Just like that.
Without any warning.
No one saw it coming.
The ball split the gap, and just like that, the other team sent a couple runners to home plate, and it was over.
The game was over.
The season was over.
A high school career was over.
It’s the feeling you get when something bad happens and you are powerless to stop it.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this, not to this team.
This team was special.
The No. 1 pitcher on the team was injured and went from a left-handed pitcher to a right-handed outfielder.
The No. 2 pitcher and top third baseman broke his leg right before the post-season started.
Another pitcher left for a mission trip, and don’t get me started on the politics that is Columbus Legion baseball.
But none of that mattered, not to the coaches who kept the team upbeat; not to the players who were having the times of their lives; and not to the parents who loved everything about this team.
The storybook ending had this team in the state tournament. They didn’t have to win it, just getting there — after everything they had to overcome — was the original goal. Once at state, it could be adjusted.
But there’s a saying from a movie I like to repeat. “You can love baseball, but it doesn’t have to love you back.”
On Sunday, we were left at the altar.
As a parent, you can feel sadness and disappointment when games aren’t won.
As a coach, there is another kind of sadness and disappointment. A coach once told me the players matter more because if you coach long enough, you’ll get other chances. High school athletes have a limited shelf life.
But if you are a player, it’s different.
When Alek came off the field, we met in a hug, and I could feel his arms tighten around me.
There are no magical words to heal that kind of pain. In fact, that kind of pain is inevitable in sports, and needed if you are truly to appreciate the victories.
As my throat tightened and the words fought to get out, all I could tell him was that even though it didn’t help now, there would bet better days and I am proud of him.
Alek is not the sentimental mush that I am, but you know when your child is hurting.
He had just lost two games in two days, one in extra innings and another in the bottom of the last inning, one out away from advancing to play another day.
That smarts like nothing else. Two lopsided losses would have been better.
This wasn’t a punch to the gut, this was the town bully reaching in and pulling out your heart and showing it to you before tossing it aside.
But that is baseball.
Our boy’s dejection on one side, the other boys jumping up and down, in a joy only the unexpected can deliver.
But here’s the thing.
This is my favorite year and my favorite team.
For all the reasons I mentioned above, the obstacles that had to be overcome, the dogged determination by these kids, the coaches who knew when to pat them on the backs and when to kick them in their behinds, I wouldn’t trade any of this.
I wouldn’t trade the pain of the losses. I wouldn’t trade the long ride home. I wouldn’t trade the memories. I wouldn’t trade the great ride.
We just had to get off a little sooner than we wanted.
That’s OK. Every great ride has to end sometime, but it’s the journey you never forget.
This is a season that we’ll never forget. The one we’ll talk about 20 years from now.
It was my favorite season.
Patrick Murphy, of Columbus, Neb., is a former assistant managing editor of The Telegram.