"Baseball breaks your heart," the late commish said before his death in 1989. "It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, you rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."
Just when Army needed one sound defensive play, one clutch hit, one successful squeeze bunt, one clean hit-and-run, the magic stopped. It was a cruel end to a sensational and record-setting season in West Point, in the shadows of Doubleday Field. In a few days, the Black Knights, to a man, will revel in the full realization of their accomplishments, especially the 37 wins, the Patriot League title, and the program's second NCAA appearance. But right now, all the Brave Old Army Team can think about is the fact that while they were in the right place—the postseason, battling for Omaha—the timing was all wrong in a sport where timing is cruelly, severely, disproportionately important.
If Army plays clean defense against Charleston, the lack of clutch hitting wouldn't have mattered: the Black Knights would have walked away with a 1-0 win if not for crucial errors that enabled the Cougars to plate their two unearned runs. Timing was everything: defense wasn't a key against LSU in the opening game, but it was against Charleston for Army.
If the Black Knights could have hit with runners in scoring position the same way they did with the bases empty, Army would have won this ballgame against the Cougars. The boys from West Point collected 10 hits, usually good for at least three runs in most baseball games, but just not this one game on June 5, 2004. All told, Army left 18 runners on base in both of their losses in Baton Rouge. Timely hitting, a staple for the ballclub all season, suddenly stopped, leaving the Black Knights to face the fall alone and lament the fate Commissioner Giamatti knowingly spoke of.
And if two other instances of timing—the inability to execute a hit-and-run in the top of the sixth that hung Army's Kyle Scogin out to dry, and the way Jeremy Stache timed his safety squeeze bunt gone awry that blunted an Army rally in the top of the seventh—had also been an inch… or a split-second… or a half-step… different from what they turned out to be, the Black Knights' outlook would have changed as well.
Army accomplished so much in 2004, but then had a staggering 25-day layoff between the Patriot League Tournament and these regionals in Baton Rouge. Then, the Black Knights' season came down to two games played less than 20 hours apart. If a short best-of-seven playoff series in the Majors is unpredictable enough (and it is), just imagine the cruelty of having a 52-game season, as Army's was, come down to two individual games.
It figures that after nearly four weeks off, Army's timing was wrong: not all the time, as reflected by the 17 hits the Black Knights racked up in the two contests this past weekend, but wrong at precisely the wrong times, the clutch situations when hits (or even successful squeeze bunts) were necessary.
Tell Justin Kashner about bad timing as well. On a day when he surrendered no earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of championship-level moundwork, Army's right-handed starting pitcher took the hardest-luck loss he'll ever suffer.
Baseball broke Army's heart in the Bayou this weekend… only for a few days, yes, before the pain gives way to a deep satisfaction that will reverberate throughout this program for a good long while, but the hurt is nevertheless profound right now. Bart Giamatti knew it, and now the Black Knights know it as well. Their coach, Joe Sottolano, knows it, too.
"For the first time in a long time, we didn't come up with clutch hits and we didn't make the big play," Sottolano said. "But that's going to happen. That is baseball."
That's baseball, indeed. It breaks your heart.