GOSSAGE: Joy cometh in the bleachers
I’d spent much of the 2016 Virginia baseball season in the Davenport Field press box, up, up and away from the crowd and heat, as a largely impartial writer enjoying America’s pastime for what it was.
Over those weeks, it was neat to sit amongst media pros like Andrew Ramspacher of the Daily Progress, Mike Barber of the Richmond-Times Dispatch and Jeff White and Channing Poole of Virginia Sports — not to mention VIPs like athletic director Craig Littlepage.
As much as I enjoyed my time in that room above Davenport, when the NCAA Charlottesville Regional arrived in June, I had to put down the pen and notepad and put on my No. 7 Haseley jersey.
Stretched out in the right-field bleachers under the sun beside my best friend from high school and his dad, both lifelong Cavalier fans, I cheered on the defending national champions all weekend long.
Yes, I was there – section N, row 5, seat 12 to be exact – when Virginia led East Carolina 6-3 and needed only three more outs to pick up a huge 2-0 advantage in the double-elimination format. My nerves were off the charts even before the bottom of the ninth was underway, because I knew good and well how pesky the Pirates were.
While Cavalier closer Tommy Doyle toed the rubber and Kirk Morgan, the first Pirate hitter situated himself in the box — the same Kirk who’d played youth baseball with my high school friend in North Carolina — uneasily I recalled an ECU rally Feb. 26 on that same Davenport stage.
It was my first game covering Virginia, and it ended in disaster. Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Pirate offense manufactured the tying run in that frame and scratched across three more in the tenth off junior reliever Alec Bettinger to stun the Cavaliers, 8-5.
Morgan had started off that ninth inning comeback in February with a pinch-hit single to center. To paraphrase the great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, it was like déjà vu all over again, when, nearly three months later, Morgan kicked off the ninth against Doyle with a pinch-hit infield single to second.
At that point, I was already in my mind envisioning junior catcher Matt Thaiss behind the mic, again listening to his resigned words, “They outplayed us… Everything we try to do here as individuals on this team, you know, they outdid it.”
Chants of ECU behind the third base dugout snapped me back to reality, and I watched as the top of the Pirate lineup roughed up Doyle for two runs on a double down the left-field line and a pair of singles. Just like that, Virginia's lead was cut to one, and its right-hander had yet to record an out.
Doyle got the first out on his very next pitch, but ECU freshman shortstop Tyler Brown’s sacrifice bunt moved Pirate baserunners to second and third and gave junior catcher Travis Watkins an opportunity to drive home both the tying and game-winning runs.
All of the sudden, our backs were against the wall, our season on the brink and the purple-clad ECU fans were smirking at us. I listened to an older Cavalier fan grumble about why we were the away team in our own ballpark. Another demanded O’Connor walk Watkins with a base open, to no avail.
The 1-1 delivery from Doyle found the aluminum barrel of Watkin’s bat and ended up beyond the wall in left for a walk-off homer. A devastated Virginia team trotted off the diamond, only to return the next morning and fall to William and Mary 5-4. I wondered if my being a fan was bad luck.
Up close and personal, I’d witnessed two other heartbreaking events from 2015-2016 Cavalier athletics. I stood in the front of that school of anxious Wahoos ready to storm the field at Scott Stadium in celebration of a miraculous upset over No. 9 Notre Dame.
Irish receiver Will Fuller snagged the football with 12 seconds left, high-stepping in for the go-ahead score and posing for the cameramen right in front of us.
Then there was that plunge from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows Feb. 13 surrounded by the Cameron Crazies, an army that included my big brother. He’d snuck me plus a friend, the orange T-shirts hidden under our jackets, behind enemy lines for 39 minutes and 58 seconds of incredible basketball.
Brogdon’s go-ahead reverse was a thing of beauty. A broken play and errant pass turned into two points. The lead taken back with just 10 seconds left on the clock. The Crazies stunned in silence, as the two of us roared with enough pride to unsettle them, the nearby boosters and the President of Duke.
But Grayson Allen and a blown call had to ruin the night. I saw the ball frozen up there on the center of the backboard, and could only pray, rather pitifully, it would somehow stick to the glass like wet, wadded up tissue paper and never come down. But it did, and the place went nuts.
We got back up on our feet, the Crazies having pushed us backwards into the wall, and stood stone cold on the risers as they sang their alma mater and, swaying, fought to wrap their arms over our shoulders.
In utter despair at Chipotle post-game, the bitter side of me bombarded every single one of Duke’s Yik Yaks about the game with “up and down,” seriously hurting my Yakarma but seeming oh so necessary. But the pain remained, especially because I understood Allen’s buzzer beater had cost coach Bennett and his players a third-straight regular season ACC title. I still believe that result in Durham hurt our guys down the stretch.
All three of those moments — the Fuller TD, the Grayson shuffle, the Watkin’s bomb — were and are equally painful. The memories are so vivid, so sensory even now. Recently, I got to thinking; if I’d known the outcome of those games in advance and the aftertaste they’d leave me with, would I have done things differently?
Would I have sought media sanctuary, or stayed home entirely? The answer is: no way.
I’d rather be smack dab in the middle of tragic fandom, able to hear the air let out of a building, to see the heavy heads drop into hands and to drum up sorry excuses in the face of all that mockery than be insulated in a press box from the emotion and my allegiance.
Those three stings only make me appreciate the joys of a magical Omaha run, a first Elite Eight appearance in 21 years and a #HoosRising turnaround that much more.