2021 55 Cactus Consolation
Houston Old Stars 15, Red Deer Legends 2
Submitted by Bennett Fisher, Old Stars manager
There’s nothing like the third out of the last inning of the last game of a tournament or playoff series. Think about it. No one makes the third out of a game in the last inning and walks off in defeat. Baseball is designed so that if you’re on the field at the end of the game, and you make the third out of that last inning, you walk off a winner. You’ve seen it a million times, whether it’s the Little League World Series, a high school championship, the College World Series, or the MLB Fall Classic; gloves, hats, and players go flying through the air ending up in the all too familiar dogpile near the pitcher’s mound. The records of the 2021 MSBL World Series will reflect that the Houston Old Stars won the lowest division of the 55+ age bracket, but there was no dogpile. You’ll see later, but the last play was scored 5 to 6 to 4 to get the third out of the ninth inning of the Championship Game.
Like most teams, the Old Stars (formerly known as the Houston Baseball Club) has a back story. Remember the ABC Wide World of Sports opening: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Let me just say that in the past few years, there has been a lot more agony than thrill. Yes, the Houston Old Stars, the team that won the Consolation Bracket of the 55+ Cactus Division of the 2021 MSBL World Series has a long history. In 2008, we made it to the finals of the 45+ World Series but lost (1-0). In 2009, we also made it to the Championship Game, but again, we left without a ring. So, in 2010, we re-tooled and recruited a few ex-professionals, including Woody Williams and Steve Sparks (Sparky), as well as some pretty good former AAA pitchers, local college baseball coaches Tom Arrington and Raynor Noble. That put us over the top to win our first, and only, ring. After that, two other years of disappointment ended with losses in the Championship Game, one in extra innings.
Then, there were several years of futility and abject failure, with the lone bright spot in 2015. Roger Clemens joined us for two days including the thrill of a lifetime with a game against the Boston Wolfpack. Roger started against his old teammate, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. It may have been the largest attendance of any MSBL game — ever, as about 600 players and family members packed Tempe Diablo Stadium. Clemens played first and third base when he wasn’t pitching, and mashed at nearly every at-bat. He was a young, professional athlete amongst a bunch of old has-beens (or, more to the point, never was’). Joining us for that series were Woody Williams, Rodney “Crash” McCray, and Mike Maksudian, although Mike tore a quad in the first at-bat in the first inning of the first game. Regardless, even with Roger, Woody, and Crash, it wasn’t enough to make even a deep run in the playoffs.
2016, 2017 and 2018 were the low points of the Old Stars. We lost every game. That’s right, 0-18 over a three-year period. We had a good time, but at some point, it’s a lot more fun to win (or, even be competitive), than to lose. We needed to make a bold move. For years, we played in the upper divisions of the MSBL in the hope that Woody, Roger, Mike or Crash, Sparky, Tom, or Raynor would commit to the team and join us at the last minute. Except for the years described above, they didn’t play with us in Phoenix, and without those guys, we had significant gaps in talent compared to some of the other teams in those age groups and divisions.
So, in 2019, we moved to the Cactus Division, recruited a couple of guys from Chicago, including Greg Harris, Steve Rosenblum, Ron Saslow, and this year, Steve Copeland and Harley Tom, and kept the nucleus of the teams from back in the early to mid-2000s, including Andy Allen, Todd Edwards, Herb Goodwin, Greg McMeans and Jeff McMeans, Robert Schwartz, Noel Torres and me, and from Las Vegas, Jim Rini.
What we discovered is that we didn’t need ex-pros to have fun; we didn’t need to have a roster of 25 to win; and, when we played against players of similar talent, we had a more enjoyable experience. That first year in the Cactus Division, we made the playoffs but lost in the first round. In 2020, we made it to the Championship game of the Consolation Bracket but came up short. The end of that (2020) series will always be remembered not for our loss in the final game, but for the terrible car accident involving Ron Saslow. His recovery, including a grueling rehab, was not only miraculous but inspirational. Ronnie is my hero. He had a terrific tournament – playing in three different divisions over all three weeks in Phoenix (and, rumor has it that when he finished his third week in Arizona, he went to Florida to play in the MSBL Fall Classic!).
Now, for the last play of the last inning of the final game of the tournament. Jeff Drury, who struggled earlier in the series, got the start and pitched six great innings yielding only an unearned run. Jim Rini, who also had an eventful start earlier in the week, then pitched a solid three innings. Robert Schwartz started behind the plate and then gave way to Dr. Gabriel Carabello for the last few innings. Solid job by both.
We entered the ninth inning with a substantial lead, so when Andy Allen, who had no business playing center field, trotted out to the outfield position behind second base, I let it go. And when Greg Harris, a Chicago trial lawyer who plays shortstop back up north during the regular season (but anchors left field for the Old Stars), wanted to play third base, I didn’t tell him to get out of the infield and stay in his lane. After a couple of base runners, a run, a blown call by the first base ump on what would have been a game-ending, series-ending, double play, the Red Deer Legends had a man on first with two outs. The next play is forever ingrained in the minds of every Old Star player.
The Legends final batter struck a wicked two-hopper that seemed to be hit directly at the (allegedly) sure-handed Harris, but instead hit the cuff of the infield, jumped up into Greg’s eye, bounced off his face to shortstop Greg McMeans, who caught the ball in the air and tossed to second to his twin brother, Jeff. This time, the call was made – out at second and the game and series were over.
The Old Stars were victorious, but there was no celebration, no gloves, hats, and players flying through the air ending up in a dog pile near the pitcher’s mound. Instead, we all ran to third base, where Greg Harris lay motionless on the ground. After a few minutes, he started to move, sat up, and asked us who we were, why we were all wearing baseball uniforms, and whether Hoover was still the President. We were patient with him, thrilled that he had regained consciousness, but concerned about his mental status. We then asked him if he knew where he was and why he was “here”. “Sure, I’m at the Cook County Courthouse, in the 5th Municipal Court for an emergency hearing. Finally, because we were all hungry and thirsty, we told him that the court granted the defendant a continuance and that it was time for lunch. That seemed to work, so we congratulated the Legends on a great series, carried Greg to his car, and we all went to eat. By the time we got Greg an ice pack, a few beers and possibly, a margarita or two, he remembered his name and his batting average for the week, although he still thought that we were in Chicago and he tried to tell us that the Cubs really did win the World Series a few years ago. We’re still not sure whether to send him to a neurologist or psychologist.
Next year, we hope to make it to the upper playoff bracket of the Cactus Division, but still in the 55+ division. We don’t leave anyone behind, even though many of us could now compete in 60+, and at least one of us qualifies for the 65+ divisions. We may not be able to beat Team Victory, the San Antonio Bombers, or even the Boston Wolfpack anymore, but we do have a good time. And Greg Harris? He was still able to host the annual party at his Scottsdale swankienda the next day. And, because he has the best Man Cave in all of MSBL, the trophy resides with him.