An indomitable spirit has no boundaries and knows no limits. We are blessed to know one, and we stand in awe to see one. Although one emerges only so often, amazement and heart pounding expectation always define the moment each time it does.
Witness the courage of a Kerri Strug, who executed a winning Olympic vault despite a hobbling ankle sprain. Watch the fortitude of an injured Willis Reed as he inspired his New York Knicks to victory against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. Recall the unrelenting passion of a Jimmy Valvano who, while battling cancer, exhorted all who heard his famous ESPY speech to “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
We do not often have the privilege to witness courage of the moment, courage on display. When we do we remember it forever. Jimmy Valvano reminded us, though, that we all have the capacity for courage. Whatever sports we play, whatever paths in life we choose, whatever challenges we face, each of us has within us the power to rise to meet head-on whatever confronts us.
Win or lose, we do not have to lose heart. Win or lose, we should not quit. On Wednesday, August 17, 2016, in Week 11 of the Cooperstown Dreams Park (CDP) Tournament I had the rare opportunity to witness such an effort. A team effort, directly from the pages of a Jimmy Valvano script. I saw a team that would not quit.
On Wednesday of each CDP week, all teams face elimination. You win or you go home. Seedings from Sunday through Tuesday pool play, the first three days of each six-day tournament, determine which teams receive byes and which teams must battle from morning until night just to remain in contention for Thursday’s medal round.
Higher ranked teams, those with the best won-lost records and who allow the fewest runs by their opponents, play late in the day or in the early evening as a reward for their high rankings. Teams with low seedings begin play as early as 8:30 a.m. and continue playing until they either lose or finish the day undefeated. Typically, that requires a low-seed team to win as many as 4 or 5 games in succession, all in one day, for the privilege of continuing to compete on Thursday.
Expectedly, teams who barely attain an equal number of wins and losses after three days of pool play find the challenge of winning two, three or four games in a row, in the same day, too daunting a task.
The Diamond Pros, ranked 54th in the 104-team field, came into elimination day with a different thought in mind.
The Wednesday schedule calls for five games, played at 8:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. Teams who survive elimination day must then win four straight games on Thursday to win the tournament championship. Those who rank high enough after pool play to compete in the afternoon or evening on Wednesday must win as many as six or seven games in a row just to reach the championship game, let alone win it all. In ten years of umpiring at CDP, I have never known a team who won that many games in two straight days.
In making their bid to defy the odds, the Diamond Pros showed as much resourcefulness and competitive spirit as any CDP team I have ever seen. Starting with the 11 o’clock game, they played until exhaustion and depleted pitching got the best of them, walking off the field at 6:10 p.m., winning their first 2 games before falling to their third opponent of the day.
On the face of it, going 2-1 in the same day does not sound like a lot. Nor does playing three complete games in a little over 7 hours seem all that edifying. However, it’s how they played in those three games that warrants this story about them.
The 11:00 a.m. game pitted them against the 97th ranked team, leaving the Diamond Pros as the home team for their first game of the day. All teams know the importance of getting off to a good start on elimination day. The Diamond Pros did just that by winning 13-0 in four innings.
Coach Andy Lipinski and Diamond Pros staff formed the team in 2014. Assistant Coach Hari Lymon joined the team only a few weeks prior to going to CDP. Hailing from the Diamond Pros training facility in Glen Arm, MD, and though they “did not play well enough in pool play” to enjoy a high ranking, this 12u Diamond Pros squad served notice on elimination day that they indeed came to play. In fact they set this tone by winning on Tuesday afternoon on a walk-off home run by Tyler Green.
Coach Andy noted that back home the team had “periods when they did not play their best (but always) battled through the down times.” On this day in CDP Week 11 they battled on every pitch and on every play, all day. They knew the challenge they faced, having secured no better than their ranking of 54 in pool play.
The second game which started at 1:30 p.m. saw a gritty, see-saw game as the two teams exchanged leading or tying runs over each of the last 3½ innings. Playing as the visitors against a higher ranked team, they tied the score in the top of the 6th, then held their opponents scoreless in the bottom half to force extra innings. The Diamond Pros took a one-run lead in the top of the 7th, but their opponents, well rested off their bye, tied the score with a tally of their own, sending the game into the 8th.
The punch-counterpunch of extra innings finally ended in the 8th. The Diamond Pros retook the lead with a 3-run spot in the top half. After giving up a lead-off single, a spot-relief effort by a little-used pitcher, who got the game ending outs, enabled the Diamond Pros to surprise the higher seeded team and walk off with the hard-earned win. They made a strong statement in this game, but it came at great cost to the pitching that got them there.
Coach Hari told me later that his father is second cousin to Frankie Lymon, lead singer in the mid-1950s doo-wop group, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Those ‘Teenagers’ would have been proud to see Coach Hari’s pre-teens gut it out for two tough victories in a row on CDP elimination day a half-century later.
When the Diamond Pros took the field for their third straight game they were tired, but not spent. Again they faced a team with a better pool play record – the 18th seed to be exact – so again they played as the visitors against a team that came in well rested.
Falling behind early, they trailed by a 9-3 score heading into the top of the 5th inning. Still, two clutch base hits and one hit batsman later, they loaded the bases and looked primed to make a close game out of it. Yet again. As Sam Weiland stepped into the batter’s box, I could feel that heart-pounding expectation of seeing courage on display. Sam did not disappoint, as he hit his first home run of the season, let alone of the tournament, a grand slam, to pull his D-Pros team to a 9-7 score, poised for yet another nail biting finish.
Running on empty, however, the young phenoms from Maryland could not pull off the three-peat. With little pitching left to speak of, their opponents reeled off 7 runs in the bottom of the 5th, none of which they could answer in the top of the 6th. Game over. Tournament over.
In the aftermath, the D-Pros coaches could only speak about the herculean effort of their players and the near-miracle they made happen. Coach Andy reflected on the total team effort we all witnessed, naming some players in particular for their contributions to a generally successful season.
Among them he mentioned Collin Roach whom he described as his team’s “best pitcher through the year,” and Michael Green who played an integral role in the team’s success at CDP despite having thrown “only a few innings.” In fact, Michael had pitched only 1/3 of an inning prior to the 3 innings he threw over the course of the CDP tournament. This only accentuated his contribution under fire on elimination day.
Coach Andy also cited Jacob Maiste for his mercurial defense, along with hitting 3 home runs at CDP and Collin Lipinski who “got the single that forced extra innings” in the 1:30 game. Collin’s versatility enables him to play multiple positions with equal ability. Regardless, for three games on Wednesday, August 17, 2016, the CDP 2016 Diamond Pros staged one of the truly spirited, never-say-die performances on a baseball field that you will ever see. This article memorializes their team effort, as does Coach Andy’s following summary of their individual contributions:
BA – Batting Average
2B – Doubles
3B – Triples
HR – Home Runs
RBI- Runs Batted In
GP – Games Pitched
IP – Innings Pitched
W – Wins
SV – Saves
Coach Andy attributes his players’ mettle and perseverance to the nonpareil training they receive at the Diamond Pros Training Center. Co-Owner Randy Kail “is a brilliant baseball man…my mentor in high school,” says Coach, along with Alex Smith, who played in the Atlanta Braves’ minor league system and now scouts for the Miami Marlins. Together their knowledge of the game and training abilities have enabled the Diamond Pros organization to field teams in the 8u through 22u age categories. Soon they will expand further by adding three new 13u teams.
Ever since winning their first tournament game in March 2015, the owners and coaches have prided themselves in keeping the players they have recruited and trained. “We decided early on that we would not cut any of our kids,” Coach continues. “Despite their mixed talent levels, we have a good group of kids, all of whom have a place to play at Diamond Pros.”
Judging from the heart, hustle, and persistence they display on the field, we expect that they all will have a place to play in whatever tournaments they participate and to whatever levels they advance. However they reflect on it, CDP Week 11 in 2016 will carry memories for them that will last a lifetime.