By Rick Nolte, Sports Editor
“If you stay in this racket long enough kid, you’ll see everything.”
The quote came from Ernie Salvatore, a former sports columnist for my hometown newspaper in Huntington, W. Va. He said it in the late 1970s when I was a young sports writer working along side him at a game early in a 20-year association that began with him as my mentor and ended with me as his editor.
I recalled that line from Ernie, who was still penning a column a week for the paper when he died in 2009 at 87, while covering a high school baseball game four years ago in Dublin, Ga. In all the years I’d covered baseball from Little League to the Majors, I finally witnessed a triple play, one that oddly enough started on a fly ball to right field.
My mind returned to Ernie again Thursday night during the Lake Placid-Lemon Bay District 5A-12 baseball championship. Lemon Bay had just taken the lead with the help of consecutive plays I’d never seen at any level in my 40 years writing sports.
Lake Placid’s catcher and third baseman dropped foul popups off the bat of the Manta Rays’ Warnner Rincones on back-to-back pitches. The deliveries from relief pitcher Angel Ojeda came on 3-2 counts with two outs, the bases loaded and Lake Placid clinging to a 5-4 lead.
As fate would have it, given a third chance following the miscues, Rincones made the visitors pay by smacking a double to clear the bases and seal a 7-5 victory in a game the underdog Dragons likely should’ve won.
But championships are often as much the result of the victor capitalizing on the opponent’s misfortune as flawless execution of its own. That was Lemon Bay on Thursday night.
Rincones, just a sophomore, but owning a baseball pedigree, understood the magnitude of the reprieve he’d been given with the game on the line. He called the course of his at-bat courtesy of the two misplayed foul pop-ups “crazy” and “unbelievable.”
“I knew I had to put the ball in play and bring in those runs (after those two missed pop-ups),” said Rincones, who’s father, Wuarnner, is a former minor leaguer and now a coach with the Gulf Coast League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Manta Rays coach Casey Hanrahan, who’s 28 years old and been associated with baseball since he was not much taller than the bats his players use now, said he’d never seen two muffs on foul pops back-to-back.
It’s my bet everyone at Thursday’s game is right along me, Rincones and his coach in this first-ever department. That’s why Hanrahan’s post-game comments were stamped with how luck changed for his team somewhere in the middle of the game and that the Mantas were fortunate to win because Lake Placid “played their hearts out.”
That the Manta Rays needed any late rally — lucky or not — was a surprise given the history between the schools this season. Pitcher Trey Fields had shut out Lake Placid 2-0 and 5-0, respectively, in their regular-season meetings.
In this one, however, the Dragons got to the right-hander for three runs in the first inning and two more in the third to lead 5-0. They finally chased him with a walk to start the fourth.
“I don’t think anybody there thought we would come out and do what we did,” coach Tim Ferguson told Jeff Gardenour of the Sebring News-Sun.
Lake Placid was up 5-2 after the Manta Rays parlayed a pair of walks from pitcher Justin Mason, a ground out and their first hit in the bottom of the fourth. The Dragons still had a chance to go to the final frame leading 5-3 after allowing an unearned run early in the sixth and then getting two outs.
However, a second straight booted ground ball that should’ve been the inning’s third out put a runner on base. That’s where Mason lost his control and walked the next three hitters to force in a run and bring on Ojeda.
That set the stage for Rincones’ heroics courtesy of two straight mistakes the likes of which the Lake Placid and Lemon Bay players may never see repeated in their lifetimes.
Then again, who could’ve thought this game would turned on that freakish scenario.
“It’s high school baseball,” Hanrahan said. “Anything can happen on any given night.”
Or, as my late colleague said, if you’re in the racket long enough …