Recently, I had the chance to help do public address for another Ocean County Softball Tournament title game, this one at Lacey High School. As I watched a close pitch come in to the plate and the home plate umpire call it a ball, some of the people upstairs with me were questioning how close that pitch was.
Then I made the comment, "If it were Dick Beer behind the plate, that'd be a strike."
The athletic director who once was an umpire and worked with Mr. Beer started to laugh. Then Lacey head softball coach Mike Shern delivered the line of all lines, the highlight of my day upstairs in the press box.
"If Dick Beer were behind the plate of this game, we'd be out of here in about an hour."
We all burst out laughing. If you ever saw Dick Beer do a softball game, you'd understand why. Not that he's a bad man by any means -- personally, I think highly of him -- but his strike zone is usually the size of either the zip code or area code.
And it got me thinking of a day he was in his glory behind the plate. It was Tuesday, May 21, 1991. The site was Brick Township High School in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament semifinal between second seed Brick High and third seed Cherokee High.
To tell this story, you have to go back to the 1980s. Not far, mind you. The Green Dragons were bad. I mean baaaaaad. I mean reaaaaaaaaally bad.
"How ... bad ... were ... they?" you must be thinking. So bad that between the 1985-88 seasons, the Green Dragons lost 45 straight games. I don't care how bad you are as a team, even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time. Unfortunately, they were that bad.
In 1988, the school's boys bowling coach, Al Grove, one of the truly fantastic human beings I cherish, took on the task of being this program's head coach. He inherited the 40-game losing streak part of the 45-gamer which his team added the other five games on to. Then they broke the streak in amazing fashion -- they beat Howell and did it with a no-hitter thrown by their freshman phenom, Viki Kara.
Kara was an exceptional pitcher, who wasn't afraid to throw it past you. And back in 1988, if you had a fastball ... simply a good, hard fastball ... you could succeed in this game called softball as a pitcher. She helped to turn the team's fortunes around.
By 1991, her senior year, she and her senior-dominated team were ready to challenge the Class A South bigwigs. They split the season series with Toms River North and ended up sharing the Class A South title with the Mariners, a huge feat for a program that was nowhere near smelling the penthouse just three years earlier.
The Mariners drew the top seed in the SJ IV tournament, the Green Dragons the second seed, so it was easily assumed the two teams would face one another in the SJ IV final. But if anyone knows anything about South Jersey Group IV softball, you can't succeed unless you beat the best that South Jersey has to offer. And even in a so-called "off year," teams like Cherokee, Shawnee, Lenape, Millville and Washington Township still reigned supreme in the sectional group.
So when Cherokee arrived at Brick High -- and to this day I'm still surprised that Cherokee wasn't in shock when it learned it would have to come to something called Brick Township for an important softball game -- I was assuming a great softball battle was on the horizon. I had seen Brick High enough that year to know it had the talent to go far.
What I didn't expect was the pitching duel between Kara and Cherokee left-hander Kathy Hallowell. Then again, I didn't know much about Dick Beer to know his strike zone was wide enough to drive a Hummer through. Anything near the plate was a strike.
Ted Williams would have had fits with Dick Beer behind the plate. His philosophy was pretty simple: if it's close to the plate, you better be swinging. He never wavered from that and for that reason, I admire him. But even some pitches off the plate had to be called balls from time to time. He never called those.
If Beer's strike zone were akin to political afiliation, he'd drive conservatives crazy.
But nothing was thought of as special in the first inning when Cherokee's Carrie Alcott singled to short center field with one out. Then Kara struck out the next two hitters to end the inning.
Hallowell, though, was matching Kara strike for strike. Well, sort of. Brick hitters were hitting the ball. Cherokee's hitters weren't.
Kara struck out the side in the second inning, the third and the fourth, giving her 11 in a row.
And in the bottom of the fourth, the Green Dragons, which squandered a bases-loaded situation in the second inning when Kelly Munro struck out, finally broke through. Danielle Tomaselli doubled into right field. She moved to third on a wild pitch and Sue Fleisher put down a perfect squeeze bunt she beat out for a single.
Trust me when I say this -- the way Kara was throwing, I figured one run was probably enough. Benefitting from a bigger than normal strike zone thanks to Dick Beer, Kara struck out the side for 14 in a row in the fifth, then didn't show signs of slowing down by fanning all three hitters she faced in the sixth.
That would be now 17 consecutive hitters set down by strikes from Viki Kara, who had now struck out 18 through six. And through six innings, Hallowell had 13 strikeouts.
Never in my career had I seen a game quite like this one and only one more time would I see a game like this again, but it was a little different when the great Lauren Anderson struck out 30 Lacey Lions hitters (coached by Shern coincidentally) in 15 innings in a 1-0 Shore Conference Tournament game in 1998.
And yeah, guess who was behind the plate for that one? Did you say Dick Beer? Bingo!
I know it was taking me a while to pick my jaw up from the floor. After all, the Major League record for consecutive strikeouts is 10 by Tom Seaver. Seventeen in my world was unheard of, yet Viki Kara was making it look way too easy ... OK, way too easy with a little help. Still ...
Nonetheless, we reached the top of the seventh with Brick hanging on to a 1-0 lead. The first batter up was Alcott, the only player who made forward contact the entire game up to this point, the only player who kept the other seven fielders behind Kara from snoring.
Alcott made good contact with a Kara fastball and deposited it just past Fleisher at second base for a single, breaking the streak at 17 consecutive strikeouts. Nikki Kekevian came in to run for Alcott and stole second base, putting a Cherokee Chiefs runner in scoring position for the first time all day.
This brought up Hallowell. She went down on strikes, the 19th strikeout victim of the day and the strikeout that broke Jodi Solana's county mark of 18, which she set two years earlier in a Shore Conference Tournament game against Matawan.
One out and it looked like the ship was back on course. Mikki Lum came to the plate. She nailed a shot to left field, right at freshman Melanie Morris, who snared the drive for the second out of the inning. All looked right. One out to go.
But the flyball out turned into something a little more complicated. Shortstop Colleen Spillane had reportedly told Morris, who had come into the game when regular left fielder Niki Schley went down with an injury, to throw the ball into second. So Morris did.
Imagine her surprise ... everyone's surprise ... when there was no Fleisher at second base. The ball zipped past Kekevian and into right field. And with no one backing up the play -- no second baseman, no first baseman, no right fielder -- the ball was allowed to keep rolling toward the right-field foul line and Kekevian didn't stop until she had scored the tying run.
To this day, one word describes that particular moment.
Dumb-founded. How in the heck do you blow a simple throw into the infield? I still maintain that if Morris had looked up, she may have just thrown to Spillane and let her take care of the ball. Instead, the chaos that followed allowed Cherokee's Chiefs, who were just lucky to even put a bat on the ball, to tie the game.
Kara would get her 20th and final strikeout with the next batter to end the inning. But the damage was done. And probably so were psyches for that matter.
Brick would go scoreless in the seventh, sending what was once an obvious victory into extra innings. And in Cherokee's eighth inning, Lauren Pinellas drew the first walk of the game from Kara. Imagine that ... Dick Beer calling four balls on one batter? Unheard of!
It was about to get completely worse. Erin Read put down a bunt. Kara fielded the ball, but her throw was high and bounced off the glove of first baseman Lori Liegl and down the right field line.
The ball seemed to roll down the line forever. Pinellas came around to score the go-ahead run. The Chiefs got no more runs and Kara had her first strikeout-less inning.
And Brick was done. Hallowell, who would finish with 16 strikeouts, had gained steam as the game went along. She retired the Green Dragons in order in the eighth to preserve the 2-1 Cherokee victory.
Cherokee advanced to the South Jersey Group IV finale at Toms River North. Not Brick. I found out that day why good defense and timely hitting can beat anything thrown at them.
Even a fireballer like Viki Kara. Kara received congratulations for her 20-strikeout performance, everything from handshakes to hugs to kisses. But they were empty because there was no advancement for her or her teammates.
"This was absolutely the best pitching performance I've sever seen," Cherokee coach Mike Medrick said afterward. "I still don't know how we won this game. We couldn't hit her or bunt on her. We couldn't even slash hit her. I thank the good Lord. I guess he wanted us to win this game."
Whether divine intervention had anything to do with Cherokee's rally and victory is up for debate 20 years later. I never saw a pitcher strike out 17 consecutive hitters before and I haven't seen one strike out 17 straight hitters since.
Viki Kara deserved better on this day. Much better. And Al Grove was left to be philosophical.
"we played a great game but had no flowers to show for it," he said to me. On the play that led to the tying run, Grove said, "We goofed in judgment. I should've told Melanie to hold the ball. Viki pitched a great game and we goofed."
Cherokee went on to beat North in the SJ IV final, 3-0, but there's no doubt in my mind that if Brick had gotten past Cherokee, it could have won the state Group IV title. I'm not saying "would have," but "could have" is a much stronger and honest statement. The Green Dragons certainly had the pitcher to go far.
But don't feel sad for this team. Two and a half weeks after this tough loss, the Green Dragons rebounded and won their one and only Ocean County Tournament championship by beating North, 9-2. Kara struck out nine Mariners and was named both Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player for the tournament.
The Green Dragons finished the year at 22-4, by far the best season the program ever had. Kara won all 22 games and finished her career with 46 victories and ultimately had her No. 13 jersey retired by Grove and by the Green Dragons, a truly amazing honor for a young lady who helped turn a program around in the right direction, even if it was for a short time.
And who put on one of the greatest pitching displays I've ever seen one May afternoon.
Even if the umpire's strike zone was as big as Western Canada.