Brendan Sagara

Life In The Minors

By Brendan Sagara

Sunday, August 19, 2001

Pressure piles up on
pitching coach

YESTERDAY was one for the annals of the Dubois County Dragons franchise.

Besides the fact that we are in a neck-and-neck pennant race with the Springfield Capitals for first place in the Frontier League West Division, there was a sticky tension and excitement that is quite unusual for a ballgame at our League Stadium.

There was a funny, Twilight Zone kind of feel from the second I awoke.

Our team was hosting a home run challenge in which a selected fan would get one swing to hit a homer and win $10,000 at the conclusion of the seventh inning.

There was one catch -- it would be me throwing the pitch. A little pressure for the pitching coach, considering that the $10,000 award would probably cost the franchise the remainder of the season. Dead last in league attendance, our front office is desperate to fill some seats.

Apparently, winning is not enough. At 42-30 and in first place in the division for a large part of the season, the on-field results and game action have not drawn the people of the sleepy town of Huntingburg, Ind., population 5,000.

So in the hopes of increasing attendance at least a bit, our field manager came up with the home run challenge. He was certain, absolutely certain that no one could possibly hit a homer on their first swing off a former minor league pitcher.

So basically, I was pitching for our entire season -- the drive for the pennant, all the winning streaks and losing streaks and injuries and great performances and miscues and tolerating the 100-degree Indiana heat.

But, back to actual baseball, where we were under pressure to maintain our recent winning ways. Over the last 10 games, our 7-3 record was the best in the Frontier League, but we haven't been able to shake the Capitals. Winning is a necessity this time of the year, and we had our lefty, Cody Fisher, going against the Gateway Grizzlies.

The last two times Cody faced the Grizzlies, he was chased before he finished the fourth inning. Not the most comforting thought.

So the game started. Inning after inning, Cody mowed down the Grizzlies. He mixed his live fastball with a devastating change-up and a rapidly improving curveball to pile up zero after zero on the scoreboard.

Whenever he was on the mound, I was gripped, as usual, trying to see each and every twist and turn of his wind-up, and staying aware of the situations he would face during the game.

But whenever we were batting, and I was awarded the luxury of easing my attention to the game a little bit, "The Pitch" loomed over my head. To make things worse, our front office wanted me to float the ball up there to the contestant. If I was allowed to throw at my usual pitching speed, I would be a lot less worried about it all.

At the beginning of the seventh, I took a stroll to the bullpen to relax. Just to get out of the dugout for a minute or two. Wrong move. The entire time I stayed in the pen, all the relief pitchers started asking me if I was nervous, what pitch I was going to throw, and what if the ball goes over the fence, and how soon would we have to start having bake sales and car washes to salvage our season.

I had to leave.

Back to the dugout and back to work, where our British pitcher-comedian had somehow snuck himself into our mascot, Louie D. Dragon's get-up. There he was, a 23-year-old finely tuned professional athlete, racing little grade-schoolers around the bases in the green and gold dragon suit.

Before I knew it, the seventh was over, and it was my time to go save the season.

So I started tossing with our catcher on the field, working my way back to the mound. My strategy was to warm-up with some heaters, and make the contestant expect a blazing fastball, and then lollipop a half-speed floater across the plate.

There I was, throwing my fastball into the upper-80s. The glove popped and the crowd cheered. I was trying to make the 40-year-old male contestant a little uneasy. And he was. I saw him making some funny facial expressions as he took a quick hitting tip from Gateway's manager, Champ Summers, formerly of the Detroit Tigers.

Now the time had come. And the fans got on their feet and went nuts, stomping, cheering, and yelling -- even louder than in one of our six ninth-inning wins this season and louder even than our capacity crowd at our 4th of July game.

I threw three pitches total to the contestant. The first two floaters were strikes, right on the outside corner. But the contestant was a little more clever than we thought. He took two pitches, timing them and sizing them up.

The third was another floater. It started-out at his chest and floated down to the belt, just about where the world's best sluggers like it. And then the loud crack of the bat. The ball was hit on the sweet spot.

Dead solid perfect.

As the ball climbed to its peak, the crowd went nuts.

They screamed, and cheered, and yelled as the ball raced for left field ... where it settled nicely in the outfield grass, about 180-feet away from the plate.

I guess that means we get to play another day.

Over the next two innings, Cody went back to work on the Grizzlies, putting the wraps on his first professional complete-game shutout with a two-out strikeout of David Lara, one of the Frontier League's top sluggers with 11 homers.

Another win for the Dragons in a must-win situation.

There will be two more of these tension-filled games, and two more home run challenges over the next two days, and then I can sleep well knowing I didn't cost us our jobs and our dreams.


Brendan Sagara, a former University of Hawaii-Hilo pitcher,
is in his first season as a pitching coach for the
Dubois County (Ind.) Dragons

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