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Saturday, July 16, 2016

How simple turned into anything but on one hour of sleep

Most nights at the Palatka Daily News are hectic. There's always something to do and rarely is a deadline reached before 11:30 at night. And even when you do get done early, there's a chore or two that has to be done after deadline. In my case, that chore is posting stories and pages to our Web site, something I've done for nearly a decade.

And quite honestly, it's a hindrance for usually, that leaves me out of the loop to accomplish anything the next morning. Sleep has been my never-ending battle. I could be done and home by 12:45 in the morning and I'd be too wound up to fall asleep for a few hours. I mean, c'mon ... how many people get home from their 9-5 job and go to sleep by 6? If you do, then you're just an unusual bird.

If I get home, it's normally between 1-2 in the morning and I'm not asleep until 5 and wake up somewhere between 10 a.m. and noon. And like I mentioned above, that causes issues if there's a morning event to be covered or a picture to be taken. Usually, I'm out and either my boss has to do it since he's up that early or we ask someone to get the results for us or email the picture themselves and I'll call later for them.

But during the summer when there's very little on the ol' local schedule, I have to bite the bullet on occasion. And that was the case on Saturday, July 20, 2013.

The normal Friday night routine taking place at work, my boss, Andy, and I got the paper done and out in plenty of time and from there, we went over next week, especially the fact he was taking that next week off for vacation. He gave me his camera to use for the event I was going to be at on Saturday morning. Not only was I going to shoot the Melrose 15-and-under Babe Ruth All-Star team's North Florida game earlier in the morning against Jacksonville Argyle, but if I was dissatisfied with the pictures, I could take pics of the game if Melrose won -- and that'd be a rematch with Tallahassee for the first championship in the double-elimination event. Earlier in the week, Tallahassee needed two late runs to beat Melrose, 2-1, forcing Melrose to fly through the losers' bracket winning game after game after game to get to this point again.

So he left and I was left at work to do my normal business with posting stories and pages on the Internet for our online readers to get access for, and then I headed out sometime around 2 in the morning to go home and get sleep.

At 3 in the morning, my goal was to get three hours of sleep, take a shower and head out the door by 7 to travel west for 76 miles on State Road-100 to get to Lake City where the tournament was held at a park I'd never been to before.

Couldn't fall asleep. Here we go.

Four o'clock. Nothing. Four-thirty. Still nothing.

Finally at 5 a.m., I put my head down and figured whatever happened happened.

I was up by 6. One hour of sleep. That was it. I wasn't jeopardizing my day. Beside, this could be a quick trip for me -- the kids from Melrose could lose that game with Argyle and before noon, I'd be on the road again heading back to Palatka and back to bed the rest of the day.

So I took my shower, packed the camera and my scorebook into the car and headed west on SR-100 for the looooooong trip through Keystone Heights, Starke, Lake Butler and every small, hole-in-the-wall town you can imagine in between until I finally reached the Southside Sports Complex. It's a huge complex with numerous baseball and softball fields. It was just a matter of finding the Melrose kids and the field they were playing on.

Once I recognized the white-topped Melrose team players, I was on my way to the field, going upstairs to copy down lineups for both teams which I normally do and then just head downstairs to take accounts of the game. For this game, I stayed close to the fence on the first-base side of home plate, capturing the events on both film and scorebook.

Argyle's Knights jumped out to a 4-1 lead and held it until the bottom of the sixth. Then Melrose made its comeback when, with the bases loaded, Jase Foshee beat out an infield hit, then a costly error by Argyle first baseman Brady Shuey plated two runs to tie the game at 4-4 going into the seventh.

Melrose executed a flyball double play and a popout got the team out of the seventh, setting up the bottom of the seventh. Austin Bass led off by being hit from a pitch from reliever Alex Newton, now in his fourth inning of relief. Darius Oliver singled him to second, so a rally was going on.

The rally looked squelched, though, when center fielder Will Pillsbury made a nice diving catch on a flyball by Tyler Thompson and Pillsbury doubled off Bass at second. But Hunter Davis singled Oliver to second and on an 0-2 pitch, No. 9 hitter Kele Blankenship lined a single to left field that sent Oliver home and Melrose to the 5-4 come-from-behind victory.

I got a couple of celebration shots (including the one above) and figured, I was good to go the rest of the day on pictures. I went back to my car and safely placed the camera in the trunk so no one would see it. It meant, though, I was going to have to stick around for a championship game, but one more game wasn't going to hurt me.

At least, that's what I said at 11:30 on this extremely warm morning. Oh, how I was going to be very, very wrong in the end as the temperatures soared into the low 90s.

Argyle, heads hung low, left the field as its summer came to an end, and onto the field came Tallahassee, which would occupy the first base dugout where I was sitting. Let's say their fans (consisting of moms, some dads, siblings, friends) were "warming up" their vocal chords. I would've gone upstairs in the press box, but I actually thought the sunshine wasn't such a bad thing (and for the record, I did have suntan on, so it wasn't going to be a day I'd regret).

In terms of league size, Tallahassee was three times bigger than Melrose, maybe four. The team from the state capital could draw from a large base since Tallahassee doesn't have a Little League and it's all Babe Ruth-based. Melrose is as far back in the woods in north-central Florida as you can get. Melrose has to draw from various communities -- Interlachen, Interlachen's surrounding small town communities, Keystone Heights and Starke. Interestingly, the town of Melrose is unique in it literally lies in four counties: Putnam, Clay, Alachua and Bradford. I couldn't imagine what it was like to build a government way, way, way back when.

Tallahassee was the favorite to win this game, but Melrose was not to be sold short. They had some guys on the team that could hit the ball a country mile, especially in the middle of the order in No. 3 hitter and left-hander Brett Sellers, also the team's best pitcher, and catcher Adam Kozlowski. Kyle McCole and Foshee were the table-setters at the top of the lineup and Oliver and Bass were nice contact hitters who kept the lineup line moving.

And if Melrose could get through this day with a victory, there was a good chance it may have a good arsenal of pitchers ready for Tallahassee the next morning. The drama just needed to unfold.

So at 11:51 on this Saturday morning, Tallahassee starter Russell Rauh threw a ball to McCole and the game was under way. On the next pitch, McCole singled to center field. Foshee popped out to catcher Bo Seccombe, bringing up Sellers. Sellers worked the count to 3-2 and then fouled the next pitch off to the backstop. He didn't miss that pitch by much.

He wasn't going to miss the next one at all.

Sellers launched a rocket that center fielder Carl Carlson slowed down from in mid-run. It landed about 20 feet over the center field fence and Melrose had a 2-0 lead.

Melrose manager Dale Yarbrough, a quiet man who let his assistant coach Patrick White do all the talking to me for the games leading up to this day, handed the ball to Foshee to get the job done and at least push the tournament into a Sunday winner-take-all matchup. He gave up a one-out single to Trevor McElroy and one out later, Seccombe hit a ground-rule double to put runners on second and third. But he got first baseman Anthony Milton to fly out to end the threat.

But the bottom of the second wasn't going to go so well. Seton Bentz led off with a double just inside the left-field line and the next batter, Merrick Zweydorff, doubled to right to bring him in. But Foshee got Rauh to foul out to him, then a comebacker off the bat of Chris Jerry caught Zweydorff off guard and he would be run at and tagged out by Foshee for the second out.

Looked like Foshee was going to get out of trouble all by himself. But he was only fooling himself as Carlson, the team's leadoff hitter, lofted a flyball to right field that Kozlowski, starting in right field, had difficulty finding. By the time he did locate it, the ball bounced off his glove and away from him for what would be a two-base error. And with Jerry running with two outs, he scored to tie the game at 2-2.

It was a foreshadowing of things to come.

McElroy grounded out and Melrose left the field disappointed, but still in a 2-2 tie.

In the top of the third, Foshee reached on a fielding error by second baseman Zweydorff with one out. Sellers was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second. Kozlowski struck out. But Oliver beat out an infield hit that did not kick into foul ground, staying fair and loading the bases for Bass. On Rauh's first pitch, Bass singled to left field. Foshee easily scored, but left fielder Seton Bentz launched a one-hopper that Seccombe grabbed and tagged out Sellers to end the inning, keeping Melrose ahead by just one run.

There was still a long way to go, but Foshee had seemed to right the ship. Then came the fourth. Zweydorff started the inning by reaching on an infield single. Rauh walked and Jerry sacrifice bunted the runners up a base. Carlson did the rest of the work by delivering a single to center field to bring in both runners and give Tallahassee a 4-3 lead.

And anytime any of the Tallahassee hitters did anything good, the mostly African-American contingent of women who sat around me started getting all Tag Team 1993 -- "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!" This would go on for a few more innings in regulation play. And, of course, anytime a Melrose player would do something, that would be answered on occasion by their fans going, "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!"

Was MTV Jams on shortly after the game or going on as we were playing? I wasn't prepared on this day to turn the clock back 20 years.

Anyhow, Foshee left Carlson stranded with a strikeout and popout to end the fourth.

Down 4-3 now going to the top of the fifth inning, Jerry came in to relieve Rauh, part of Tallahassee's plan to not go with any one pitcher a long amount of time just in case there was a second championship game and arms were needed on Sunday. But after Jerry got Sellers to groundout, Kozlowski launched a moonshot on a 2-1 delivery that Carlson went back for, but just missed reaching over the fence to take away what would be a home run.

Melrose showed resiliency to tie the game up and cue the fans chanting, "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!" right back at the Tallahassee fans, leaving some fans with a smile.

It was on. Yarbrough took Foshee out and put the big boy in ... yup, Sellers was asked to protect the tie until Melrose could scratch a run out and win it. But with two outs, Sellers got into trouble in the fifth when Bentz walked, stole second and moved to third on an infield single by Zweydorff, who would take second on fielder's indifference. But Sellers settled down to get reserve Glenn Davis out on strikes off a foul tip into the catcher's glove of Kozlowski, now behind the plate.

Thompson led off the top of the sixth against Jerry with a single and pinch-runner Hagan Masciale advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Hunter Davis. But Blankenship, the hero from the first game, flied out and McCole struck out to end the sixth.

Melrose had a good opportunity to go ahead in the seventh, putting runners on first and second with two out. But Bass hit a shot to third baseman Max McKinley, who snagged it and stepped on the base to end the inning.

It was now 1:55 in the afternoon, but for the past 25 minutes, dark clouds were beginning to make the sky ominous. And just as Tallahassee players grabbed bats to face Sellers in the bottom of the seventh, the skies opened up and thunder and lightning soon followed. I headed immediately up to the press box to wait things out there. The rain came down hard on the field ... and 50 minutes later, the field was left in a muddy quagmire.

The Lake City Babe Ruth personnel there were determined to get this game over and done with. Frankly, I wanted them to get the darn thing done -- I didn't want this game to finish here, go back to Palatka, come back the very next morning and play what would be half an inning. That wasn't on my mind of scenarios I wanted being played out. And with funds being tight, I wasn't wanting to entertain taking out a hotel room overnight. So if they could get this game rolling again, I'd be OK with the outcome, regardless of who won. I'd figure that part out much, much later.

So I asked an official from Lake City when he felt the game would start up again. He said most likely between 5 and 6 o'clock. That was fair. They needed the time to get the field done. So I headed up to US-90, the main road that slices through Lake City and found Gator's Dockside, a popular Florida restaurant chain. I sat down, ordered their nachos supreme and watched a little baseball on their television as I took my time eating.

After eating, I called back to the same official I talked to at 3:45 and he told me things were going slower than anyone thought. The game was more than likely going to kick back up closer to 5 p.m. From the comforts of my car, I turned on the motor, cranked the air conditioning as high as I could and closed my eyes in a lounged seat position. Problem is you can't get the full effect in a full parking lot where cars come and go. I stayed in that position for maybe a half an hour and by 4:40 p.m., I was on my way back to the complex.

As I arrived, they were still working feverishly to get the field done, so I went up in the air-conditioned press box where there was a couch behind the seats overlooking the field. Knowing my attempts at sleep were a failure in the car, I tried again on the couch as everyone was roaming about down on the field trying to get the field prettied up again to continue this game.

Meanwhile, just as I had found a comfort level to get some shut-eye, I can hear the back of the couch going, "Thump! Thump! Thump!" every few seconds. A couple of kids were using the couch as a backstop to throw a rubber ball back and forth. It was annoying, but I had no energy to tell them to stop. I was determined to keep my eyes closed on the couch, flip-flops next to the couch, for as long as I could until Lake City officials came back upstairs and prepared to pick up the game.

And then by 6:15 p.m. -- long past how I was going to spend at the complex in my head -- the game picked up again. By now, the lights were turned on over the field. And yet, this could all end in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, Sellers, still allowed to pitch, walked Bentz, then committed a balk to move the runner into scoring position. I wasn't sure what the call was, but I had a feeling it had to do with delivery while Bentz was threatening to steal a base. Bentz would eventually steal third, putting the winning moment in the hands of Zweydorff, who was 3-for-3. Zweydorff fought off a 3-2 pitch to stay alive. But on the next pitch, he hit a ball squarely at McCole, who got the runner by a step to keep the game tied at 4-4 and into extra innings.

I was just hoping for a quick ending by now as 6:30 o'clock was approaching. And by now, up in the press box, I was so comfortable watching the game overhead that I didn't even think about returning back to field level.

With two outs in the top of the eighth inning against Zweydorff, who had now taken on the reliever duties, Blankenship singled. McCole walked, and this brought up Foshee, muzzled most of the game. On an 0-1 pitch, Foshee deposited a single to left field, but White knew his runners well enough to send them or slow them up. Blankenship, he felt, was not going to get home safely, so he held him up at third to load the bases.

After all, Sellers was coming to the plate. This young man was a game-changer both on the mound and at the plate. One swing could change the outcome. But Sellers got fooled on a 2-0 pitch and hit a harmless grounder that new second baseman Davis ate up and threw to first to end the threat.

Sellers had his way with Tallahassee's lineup in the eighth. In the ninth, he had to work out of a one-out, first-and-second jam. Tallahassee manager Brian Kelley put the hit-and-run on to end matters with the count at 2-2. Bentz fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches, but struck out on this next pitch and Kozlowski threw a strike to Bass at third to nail pinch-runner Jordan Ulee to end the inning.

The 10th and 11th innings provided no fireworks, so we moved to the 12th. McElroy, who had come in for Zweydorff in the 11th, stranded a runner on first, sending the game to the bottom of the 12th. Unfortunately for Melrose, Sellers was out of innings to pitch. He had eight going into the weekend and now every last one of them was eaten up because neither team could score a run. Sellers threw 130 pitches, allowed five hits in those eight shutout innings, walked two hitters, hit another and struck out eight.

He had done his job. Now it was up to others to pitch in. And slowly, reality was beginning to set in -- if this game was going to continue on at this rate, who would be available to pitch for Melrose on Sunday morning if they won? It seemed all the better pitchers Yarbrough and assistants White and Dan Duffy sent to the mound were exhausting all their innings in this one day between the Argyle and Tallahassee games.

The next option was McCole, another good pitcher with not quite the same overpowering stuff that Sellers had, but still good enough to keep batters off balance. He gave up a leadoff hit to Milton, but would get a flyout, a forceout and a groundout to end the 12th.

All I kept thinking in my head was, "End it now!" McCole had three innings left for his week of pitching.

McCole looked like he was going to make something happen in the top of the 13th when he walked to lead off. Foshee sacrificed him up to second, putting him in scoring positon for the big boys in the lineup. Sellers once again hammered a single to center field, but on one hop, Carlson got the ball and fired to the plate where White held McCole up at third. McElroy got a big out when he fanned Kozlowski for the second out.

It left things up to Oliver. The count got to 1-1 when McElroy threw a one-hopper past Seccombe. McCole made the quick decision to test out the battery and see if they would react to the wild pitch. Seccombe got to the ball and McElroy hustled to the plate. The retrieved ball, the runner and the pitcher all met at the same time. McCole slid in. McElroy slapped the tag on.

The umpire yelled, "Out!" But on a day in which he was spot on with his ball and strike calls, he missed it ... he missed it badly, too. From my overhead view of the play, McCole slid in to the plate under the tag. It was in my plain view. He missed it.

And that meant McCole had to go out there for the 13th. By now, I'm pretty sure he wasn't happy. And I'm very sure I wasn't happy.

"End this thing already! Someone!!! I don't care who now! Just someone ... end it!!"

McCole got a quick 1-2-3 bottom of the 13th and onward we went to the 14th.

After Bass had reached on a one-out error, he got stranded after a popout and a comebacker, bringing us to the bottom of the 14th ... and McCole's last inning he could throw. He got the first two outs of the inning, but Milton singled and Bentz walked, putting the winning run on second with two out. And up stepped Zweydorff again. He was 3-for-6 by now, and had the chance to be a hero and send Tallahassee to the North Florida title. But anxiously, he went after the first pitch and popped out to new second baseman Connor Osteen to end the inning.

The misery was continuing. It was now 8:30 p.m. and the 15th inning didn't go well for Melrose against McElroy, throwing his fifth inning of relief. Blankenship grounded out, McCole fouled out and Foshee flied out.

Onto the bottom of the 15th and yet another new pitcher. This time -- and out of desperation for arms -- it was Blankenship who got the call. He was, by far, just a "break glass in emergency" kind of pitcher. And now, he was being relied on to get his team to the unenjoyable 16th inning.

It didn't start well, though, as he walked Rauh, who was entered back into the game for this at-bat, on five pitches to start. Jerry put down a sacrifice bunt to move Rauh to second. The winning run was there, just two bases away again.

On the first pitch, though, Carlson popped out to Foshee, now playing shortstop. That brought up McElroy, the opposing pitcher, who was 2-for-7 at the point with three strikeouts. After a first-pitch ball, Blankenship put one just about letter-high to the left-handed hitting McElroy. He took it for a ride to right field.

Probably tired of the game by now, Kelley sent Rauh around third to come home, even as the ball came up true to right fielder McCole, who had been sent there after his three-inning stint, on a hop. McCole got the ball and fired a one-hopper to the plate where Kozlowski would grab the ball and make the tag on Rauh, who was somewhere between third base and the plate, nowhere near home plate!

The hop to Kozlowski was true. McCole could not have put the throw in a better place for Kozlowski to catch it.

And sadly, that was the problem ... Kozlowski completely whiffed on the catch! Missed it completely! Had the perfect bounce and blew it!

He would have had to have caught the ball and run maybe three or four steps back to the plate because he was a bit away from the plate ready to take the throw. But even with those three or four steps, he would have had Rauh out at the plate in plenty of time. That's how far away Rauh was from the plate.

It was heartbreaking. By the time the ball bounced behind Kozlowski and to the fence over by the Melrose dugout, Rauh was running toward the plate with no backup behind him because Blankenship was in the wrong spot. And as Rauh reached the plate, Kozlowski whipped his catcher's glove to the ground as hard as he could.

It was over in the most stunning and awful ways at 8:50 p.m., nearly nine hours after it started. The teams had combined to play 15 up-and-down, dramatic innings, throw 446 pitches combined with 25  hits and both teams each leaving 16 runners on base.

When handing out the trophies at the end of the game, host District 12 commissioner Joe DeColuccio said it was the most innings a state tournament final had ever been played and it was the most exciting game he had ever witnessed.

Kelly would tell me afterward it was the most amazing game he had ever been a part of. Meanwhile, Yarbrough, White and Duffy were still collecting their thoughts. White said the most prophetic words to me when I asked him had his team won, what they would have done about pitching the next day.

"We didn't know what we were going to do," he said. Then looking at me, he asked, "Could you have pitched?" I would have loved to have helped, but I think I ran out of eligibility 32 years earlier. My 46-year-old body just wouldn't have held up like I would hope it would.

White, though, expressed the honor it was to be part of a game with a team that draws from two other teams within the league, while Tallahassee draws from numerous high schools and has 13 teams within the league at that 15-and-under level. Sounds lopsided, but lopsided never measures heart. Those Melrose kids showed heart ... it just didn't have enough energy left to carry on to another day.

It was now 9 o'clock, probably nine hours longer than I anticipated staying at that Lake City complex. I didn't have to come back the next day now that Tallahassee had claimed the 5-4 victory. I must admit that whatever adrenaline I had left in me got me back home on SR-100 to Palatka. By the time I reached my quiet and empty apartment, I plopped down on my sofa and turned on my laptop to see what I missed on this particular day.

This was about 11:05 p.m. by now. The next thing I remember was waking up about 1 in the morning. I dragged myself to bed and slept until 1 the next afternoon. It was the 21st of July.

I could take my time doing anything I wanted. I didn't have work until Monday.

And amazingly, I could still remember everything that had taken place the day before.

It was a Saturday I won't soon ever forget for everything that took place on that field. I just wouldn't advise anyone to try doing any of what I did on one hour of sleep.

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