When sports don't - and do - matter

Today, at least 50 people died in a shower of terror and blood.

Today, sports do not seem relevant.

But, as the clock rounds the 11 o’clock hour and heads for midnight, I watch a school I used to spend most of my waking hours covering trying to make history, and I think, somehow, they still are.

Coastal Carolina University beat mighty LSU 11-8 on its home field in the first game of the Super Regional last night. A win tonight would give the Chanticleers (SHONT-a-cleers, it’s Chaucer) their first ever trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

Currently, CCU holds a one-run lead in the eighth inning. The bases are loaded. My heart is taking up a lot of room in my throat.

When I watch Coastal play baseball, I think about one of the single worst moments of a kid’s life I ever saw, and the steely grace with which he handled it. I try to imagine the inner strength his reaction took, and I try to summon some of it when I have to do something hard.

It was the early 2000s. The exact year is lost to the fog of my 40-year-old memory. The Chants, on their way to becoming the nationally respected program they are today, were playing at Georgia in a regional, the first round of the NCAA baseball playoffs. They had beaten the host Bulldogs, fearsome in their home park in Athens, Ga., a day earlier, only to lose in a rematch to set up a decisive Game 3 in the double-elimination format that would send the winner a step closer to Omaha.

In said Game 3, because of NCAA rules that attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality despite thousands of fans chanting “G-E-O-R-G-I-A! Gooo Dawgs! Sic 'em!”, Coastal was the home team. It took a two-run, to the best of my memory, lead into the top of the ninth inning.

The main thing separating big D-I baseball schools like Georgia from mid-majors like Coastal is pitching depth. Judging by the Chants’ performance in Baton Rouge, that gap has closed, but as I sat in the press box many years ago, it was substantial. It led to the CCU starter who had thrown a complete game to beat Georgia a day and a half earlier coming on in late relief.

Scott Sturkie was a friendly, amenable kid, well-liked and easy-going. He had a slider that was hard to hit.

He threw one too many to Jeff Keppinger, the 2001 fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates. With two runners on and two outs, Keppinger crushed the pitch over the fence for a three-run homer that gave Georgia the lead and, soon enough, the win.

Thousands of fans unleashed a primal roar that followed Keppinger around the bases. Sturkie, hearing that sound, thought what any pitcher in his position would: walk-off. Ball game. Forgetting that the for-all-intents-and-purposes home team was hitting in the top of the ninth, he walked slowly off the mound, head down, cap obscuring his face.

He reached the dugout before realizing his error. He turned around and walked back to the mound.

He struck out the next batter to end the inning.

I cannot imagine how hard that was. I tried to ask him, but for the first time in four years of wins and losses, Sturkie didn’t want to talk. I couldn’t blame him.

As I watch, over and over, people carrying wounded friends away from horror while illuminated by flashing blue-and-red police lights, I wish someone, somewhere, in a position of power in this country would show a sliver of that courage.

I think of the reporters covering the 50 people, as it stands tonight, shot dead at an Orlando nightclub. I remember, on a much smaller scale, talking to witnesses after a tree, uprooted by a tropical storm, crushed a child huddled with his mother on her bed, then returning home to a house that had no power but did contain a peacefully sleeping 11-year-old who somehow, some way been entrusted to me.

Now, it feels as though I failed that trust, and that’s harder than I choose to face most days.

As much as I miss the people with whom I found such happiness in that house, they are still within my reach. I can still talk to them, send them videos of my new cat, make plans to be able to touch them.

There are dozens upon dozens of families who will never be able to do that again.

There are plenty of social media buzzwords to accompany this latest atrocity. Guns. Gay. Muslim.

Others come to my mind. Loss. Pain. Senseless.

I pray, but I am tired of praying. Someone here, on this earth, by the power vested in him or her, needs to fucking do something.

Tomorrow, I will make an appointment to give blood.

Tonight, I watch baseball. It does not matter, and yet it does.

Throughout this day, young men have celebrated coming that much closer to achieving dreams that began in tee ball games and backyard batting cages. Earlier, a freshman stepped to the plate to pinch hit in his team’s final at-bat, and sent that team to Omaha for the first time in its history with a walk-off grand slam against the No. 2 seed in the country.

That moment cannot erase today. But it does ease it, ever so slightly.

The courage that kid, and these kids I’m watching now, show every time they put everything they have on the line takes me back to a sweltering Georgia Sunday almost two decades ago, and makes me believe in strength for tomorrow.

For me, and for those who need it so much more.