The Mighty Mudhens of Milwaukee lost to the Astros in the second round of the playoffs of the Milwaukee Men's Senior Baseball League (47+ division) this past weekend. The game was tied going into the bottom of the 8th, when the Astros scratched across the winning run on a two-out bloop single with a man on 3rd.
The tough 9-8 loss left the Mudhens with a season record of 10-5 in a break-out season. The Mudhens formed three seasons ago, a motley collection of middle-agers, most of whom hadn't played real hardball since high school -- if then. I saw a story about the MMSBL in the Journal Sentinel in September 2006, visited the website, made a phone call and ended up playing in a pick-up game in Sheridan Park the next weekend. I played baseball all of one year in high school, and not very well; pitching badly and hitting even worse. I thought I might have learned something from 5 years of Little League coaching -- what if I did what I was teaching the kids to do? -- and gave it a try.
The Hens evolved out of those pick-up games somehow, and we started play as an expansion team the next spring. We had a couple of informal meetings, picked our team name (in honor of Corporal Klinger's home team) and invested, as the middle-aged with Field of Dreams asperations will, in the kind of mahvelous uniforms we always wanted as kids. Most of us were strangers, some from far-flung parts of this corner of Wisconsin. In the dead of winter, we practiced in a converted aluminum warehouse in West Bend, just long and wide enough for a couple of mesh batting cages.
We were a joyously miserable team that first year -- revelling in the joys of dirt, grass, and leather; the snap of the ball hitting the glove; and getting used to the metal chink of ball on aluminum bat. Although we held our own most innings, we always had that one or two innings a game that produced 6 or 7 runs for the opposing team. We didn't win a game that first year, but most of us believed that a bad baseball game was better than most anything else we could be doing (kids, grandkids and spousal units notwithstanding). In the second year, we brought in some fresh blood and improved a bit, winning two games and keeping a lot more closer.
When I showed up at my first spring practice this year, though, I knew our fortunes were about to change. As I stepped in for batting practice, a tall stranger was throwing like no one I'd seen in the entire league. I blamed it on the late evening shadows, but I never saw any of the ten fastballs he threw me and flailed helplessly at the curveball that dropped out of nowhere. His name was Dave Boinski, a star pitcher back in the day at Pulaski High School, and he gave the Mudhens instant credibility. In the first few games of the year, as I stood playing 1st base, the 1st base coach from the other team would try to get some information. "Where'd you get that guy?" I just smiled and shrugged. I didn't really know, and didn't much care. We were now in every game.
Dave's pitching was great, but what really let us take advantage of it was good hitting. We scored 10 or more runs in 6 of our 10 victories. And, as with most of the 47+ teams, the key was the top of the order. Original Hen and lead-off hitter Craig Kennedy hit an outrageous .636 and stole 17 bases. Rookie co-All-Star Steve Andrasic covered a lot of ground in center field and hit a timely .490. Dave Boinski batted third (.561, and our only 3 HRs), gaining a lot of respect from opposing teams with 10 walks, many of them intentional. Second-year catcher Al Gramlow not only proved a great battery mate for Dave, but also provided left-handed power in the clean-up slot. And yours truly, batting fifth, managed to bat .412 for the year after a horrible slump early in the season was solved by the revelation of an open batting stance.
Jeez, now I started mentioning names -- don't want to leave anyone out. Suffice it to say Coach Dave North (out for most of the year with a shoulder injury, batting .533 in the last five games) got the best out of us and everyone up and down the order had their moments during the year, which is one of the great things about baseball. It was a year of old-man maladies -- everything from bad shoulders, knees and ribs to blood clots and prostate cancer. We couldn't beat the two perennial top teams in the league (who look like they do nothing but play baseball, but I know that's not possible at our age...is it?), but we played every game with heart. I reconnected with an old friend who I hadn't seen for 20 years and suddenly popped up on the team (finishing the year with crucial emergency work behind the plate in the playoffs).
In the late innings of the Mudhen's first-ever playoff victory, Dave Boinski launched what must have been the longest home run in MMSBL history, blasting a ball completely over a 50-foot tree located just over the left field fence at the Wisconsin Ave. field. It was an incredible thing watch and something we take with us into next year. Thanks, Mudhens, for a great season. See you next year.