(November 2, 2023 – Carrollton, TX) What started off as an opportunity to earn walnut and bronze after a perfect regular season, turned out to be an episode of Dateline for the Spirits (40+) Fall squad on Thursday night. You can almost hear words coming out of the mouth of reporter, Keith Morrison as he mutters the words, “what seemed like an easy path to success, quickly turned into a diabolical nightmare for the Dallas Spirits Baseball Club…”
Perhaps a bit dramatic, but as the Spirits lined up against the fourth seeded Hurricanes, what seemingly should have been a favorable matchup following regular season victories of 8 to 4, 16 to 4, and 15 to 2 just a few weeks ago, turned out to be a battle. Credit to the Hurricanes for showing up with the never-say-die attitudes and simply finding a way to win. After a perfect 10-0 season, the Spirits turned what should have been a heroic game-winning three-run homerun by Travis Hitzeman into a nightmare that would be hard to swallow.
The Hurricanes started out quick in the top half of the first inning after Ricardo Franchi led the game off with a single off of Spirits starter, Jonathan Duran. Moments later, Raul Ponce doubled and just like that, the Hurricanes had a 1 to 0 lead. Duran was able to retire the next three hitters and the Spirits took to the offensive side of things to retaliate.
Eric McPherson reached on a one-out single but Hurricanes starter, Jim Crombie was able to set down Hitzeman on strikes to record the second out. McPherson moved to second on an error by the Hurricanes catcher, but Crombie was able to get Will Nash to ground out to close the inning.
The Hurricanes made it 2 to 0 in the second after Eric ReifSchneider singled and moved to second after Chad McCune grounded out. Jamie Byers drew a walk and Reifschneider later stole third base and made his way home following an error by Lester Bedford behind the dish that allowed Byers to move to second. Kirk Pruitt lost a battle of strikes to Duran to record out number two before Duran also set down Astolfo Parra on strikes.
Down 2 to 0, the Spirits eventually evened things up in the bottom frame after Mike Sopocy drew a one-out walk. Sopocy swiped second base before Crombie was able to get Kent Fischer to fly out, and Sopocy later scored on an RBI single by Brian Hackney. Hackney eventually snagged second and moved to third after David Tipton singled. Tipton took off for second after a few pick-off attempts by Crombie, and after purposely getting caught in a run down, Hackney swiped home to tie the game before Tipton was eventually tagged out after a short game of Pickle.
The game remained tied 2 to 2 as both teams fuddled opportunities after getting runners aboard until the fifth inning when the Hurricanes opened up offensively for another pair of runs. Parra reached on an one-out single and moved to second and later scored after Franchi singled and Ponce followed with an RBI single. Vince Parello made it four singles in a row to score Franchi before Duran was able to retire Ben Northcutt and Crombie, down 4 to 2.
Manager and player, Shawn Lee, who was absent from the starting lineup due to injury commented on how the game was playing out. “It was kind of difficult to watch,” Lee said. “I worry about everything and then guys almost always prove me wrong. But I felt something in the air because we didn’t seem to have that knockout mentality that we’ve had most of the season. It didn’t help that we sat for nearly three weeks before playing, but I just wasn’t getting the attitudes I would expect. I was asking some of our other pitchers to throw and they waffled at the opportunity. I didn’t understand that part. Duran was doing his part, but it was time for a different look and my reliever was turning the opportunity away. I wish I had pushed it a little but I had faith we’d get the job done. Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out.”
Down 4 to 2 and heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, the Spirits were literally running out of time. Despite games being scheduled 7 innings, the league’s 2-hour time limit was coming into play, so it appeared to be a do or die situation as the team headed into the game’s final frame. With Duran ailing a bit from a hamstring, Lee put himself in the lineup to pinch hit. His patience proved worthy as he drew a walk on 5 pitches to give the Spirits a runner. Cliff Brade lined out to right leaving one on with one out for McPherson. McPherson was patient as well, earning another base-on-balls from Crombie, who at that point in the game had been lights out. They always say, “walks are runs,” and in this case, the phrase couldn’t have been more right. Despite cool temperatures and what felt like heavy air, Hitzeman turned a slow start into a heroic moment that should have gone down in part of his rich history of playing the game. Hitzeman took a 1-0 fastball deep into the left field sky for a three-run homerun that absolutely ignited the Spirits dugout. Now winning 5 to 4, the Spirits looked to capitalize but Crombie settled a bit and was able to get Nash to ground out for the third time before giving up another walk to Eric Goetz. Three balls into the Sopocy’s count, Goetz was able to grab third using his speed following a wild pitch, setting the table for Sopocy to add more. Sopocy eventually drew a walk and stole second, and with two runners in scoring position with two outs, Crombie was able snare a line drive off the bat of Fischer that certainly would have scored two had it gotten through.
“Again, this is another moment I attempted to get us some relief,” Lee continued. “Crickets. Looking back, I again wish I had forced the issue but the guys were confident we could get three outs and walk away to the Fall championship after playing a little defense. Man, hindsight is 20-20, right?”
Duran and company took the field for extra time and just like that, catastrophe struck. Parra battled Duran to a 2-2 count and his swing was behind on the payoff, however he made contact and send a lazy medium fly ball to McPherson in right field. McPherson, a solid defender, lost sight of the ball due the low lights at McInnish Park and missed the ball completely. The ball rolled past him and allowed Parra not only to reach, but move all the way to second base. Franchi then followed with a soft single to that held Parra at second base but also gave the Spirits a force out. With two on and nobody out, catastrophe struck a second time. Playing the drama of words during this write up was an attempt to apply the feelings by the Spirits and their team skipper as another easy fly ball made its way to McPherson in right field with the exact same result. McPherson misplayed the ball that was lost in the lights a second time and the error allowed both Parra and Franci to score before Parrello arrived safely at second base. Northcutt followed with an RBI single to score the speedy Parello, and just like that, the Hurricanes were up 7 to 5 before Crombie grounded out and Reifschneider popped out to end the inning.
“No words,” Lee commented. “No words. They say it happens to the best of us. He’s one of the best of us. Not worth harping or complaining about. There’s no way anyone on that field felt worse than he did. The lights here are tricky. It sucks that it happened but it’s baseball. You deal with it and then use your opportunity to fix it. We had another chance but we did nothing with it; self included.”
Pruitt, the Hurricanes manager, turned to Jamie Byers to give the Spirits a different look as Crombie emptied his tank through the first six innings, pitching a brilliant game. Byers struggled with control as he did in previous games against the Spirits, and there was a small spark as both Hackney and Tipton drew walks to give the ghosts some signs of life. Learning from the past, Pruitt kept Byers on a short leash and turned to his catch and utility man, McCune to take the hill to get some outs. The move proved to be perfect. Bedford, one of the best bunters if not on the Spirits, maybe the entire league, dropped one to move the runners over to give the ghosts an opportunity to have both runners in scoring position to make something happen. Unfortunately, after he squared to drop down the sacrifice, Bedford ended up bunting straight to McCune at the hill. The veteran player easily fielded the bunt and made the throw to third to cut down Hackney on the force to record the first out. Lee settled in playing with an injured foot, and McCune took advantage of his duty swing, getting to strikeout for out number two. As the Hurricanes seemed to start to celebrate on the field with just one out left to record the underdog victory, McCune was able to get Brade to ground out to short to end the game to begin the full celebration.
“Can be the top dog if you don’t show up to play,” Lee frustratingly noted afterwards. “Hats off to the ‘Canes. We love those guys and we play in other leagues with a number of players over there. They came to play. I feel like we showed up and expected them to hand us one. I won’t knock the errors or failed opportunities, but I will definitely walk away from this one knowing that I had pitchers available that weren’t willing to step up. It’s a lesson I certainly learned from and I hope they’ll feel the same way after reflecting on the game or reading this story later. No game is a given. Great effort by Duran playing hurt. He deserved more from us.”
Hackney led the Spirits offensively, finishing 2-for-2 with a walk, run scored and an RBI. The team finished with just 6 hits on the night, that included Hitzeman’s three-run homerun. Franchi led the Hurricanes with a night for the ages, finishing 4-for-4 with 3 runs scored. Ponce added two hits including a double and a pair of runs batted in, while Reifschneider also added a pair of hits, run scored, and a stolen bag.
The loss ends the season on a sour note but the team walks away with plenty to be proud of. A regular season championship, a tough loss in the playoffs, and another regular season and postseason championship in another league. The team finished 20-1 in the Fall between both leagues, and in most cases blew out their competition. They’re plenty to be proud of as the team prepares for its 2024 campaign.
A special thanks to all friends, family, and fans of the Spirits Baseball Club. They thank you and their significant others for supporting them playing the game they all love.