April 28, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The longer we live, the more complicated life becomes, and spontaneity, whim, become near liabilities. Free play, once taken for granted as the coin of the youthful realm, is gradually replaced by deadlines and commitments, obligations, as one assumes a real job, a mortgage, and a family. A man, thus burdened, sometimes looks at himself in the mirror wondering, Wow, when did I get so old?
And yet this process is firmly within the nature of things, the progression from youth through adolescence onto adulthood, and in the main – despite way fewer opportunities to just have a catch – later life is pretty not so bad. You could have been a rock, after all. And there are plenty of wistful songs and poems about the transition, poetic offerings that never fail to strum a chord of nostalgia in the mind. Glory Days.
With that backdrop in mind, to the game Friday, when North took the field against Juarez-Lincoln at home. It has been a trying diamond campaign in town, as for the first time since before the turn of the century, none of the locals advanced to the softball playoffs. In brother, baseball, a single school will be working its way through the bracket.
The Cougars will not be doing that, but if one were to give an award for Most Improved Team, they would probably cop it. The 13-2 victory over the Huskies capped the season record at 6-10 in District 31-6A, that middling mark belying the much better baseball that Coach Rick Valdez’ squad has been playing during the second half of the slate. The Coogs beat La Joya and Pharr North recently, came within a run of topping rival EHS, and ended the campaign with a good times Friday rout of winless Lincoln, doomed in ’22 to fail to capture a single loop victory.
The game had its moments, as North scored in every inning and got a superb 11-strikeout performance from classy righthander Gil Hinojosa on the hill. But it was before and after that made the difference, scored the theme.
Seniors Night, more like Parents and Seniors Night, truly, and rightfully so. Because Friday the Cougar Clan got together, donning fan shirts and carrying basket gifts fashioned as baseballs, toting flowers for the moms and grandmas, and giving the evening a festive ambience, if a somewhat – subtly – maudlin one. For this was it, the last hurrah for a handful of 12th-graders who knew that when the final out was made, the clock would start ticking for real. On to college or a job, maybe the service, and away from the timeless, friendly confines of high school baseball, where fantasy always stands a chance of becoming reality, and there’s always one more tournament, game, or practice. Time to put away childish things, as the Good Book reminds. (We never totally do, which is fine).
There are some folks who insist that high school offers the best years of one’s life, others who would demur. One thing is for sure: on the job site, no one announces your name over a loudspeaker as you trot to the workbench. No walkup jam. When your name gets called, it’s probably because there’s a problem.
At any measure, Friday was magic, as the Cougars cruised through an easy night against a Lincoln club that has never stopped hustling or believing, but unfortunately, losing either.
During the proceedings, some of the kids worked intertextually, realizing the uniqueness of the moment even as they participated in it.
“Ah come on, it’s not that sad, is it?” crowed one senior Coog, referring to the finale party to come, the Long Goodbye. The others cackled after his remark, shaking their heads. “Nah, man.” But did they mean it? Yes and not yes.
At one point, Hinojosa, who’s been arguably the team MVP in 2022 with seven wins and 52 K’s, a .317 batting average to boot, showed the value of the evening. First, he grounded to the infield, scrambling out of the batter’s box to try and beat a throw to first. Missed by a hair. Busted a gut trying. Then he came back to the mound, where he had been masterful, and when a Huskies guy topped one on the infield, Hinojosa raced over to grab it and fire to first. Got him by a nose. Fist shake.
In the last inning, after having offered some thoughtful advice to a teammate about relationship issues, Hinojosa loudly reminded his mates to keep grinding. He was going to work, and strive, and lead, until the very end. Goodfella.
Hinojosa will be missed when he walks the graduation stage next month, but he knows that Valdez and staff will welcome back some promising new leaders for 2023. High-performing sophomores Jovan Bernal, Armani Acevedo, and Miguel Martinez will be called upon to take the reins of the program as juniors, with seniors Hinojosa, speedy Andy Carranza, gutty Jose Mata, and others leave the scene. Burly Jaime Gonzalez, seasoned vet Adam Castro, and versatile Jose Limon, competing for the last time Friday, and so too outfielder Zander Ramirez, who led off the game with a walk and soon scored the first run of 13, with a legendary and dusty homeplate slide he will remember when he’s a viejo.
Midway through, with North comfortably ahead, Valdez did an interesting thing, which is not surprising. He pulled the bulk of his senior starters and began the fourth inning with a youthful cast of characters on the diamond. Though the newbies faltered in a few places, they came through OK, elder statesman Hinojosa still out there launching seeds at hapless Lincoln hitters. Valdez said he wanted the underclassmen to help finish the game because soon enough they will be on the clock, starting, playing, and finishing Cougar games to come.
That meant sophomore Donavin Fagan at first base, who thrilled his parents with a terrific and deft barehanded stab of a throw that ticked off his glove, making the putout in the last instant. Is there such thing as a 6-3-3 putout? Now there is.
Earlier in the night the fans saw similar defensive genius from angular senior Jorge Cavazos at second base. Along with being one of the best bench jockeys in the league, always running the chant and cheer brigade with a voice that can cut through steel, Cavazos reminded us Friday that he can play the game on the field too.
All along the way Friday, the Coogs were having fun, drinking in the atmosphere and hoping that, maybe, it wouldn’t end. The kids have adopted many mantras this season. One is “Get out, ball!” which in usual horsehide parlance is shouted whenever someone hits a long fly, the hope being that a little extra holler will help the ball carry beyond the fence. North has turned this phrase on its head, using it for instance if a teammate barely touches a pitch, fouling it off weakly. Playful irony, and always good for a chuckle.
In that fourth inning, the tables turned with the vets on the bench, the rookies in; the oldsters kept up a steady stream of banter, silly and faux derisive but actually exhorting their friends to make the most of the opportunity. “He’s out!” they cried counterintuitively, tongues in cheeks, as one of the Coogs successfully stole second base.
Junior Andrew Calderon then decided to show the coaches that he can juggle three baseballs simultaneously, a trick he is still perfecting, admittedly. The trainers sat on the bench knee deep in bats, shoes, bags, and the like, keeping one eye on the game and one ear on a riveting philosophical discussion about nails, salons, and such.
And in this, the night was emblematic.
Everyone likes to go to the ballpark, especially parents, one suggests, and there’s something for all. Seeing friends, watching kids, having a snack. Many of the parents used to be athletes themselves, back in the day, and surely they still think quietly to themselves on occasion, “Wonder if I would have made that catch …”
The last inning. Of the last game.
Three little cats, no more than 8 years young, rocketed back and forth behind the bleachers, bathed in the quasi-darkness of the concession stand. They were chasing each other like mad hatters and giggling all the way, one of them holding a baseball, the other two trying to … I don’t know what. Just playing. Like kids do. No rules, really, just spontaneous, free play.
Their parents/grandparents were soon to make their way to the field for the postgame celebration, giving of trinkets, commiseration with like adults, taking of many pictures and hey, junior, look this way. Smile for once, OK?
They were on the field. The parents. As the seniors mingled about, 15 yards away, they slapped hands, hugged (unabashedly, which as we know isn’t usually the sporting drill for whatever reason), and a few secretly cried for a tiny minute.
They laughed and clowned, telling stories about this game or that moment. In situations like this, even the kids who haven’t been friends – who knows, maybe they even threw some hands once – embrace, grin, and enjoy the mood together. They’ve been through the wars, these characters, from outstanding success on the lower level to the sudden shock and then interminable disappointment from COVID, and a hard slog this season which yielded six wins. They wanted more, they worked hard for it, and yet, this was the denouement. Over.
Valdez reminded his guys that the challenges they faced represent the fire that will fashion their mettle as adults. He wished them all well and showed once again that aside from being a baseball fanatic who leaves no intellectual or psychological stone unturned, he is also a good, kind man who truly loves the kids, along with the game.
So there they were, the generations. Parents and older, crying happily at the completion of the game, season, and career of their beloveds. Que bebes, oblivious to the pathos of the occasion, still scuttling busily about with the energy one only has at age 8, as it should be: not knowing or caring that one day sooner than anyone expects, they will be the players, seniors, on the very same field, about to vault from one stage of life to another, hopefully with enough memories (good, bad, in between, as it generally happens) to last a lifetime.
As for the Cougars, well, this was the last time they would get to stroll proudly down the halls, headed to get dressed in uniforms for practice or a game. The final flourish to four years of high school, ball, and many more previously in Little League, Colt/Pony, etc., and that is a weird feeling.
It doesn’t really hit home while the journey is ongoing and it still isn’t real as it’s winding down. The looks on the faces of the seniors were a mélange of relief, happiness, slight confusion, and perhaps a little nagging regret.
There’s nothing like it, playing the game.
And now they have played their last. What awaits, they know and not know. Down the road, when they’re established in professions and family life, though, the seniors will reflect on life, see the present with its pleasant, necessary restrictions and rules, and think of the carefree days of yore, when the day lasted forever and all you really wanted to do was swing a bat, field a grounder, or take part in endless back and forth with teammates, chanting rhymes, busting each other’s chops about this or that. Just being young.
It is proper that boys become young men and then set about the task of using their life experience to make a living, maybe help others, often their own kin but sometimes other people’s people. They become teachers or coaches, leaders in the community or just good hard-working taxpayers. And they might bring their tales and lessons from the field and class to bear on mentorship, advice, and caring for others. Some day, time warp, some of these seniors will be carrying the baskets and gifts, for their kids, on the same field, with their parents becoming grandparents and Friday’s little kids having become, well, real Cougars.
And the parents who used to be players will watch their players who used to be tinies, and everyone will cry a little, mainly out of joy. This is the rite of passage, universal, and the rituals of baseball, ancient and timeworn, offer a readymade model of time and its passing, its meaning, its import to us all.
Verily, as the narrator in the old Grimms’ Fairy Tales series used to intone. “Verily, that is the way of the world.”