JESSE BALL Prologue: “The Game”

A moment to remember from a coach’s life…

Time: a few minutes before one in the morning.

Date: June 12, 2008.

Place: Joe Bruno Stadium, just outside of Troy, New York.

The game: The New York State sectional championship game between the Cadets of La Salle Institute, a Catholic military school located near Troy, in upstate, and the Columbia Blue Devils.

Inning: the top of the seventh.

The score: tied, 2 to 2.

Attendance: 4,264 rabid La Salle and Columbia fans.

That’s the scene. Now let’s zoom in on the La Salle dugout, where the Cadets, in their now well-soiled blue uniforms, are gathered together on the top step, anxiously watching the action along with their coach, Jesse Braverman, a tightly coiled man of 57. At the moment, the Blue Devils have two runners on base, including the potential go-ahead run, on first and second.

The game, the fifth sectional championship game to be played that evening, and which was further delayed by a lightning storm, is by far the latest game the Cadets have played this season—or any other recent season, for that matter. The Cadets’ star pitcher, a lanky fifteen year old sophomore by the name of Dave Roseboom, has pitched a magnificent game thus far.

Now, however, he is clearly tiring. Roseboom has given up back to back walks to Devils. With one of the Devils’ most dangerous hitters, centerfielder Pat Puentes due up, the momentum of the game—that critical, intangible thing—seems to be tilting towards the Blue Devils. The eyes of hundreds of La Salle fans are fixed on Rosenboom, trying to will the flagging pitcher the strength to power through the crisis and keep the game even as the lanky Puentes steps up to the plate.

Braverman’s eyes, however, are fixed instead on the lead runner, the dangerous Matt Montross, who is taking a healthy lead off second base and those of Chris Dedrick, as the Devils’ formidable coach, standing in the third base coach box. Further zooming in, Braverman, who has 20/20 eyesight—and even better baseball antenna—detects what he later calls “unusual eye activity” between Montross and Dedrick, who is trying to look as casual as possible. However Montrross’s darting eyes give him away.

Time to bushwack the bushwacker. Quickly, Braverman gives his ace the pick-off signal. Successfully picking off a runner from second base is a tricky maneuver for any pitcher, no less a fifteen year old high school hurler, but Braverman has put Roseboom through his paces well. A one-time high school star pitcher himself, Braverman has spent myriad hours in practice with Roseboom and the other La Salle pitchers demonstrating how, in order to take advantage of a potential pick-off situation, a pitcher needs to first raise his front leg with his head looking directly at the batter while exhibiting no change in his normal posture as he delivers the pitch so as not to telegraph his intentions, then when his front knee is at its apex, quickly pirouette around and run directly at the prospective thief, trapping him between the bases, before either tagging himself or tossing it to his third baseman and allowing him to do the honors.

It’s a beautiful move when executed properly, something out of modern dance really, and tonight it is indeed executed beautifully: just as his coach has taught him, Roseboom feints, spins and run directly at the flustered Montross, before tossing the ball to La Salle third baseman Kyle Charron, who tags him out with a resounding thwack!

As the La Salle bench—along with their charged up fans—erupt into startled cheers at the surprise pick off, Braverman allows himself a small private smile. The game isn’t over; not by a long shot. But something has changed; the players, as well as the fans, sense this too, a subtle, almost subliminal yet palpable feeling that the balance of the contest has altered, that the gods of baseball have crossed the field and lined up on La Salle’s side of the field. This sense is confirmed on the very next pitch, when the revivified Roseboom fires a fastball down the middle strikes out Puentes, looking. New game now. More cheers…

THE game continues. The clock is nearing one a.m. now. Still nary a yawn in sight.

Bottom of the seventh now. The score is still tied, 2-2. Undeniably, the momentum is with La Salle now, but as Braverman knows—as everyone who is watching knows—this can change in an instant. Time to score; time to close the deal. Next up: LaSalle’s determined left fielder, Brian Beaury. Braverman feels good about Beaury leading off because he is a patient hitter with a good eye who has led the Cadets in walks over the past season. On the other hand, Columbia’s fireballer, Gaige, gives no indication of tiring. The duel is on. Gaige uncorks. The crowd holds its collective breath.

Three quick pitches later the count stands at one and two. Looks like Beaury is going to be out of there pretty soon. But no, wait. Gaige calmly fires another fastball right down the middle, and Beaury just as calmly fires a bazooka shot up the middle for a clean single. The Cadets have their lead off man on. Dedrick, the Columbia coach, decides to make a pitching change. He signals for his ace pitcher, Austin Chase, to come in to replace Gaige, who, with a shrug, and a nod to his steadfast fans in the stands, trots out to left field. In the event, Gaige is also a powerful hitter. Dedrick doesn’t want to lose his bat in case the Devils manage to survive the inning.

Normally in this situation, Braverman would have the next batter, Lukas Bridenbeck, who is an excellent bunter, bunt Beaury to second. But the Cadet catcher looks uncomfortable taking his first bunt so instead Braverman lets him swing away, whereupon the disappointed youngster proceeds to fly out.

Braverman quickly recalculates. The momentum is shifting again; the wheelspring that had been swinging in La Salle’s favor has suddenly stopped. As the next batter, Cadet second baseman Will Remillard steps into the box, the coach recalculates. By the time Chase is ready to throw, the coach has made his decision: he is going to let Beaury steal. It’s a risk, because if Beaury is thrown out, La Salle will be down to its last out. However, as Braverman knows from his detailed scouting report, the Columbia catcher,
Bridgegroom, throws inconsistently. Quickly, imperceptibly, Braverman gives the sign to Beaury to steal. Then he goes back to his box-cleaning routine.

The game, the twenty eight hundredth some odd game of Braverman’s thirty year long, high school coaching career, continues.

No dunce himself, Dedrick correctly guesses that Beaury is going to steal, calls for Chase to pitch out. He does so. Bridgeroom duly jumps to the side and fires at second base. However, as Braverman had figured and hoped, his throw is off, way off, leaving a grinning Beaury safe on second. Beaury could stay there. He doesn’t. One of the lessons which Braverman has instilled in his devoted players is the necessity of seizing the moment.

Which is exactly what Beaury proceeds to do. As his coach proudly watches on, the fearless left fielder keeps on going, making for third. He makes it. More cheers from the La Salle fans. The pendulum is really swinging La Salle’s way now.

Dedrick, now in emergency mode, pulls his infield in as the Cadet second baseman, Will Remillard, steps into the batter box. For a moment, as he later recounts, Braverman considers calling for a suicide squeeze, another La Salle specialty. But all he needs to do is to take one look at the determined Remillard to know what he is going to do. Braverman decides to let him take his swing, goes back to kicking stones.

A moment—a long moment—later Chase wheels, fires a curveball down the middle at Remillard. Remillard responds with his own lightning, sending the pitch up the middle as his teammate, Beaury, trots home with the winning run. Game to Braverman; championship to La Salle. On the field bedlam breaks out as the exultant La Salle players fall into the familiar victory scrum, where they are soon joined by some equally ecstatic civilian Cadets. Someone—it looks like Roseboom, hard to tell in that hysterical mass—hauls Braverman to his shoulders; the victorious team walks off.

The time: who cares?

A half hour later, a beaming Braverman, his equally happy wife Deb and a friend make their way out of the stadium the to the coach’s car. Braverman prides himself on not gloating, but on this night, this special night, he can’t contain his pride at his boys and their collective achievement. “Did you see that pick off!” he exclaims, giddily.

Did you see that pick off?

The friend, an old acquaintance from elementary school who has witnessed his schoolyard buddy’s extraordinary resurrection has never seen his friend so happy—at least not since sixth grade. It is hard to believe that this is the same man who, having just been dismissed as coach of another of his first championship team after a long, bizarre bureaucratic struggle straight out of Kafka, was the very picture of gloom.

Who said that there are no second acts in American lives?

Did you see the pick off?

And what a second act Jesse Braverman’s Act II has been. Something out of Hollywood, really. “The Braverman Redemption” an Albany baseball writer has called it.

But first, let’s learn a little more about the first, long alternately triumphant and tragic one. For Jesse Braverman has had an extraordinary life, and career, indeed.

Indeed, one for the books, one might say.

*****

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