to the plate for the biggest at-bat of his collegiate career.
It was the type of moment that kids dream about playing baseball in the backyard on a hot summer evening with their friends. Bases loaded. Tie ball game. Bottom of the ninth. Perhaps Preston Clark was once such a child.
On Sunday evening, however, he was a grown man carrying a big bat. On the first pitch he saw from Kevin McKague, the senior from Rockwall launched the ball down the leftfield line into the darkness of the Austin evening. The only drama was whether the ball would remain fair, as another potential game-winner did not the night before against Boston College. Straining against the wind pushing the ball towards the foul pole, it disappeared over the Boston College bullpen, just fair.
Clark, nearly speechless after the game, said he was a child who dreamed of such moments:
I'm still in shock. I can't express the feelings I have and excitement that goes along with that. It's not something everybody gets to experience. For me to be able to do that, it's an unbelievable feeling. I can't even tell you. As a little kid, that's what you dream about doing. You want to end a game like that, and that dream came true for me. I have many dreams, and that's one of them. I'll be smiling for the next week. I won't ever stop smiling. I don't even know what to say right now.
No longer was Preston Clark the once-heralded catching prospect with a career derailed by injuries. No, those injuries, with one swing of the bat, became nothing more than a setback, difficulties for the hero to diminish. Yes, with one mighty swing, Preston Clark re-defined his Longhorn career, becoming a Longhorn hero for the ages.
A time for believing
There's a tipping point for each fan in their relationship with a successful sports team, that moment when a desire to believe becomes full-fledged belief itself. The moment when skepticism falls by the wayside, replaced with a deep, abiding love and the conviction that, no matter what, the team will overcome. The birth of that spiritual confidence that breeds belief. The knowledge that enough magic surrounds the team to carry it to victory. Don't believe me? Take it from Zen Master Augie himself:
There's something spiritual about baseball. It's like Mother Nature, and you don't mess with it. We've experienced it two nights in a row, and they help a team reach that level of invincibility that allows them to win a national championship. If we hold onto this confidence, all things are attainable.
Hold onto that confidence, Longhorns. I will. With it, a trip to Omaha is possible. Perhaps even more than just the trip.