As I watched the Braves pull out game four of the NLCS, I couldn’t help but notice this crazy woman in the stands. The camera kept going to her again and again. It took me a while to figure out that she was Bryce Wilson’s Mama. She was cheering him on like her pants were on fire.
When I watched baseball as a kid, I always thought of professional baseball players as full-grown men. Beards. Bulging cheeks. Spitting. Huge forearms. To me, they were all my Dad’s age, whatever that was. There were no kids in baseball.
Now, when I look at baseball, they all seem like little boys barely out of little league. Some of the biggest stars were just in high school when I turned 60. My perspective has changed.
What has not changed is that a Mama is her boy’s biggest fan. He might be 22. He might have extensive facial hair. He might be of legal age in all fifty states. And he might be pitching the game of his life in front of a national television audience. But he’s still her boy.
This all started back in Hillsborough, NC with a kid who played in the backyard and who left dirty socks under the bed. His Dad was a truck driver, and on the road a lot. So, I assume it was his Mama who made him wash his hands before supper. It was his Mama who took him to every practice at every ballfield. It was his Mama who reminded him not to wear his cleats in the house.
I loved baseball cleats. The steel kind that made that tale tell clip and tap sound when you walked on the concrete floor of the dugout. I couldn’t wait to get out of the plastic cleats and put on my first pair of real big boy cleats.
I don’t know this for sure. I haven’t done any interviews for this story. But I know how this goes. My Mama never played catch or tossed ground balls to me. That was Dad. But she came to every game. She bought my gear. She washed my uniforms. And she stood in the bleachers over the 3rd base dugout shouting like the Hampton Hawks were in the World Series. I was no Bryce Wilson, but she was my biggest fan.
As I watched this lady in the stands, I knew that the boy on the bump was perfectly aware of her presence. Every “Let’s go Bryce”. Every “That’s the way to throw that ball.” Every “What are you Ump, blind?” Every word that carried out across that field to his ears was like a fire in his soul.
Mama’s do that for their boys.
Before the game, all the know-it-all-talk from the sports casters was focused on the other pitcher in the Dodger blue cap. He’s the greatest. He’s won three Cy Young awards. He’s going to be a force to deal with for the Braves tonight.
They were not so high on Bryce Wilson. He has only 7 starts for the Braves this season and only 15 and 2/3 innings. Not the kind of experience you can really trust in a big game like this. He has the velocity but can he find the strike zone? But he seems to be the Braves only option if they want to survive against the momentum of this Dodgers club.
It turns out that young Bryce was the Braves best option. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a 96 mph fast ball from a kid who wasn’t supposed to stand much of a chance. They needed a winner on the mound for sure, and they got one.
I remember watching baseball with my Dad. Baseball was the only sport he really liked to watch. It was America’s game. The one phrase that I remember him using was this one thing he would say about pitching. Sandy Koufax was on the mound, hurling strikes and Dad would say, “Man, he makes that ball look like an aspirin tablet.” No one had a radar gun back then, but no doubt he was throwing in the high 90s. I was pretty sure Bryce was throwing aspirin tablets across the plate in Game 4.
This kid grew up on this night. He gave us all a reason to cheer and to believe that baseball will forever be a beautiful game. The game has suffered the rise and fall of disgrace over the decades. There have been times when I thought baseball was ruined by those who would abuse it for personal gain. But all it takes is one performance like we saw in Game 4 to remind us that the thrill of baseball lives inside of every kid who has ever picked up a glove or held a bat.
There were times when I would listen to the games on the radio. A small Zenith transistor radio. Milo Hamilton making the calls over the WSB Braves radio network. I would lay in bed with my glove, tossing a ball up toward the ceiling. Pounding my fist into the leather. The game was in Atlanta just 40 miles up the road, but I could see it in my mind like I was there.
Milo’s high-pitched voice was tense. It’s the bottom of the 9th. Braves lead by one. Phil Niekro on the mound. “This is a tough spot for Niekro. Runners on first and third. One out. He’s in a hole 2 and 0. The stretch. Here’s the pitch. It’s a ground ball to short. Over to second for one. On to first for two. The Braves finish off Pittsburgh with their last breath. Holy Toledo, what a game.”
That’s it. Holy Toledo! Bryce Wilson did in fact just pitch the game of his life. The other guy who was supposed to beat him had to be pulled. The critics had to change their tune on this young kid.
When the boy now a man took his seat in the dugout after the 6th inning, he took in his first full breath of air in two hours. The floor was littered with cups and candy wrappers. His job was done. His teammates high fived him. Punched him in the chest. He sat up on the back of the bench and pulled his hands over his head with a quiet smile on his face.
Brian Snitker made his way over to Bryce after everyone else had finished their congratulations. It was just the old man and the young pitcher now. They shook hands. Words of encouragement, thanks, maybe wisdom. The younger nodding his head in recognition and respect of his Skipper. With only 8 starts in the majors, Wilson had never known what this moment would be like. He had dreamed of it. He had won a lot of ballgames as a kid. But never like this.
No one knows how far this will go. The anticipation is almost unbearable. Old men like me putting so much hope in a game played with a ball and a stick. But it’s because we’ve been there. Kids standing on a dirt field with uniforms hanging on their skinny bodies like feed sacks. Red dirt stains on their knees. Scooping up grounders and waiting to hear the pop of leather at first base.
There’s not a baseball kid alive who wouldn’t die for a chance to be a Bryce Wilson. To carry the underdog on his shoulders and put a “W” on the board. To be the guy who, against all odds, defied those who thought less of him. To show the world that even if no one else believes in you, all that matters is that you believe in yourself.
He learned all that from his biggest fan. That wild woman shouting in the stands all these years. Arms flailing. Hands cupped to her mouth. “Put some smoke on that ball, son. That’s my boy.”
You gotta know she’s awful proud of him. I know I am.