A 14-hour drive to Oklahoma allows ample time to reflect on how this all started and recall untold memories experienced over the season. Remembering the winter practices at the Lakeshore Elite Training Facility, a call from the coach about team try-outs, putting on the uniform for the first time, freezing weather in May, stifling heat in June, the thrill of a big hit, the disappointments as well as the glorious victories, all seem in the distant past. Memories, such as these, are limited only by the vast number of experiences that everyone enjoyed during the inaugural season of the Muskegon ChannelCats 13-year old team. ~ Jim

The frigid winter chill had a firm grasp on us as we quickly measured our steps across the frozen ground and into the shelter of the awaiting building. As the door opened, the sounds of baseball welcomed us and prompted visions of summer.

Players, coaches and parents mingled around the netting as bats “cracked” and gloves “popped” over and over again. Amidst the pleasant sounds of baseball, cordial and friendly introductions framed the foundation for an experience none of us will forget, a trip to the WORLD SERIES!

There were more questions than answers when the season began. No one quite knew what to expect. The questions were only exceeded by the excitement and the privilege of simply “playing baseball.”

This team was challenged from the beginning. Playing in a competitive league with the best 13 and-14 year old players in the Grand Rapids area tested the Cats on every pitch. Characteristic of young teams, the Cats were inconsistent. It was soon apparent that the team could “hold its own,” but would have to consistently perform at its best to be competitive. Concentration, focus, determination, giving your best on every pitch, and performing at a higher level were qualities learned through some disappointing defeats and some exciting victories.

If this team could concentrate on improvement without becoming discouraged, we all knew that the adversity would provide the path to growth and accomplishment. Evidence of this became more frequent and at mid-season, it did!

The Kalamazoo Invitational Championship secured the team’s right to play in the World Series. It was, without question, the team’s best baseball performance of the year. In the hottest weather of the season, we were unbeatable. Six times the Cats lined up against the opponents and six times each and every player did whatever was necessary to walk away victorious. We all celebrated over dinner that afternoon and savored the title!

Remarks about a World Series spot drifted around the restaurant. There were all kinds of uncertainties. Did we actually earn a spot? Where is it? When is it? How much will it cost? Nevertheless, by the time we all left the restaurant, one thing was certain. We were going!

What happened over the next three weeks is nothing short of amazing! In an exhibition of real “teamwork”, the players, coaches, parents, and ChannelCats staff came together to raise over $8,000. All of the things that you would expect from a championship team came out when it was needed most. Enthusiasm, hard work, dedication, camaraderie, perseverance, and sharing a common goal, set an example that we were all proud to claim.

Above all, our spirits were lifted by the generosity and kindness of those who supported this effort. Our appreciation and gratitude to the individuals and organizations that gave of their time and money cannot be overstated. With the resources in hand, plans for the trip were arranged and the ChannelCat bags were packed.

The excitement grew in anticipation of the departure day. Conversations and thoughts were now clearly focused on playing our best baseball at the “World Series.” What other teams will be there? How good are they? How good are we? Most importantly, “who” and “when” do we play were questions that couldn’t wait to be answered. Watching the USSSA World Series Internet site became a regular pastime for everyone. We talked about the drive, when to leave, what route to take and agreed on the time for the first team meeting in the hotel lobby.

Pulling into the Comfort Inn parking lot in Tulsa, Oklahoma and greeting each other was a warm experience. The boys quickly found each other, explored the motel and headed for the pool! Tired and exhausted from the drive, parents headed for a nap.

Coaches bear additional and special duties. They have more to do and a lot more to think about. While the rest of us were enjoying the “free time,” coaches were finding the fields, planning practice times, attending meetings and thinking about line-ups and strategy. Most of this goes unnoticed and unrecognized, but not without sincere appreciation.

Before every event or game, we all met in the lobby. Directions to the field, time schedules and uniform reminders were announced. It was also the gathering place for conversation, relaxing in front of the big screen TV and starting each day with breakfast.

Dressed in new jerseys, it was time to attend the “Opening Ceremony.” The field was covered with teams from everywhere across the United States! Hundreds of players dressed in a kaleidoscope of uniform colors.

Speaking of the field, it was a high school football field that most small colleges could never hope for! Everywhere we looked, from the soft artificial turf up to the massive, enclosed press box atop expansive stadium stands, we saw nothing but quality!

The ceremony was well organized and interesting. The teams were introduced and we watched for our opponents. The conclusion of the festivities featured a skydiving team that delivered the baseball for the ceremonial “opening pitch.” We enjoyed attending, but we were ready to “play ball” and everyone’s thoughts were preoccupied with tomorrow’s game.

The main complex in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma was impressive. The fields were manicured perfectly. We all wandered the field and you could see each player survey his own spot. Adding to the atmosphere were the many colorful vendor tents, hundreds of fans, and the aroma of the concession stand food floating through the bleachers and across the fields.

Plymouth Wazata? Missouri Eclipse? McCallum Young Guns? Any questions? Yes, plenty. From over 100 teams at the World Series, these three now became the only ones that mattered. Beating all three would guarantee a spot in the championship bracket. We also knew that every team had earned their place here by winning and we didn’t expect any easy games. With this being the team’s first trip to the World Series, there was no way to know what to expect.

In any sport, as in life, it’s important to focus on the things you can control rather than the things that you can’t. By the time we left Oklahoma, an important lesson learned would be that our own performance was much more important than anything we anticipated or worried about concerning our opponents’.

There’s no way to avoid describing the first game other than disappointing. We simply didn’t play well. Jitters? Heat? Pressure? Confidence? The long trip? Who knows? It won’t be answered. We were told that Plymouth Wazata came in as the Minnesota State Champions. We had confidence that we could win. However, we fell behind early and never got close enough to capture the momentum that might have sparked a comeback victory.
Final score: PW – 9, Cats – 3.

It was our only game for that day and we had to wait overnight for the chance to redeem ourselves.

That evening the boys enjoyed themselves by spending hours in the pool and with Play Station games in each other’s rooms. Curfew was earlier on this night. There were two games to play tomorrow and we all knew two victories were needed if there was any hope of advancing to the championship bracket. Adding to tomorrow’s task was the fact that both teams would be a tougher opponent than Plymouth Wazata.

It felt like this game began at sunrise. The field was covered with dew and the sun was still rising over right field. It was cool enough that coffee could be tolerated rather than water or cold drinks. Missouri jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first inning. We were nervous. Then the Cats came alive! Looking like the team we saw in Kalamazoo, the Cats destroyed Missouri in a game that was shortened by the mercy rule! Every player was at his best. The defense was tight and the offense scored runs at will.
Final score: ChannelCats -13, Eclipse – 5.

It would have been nice to celebrate longer. But within two hours we would have to face the toughest opponent of the week, the McCallum, Texas “Young Guns.” There was barely time enough to stop for a bite to eat and arrive at the next field in time to play. Our spirits were high and we enjoyed the impressive victory as we hurried through lunch.

It was hot and dry! Without a breeze it was almost suffocating. At every field, we were grateful to the tournament workers who provided the teams with plenty of water. We also carried wet towels soaked with cool water for the boys to lay around their necks and wipe the dust from their faces.

If you’re familiar with baseball, you can recognize real talent by watching how certain players “carry” themselves. The way they warm-up, throwing and fielding technique, how they run, how they wear the uniform, and the sharpness of pre-game drills. The “Guns” were good. Real good. It wouldn’t be until after we arrived home and learned of the final World Series outcome that we would realize we were about to face a team that would finish 5th in a field of over 100 teams here this week!

The real value in sports is the circumstances and situations it provides to promote healthy attitudes, values and strength of character. For these reasons, the definition of winning should never be determined by simply reading the scoreboard. Unbeknown to everyone was the thrill, excitement and intensity of the game we were about to see.

Both teams HAD to win. A guaranteed spot in the championship was the prize. Refusing to give in or “break,” the Cats and the Young Guns locked themselves in a standoff for six innings. Score, Young Guns – 1, ChannelCats – 0.

By that time, neither team would leave the field a loser. When the game ended, one would advance, the other wouldn’t, but both would win. It was great baseball!

The final score will never tell the real story of the game. For whatever reason, the Cats had a bad inning. One inning in a great game.
Final score: Young Guns – 9, ChannelCats – 0

The Young Guns finished the first three games at 3-0 and the Cats at 1-2. We tried to maintain hope that by some miracle a 1-2 team could squeak into the championship round. It wouldn’t happen.

We centered our attention on enjoying the evening with dinner, some time at the pool and taking in a minor league baseball game at the Tulsa Drillers’ stadium. As always, the boys provided us with great entertainment, on and off the field. That night, we laughed as a handful of the team somehow ended up on stadium TV, won complimentary T-shirts and were given the “best seats in the house”! Tonight, there would be more entertainment to come!

We returned to the motel and discovered that we weren’t scheduled to play until early afternoon of the next day. That was always a powerful “bargaining chip” to use on the coaches for later curfew time. With extra time to fill, they decided to organize an innocent game of “whiffle ball” in an adjacent parking lot of a local tire business. It was well after dark and the lighted lot was completely empty providing a perfect spot for a “make-shift” stadium. The large building provided a natural backstop.

At some point in the game an errant pitch struck one of the large garage door windows, apparently triggering ear-piercing alarms. For those who witnessed it, the boys disappeared from the parking lot more quickly than a coin in a magician’s hand! Standing alongside the motel building they all watched as they sharpened their teenage lawyer skills for a defense. Moments later, security arrived. Uncertain of the reaction they might receive, an adult was sacrificed as the negotiator.

As it turns out, an overhead fan left running inside the building disturbed a stack of loose papers lying on a counter and triggered the motion sensor alarm. Coincidentally, this happened at the precise moment a harmless whiffle ball rebounded off the window.

Given the number of times that 13-year-old boys play harmless, humorous pranks on others, this had to be an example of divine justice and proved that “what goes round, comes round.” We all shared the humor and a lot of laughs! We didn’t know this would be the last night the team would all be together.

When the last game of the series ended we had scored a total of seventeen runs. If we could have distributed those runs differently our record would have been better and we could have played longer. Thirteen of those runs came in one game. It was not the week to leave our bats at home.

We arrived at the field for what would be our final game and discovered that the schedule for the day was at least two hours behind. We took batting practice on a nearby field, warmed up and waited and WAITED.

As it sometimes happens in baseball, everything we hit was right at someone. Of the 21 outs, St. Joseph “Thunder” managed a meager three ChannelCat strikeouts. To make matters worse, some balls that were hit sharply were greeted with spectacular defensive plays. This can be discouraging and no matter how much we all tried to “spark” the team and each other, it wasn’t enough.
Final Score: Thunder – 5, Cats – 1.

The entire team, coaches and the parents went out for dinner, reminisced about the week, and of the first season with the Muskegon ChannelCats first 13-year-old team. Resilience, perseverance, optimism, and finding good reasons for hope are all good qualities and signs. It didn’t take long to hear conversations about next year. Including comments from the boys about playing in the 14-year old World Series.

After dinner, we met in the motel lobby for the last time to discuss immediate and future plans. Checking out of the motel, the best route home, turning in uniforms and a team party to conclude a wonderful first season were arranged.

A 14-hour drive to Michigan allows ample time to reflect. What’s left to tell is difficult to know and impossible to measure. Just how much this season contributed to the growth of these boys in character, experience, and athletic ability will never be tallied or recorded.

It can be said without question, though, that this was an opportunity for which we should all be grateful. Thanks to an organization like the Muskegon Baseball Club, a group of families came together for a few months and a group of boys played baseball.

Is there anything better?

Jim Bodrie serves as the General Manager of the Muskegon ChannelCats, which sponsor travel teams for the most talented baseball players in the Western Michigan area. Currently an educational consultant, Jim has spent over 30 years in the education profession as a teacher, coach, athletic director, principal and assistant superintendent in four school districts. He coached baseball, basketball, and football at the varsity level for 20 years. For more information about the ChannelCats, visit their Web site at www.channelcats.com.