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Endings and new beginnings

Posted: June 26th, 2015 | Columns, Featured, Fitness, Sports & Fitness | No Comments

By Jeff Praught | Dugout Chatter

Firestorm caps exciting end to season

June 21 marked the final day of the spring season in America’s Finest City Softball League (AFCSL), and per usual, the day culminated with exciting finishes both in the games and the final standings. While every team that earned a berth to the World Series should be congratulated, one team, in particular, merits recognition because of the journey they have traveled over the course of the past couple of seasons.

Let me tell you a story about the Rich’s Firestorm softball team.

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A Rich’s Firestorm player at bat (Photo by Jeff Praught)

The team toting jerseys that look like something out of the Electronic Daisy Carnival had been a perennial doormat in AFCSL’s C Division for several years. In truth, the focus of the team was not squarely centered on winning — fair enough in what amounts to a casual recreation league — but over the past three seasons, this squad added a player or two with reputable skills and slowly but surely began winning games.

Firestorm finished a respectable middle-of-the-pack in 2014, giving some of the older teams fits with their dynamic speed on defense and running the bases. But to refer to them as “a team of twinks,” as many league veterans do, does an injustice to the team that finished 14-9 and in third place this year, its first winning season on record.

This team may be young, but it is sprinkled with veterans who helped teach the younger guys how to battle in close games. Both in tournaments and league play, the current roster has found ways to fight back from deficits when they would have collapsed in years’ prior.

“Previous teams I have been on would probably have given up in the same circumstances, but not this one and I think that made the difference in our season,” said outfielder Eric Shadek.

Part of that learning curve comes from experience, but learning to win also comes from learning from veterans who have run the gamut before. Veterans such as Shadek, Brian Burnett and Zeke Thomas, who won multiple tournament and division titles with the former C division stalwart Outlaws, joined Rich’s Firestorm after the 2014 season.

The middle infield features youngsters Gabe Lopez and Matty Anderson, each being lightning-quick. Lopez, in particular, boasts a terrific arm that would rank among the top five in the B division, a landing spot he is sure to find himself in shortly if he keeps improving at his current pace.

The outfield is manned by a pack of cheetahs, as Matthews, Anthony Pineda, Shadek, and Kenny Willeford attack balls in the gap like raptors. Willeford is also blessed with a cannon of an arm, daring anyone to try and take an extra base on the left-centerfielder.

Burnett, a long-time league vet and one of the best players in C Division for a long time, mans third base on occasion, but has taken a back seat to newcomers, allowing them the opportunity to flourish. Shawn Renkin provides a power threat at first base, while David Pence and Matt Forte give the team a pair of reliable pitchers. Chris Barna and Charles “CJ” Jacobsen are among other solid contributors. Firestorm plays excellent defense, and usually goes as far as their bats take them. In the C Division playoffs, it looked like their bats might doom them.

When the Breakers won the division, they grabbed an automatic World Series berth. Second-place Wicked was not going to be able to attend the Series, which lifted Firestorm to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a bye. They would face the winner of the third and fourth seeds, the Bruins and Loft C. In that first game, The Loft grabbed an early lead and ran away with a relatively easy 12-3 victory.

The Loft, it should be noted, is a mostly-veteran team of players who have been around the league for 20 years. A lot of people would have loved to have seen the likes of Tim Bactad, Troy Camacho, Kent Hammond and Paul Shepard (to name a few) earn a Series berth so late in their career. And when their team jumped out to a 2-0 lead into the third inning of the C finals, the heavily favored Firestorm had every reason to be nervous.

Firestorm finally scratched out a run in the bottom of the third, which may have helped ease the tension. When the Loft could not mount a rally in the top of the 4th, Firestorm responded with an eight-run rally that essentially announced that they belonged in the Series. The Loft could not answer, and Firestorm was headed to Columbus, Ohio.

What makes Firestorm such a pleasure to watch is not just that they are a bunch of fun, young guys. It is their transformation from a bunch of undisciplined guys who always figured they would find a way to lose a game, to a unit that never believes they are out of any game. That’s inspiring.

And one should not underestimate the power of motivation guiding this team in 2015: the Firestorm are the team of Mike Petracca, the player who suffered critical brain injuries when hit by a flying bat at a tournament in January. Though Mike has not fully recovered from the incident, he did return to play in a few games this season. His fight against the odds has been an inspiration to everyone who knows him, and his teammates certainly rallied around him.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this team,” Matthews said. “It’s an amazing feeling to watch a team of friends grow together and actually become as competitive as we have.”

Elsewhere in the league

Every team in B was granted a berth to the Series, but special congratulations go out to Rob Harris and the FilmOut Strike Force, which captured its first division title with a fantastic 22-3 record, edging out national powerhouse Spikes.

In the D Division, Shade captured the division title on the final day, edging out Babycakes. George Biagi’s Babycakes team is every bit the remarkable story that Firestorm was, but they do not share the happy ending in common, as the third place Redwing Rebels took down Babycakes in the D playoffs, following their own impressive season, and will join Shade at the World Series.

Leadership change in AFCSL

With new division winners and new teams earning World Series berths, AFCSL looks remarkably different than it did even just two years ago and another large change is coming. Commissioner Roman Jimenez ran for a third term in league elections but was beaten by Burnett, a former Commissioner.

There will be time to talk about the future of the league under the capable Burnett, but it’s time to look back at some of the wonderful things that the otherwise polarizing Jimenez has done for AFCSL.

Running an organization means being able to take a lot of bullets, and Jimenez has handled himself quite well during a tenure that has seen constant complaining from a small core of veterans who could have run for office and contributed their voices, but never did. Having served on the board with Jimenez for several years, I recall a man who always prioritized doing what he thought was right for the league over what was best for his own team, even if not everyone agreed with the policies. Jimenez has also worked tirelessly to affect change at the national level and he spearheaded San Diego’s first attempt to bring the World Series here in over a decade.

Nobody worked harder than Jimenez during his tenure, and not just running AFCSL (along with Women’s Commissioner Dani Goodlett), but directing the third-largest LGBT softball tournament in the country, San Diego’s Autumn Classic, a tournament that routinely brings nearly 100 teams every October to San Diego and takes an army to run.

My thanks go to Jimenez for his service to our league and congratulations to all the teams that will be competing for titles at the World Series in Columbus this August.

—Jeff Praught is actively involved in the LGBT sports community, having participated in softball, basketball, football and pool as a player, and serving on several boards in recent years. He can be reached at dugoutchatter@gmail.com.

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