Right before the game with Madera South, Apache assistant coach Sam Bejeckian went to each player, and even the score keeper, touching each one lightly on the hat or uncovered head.
“Before every game,” one of the players said.
For luck. One of those baseball superstitions. Meant to ward off horrors like Boston’s Curse of the Bambino, broken by the World Series win in 2004, and the Cub’s Curse of the Billy Goat, which was tied to tavern owner William Sianis for officials turning away his goat at the gate in 1945. The Cubs broke it in 2016.
Sanger hardly needs bad luck like that.
Especially not when the team is playing like it has been. The Apaches knocked off Madera South on April 26 by a score of 10-0 at Eddie Chapa Field.
Maybe it was Bejeckian and his routine. He does have 40 some years coaching. He knows a little about the game.
“It’s a funny game, isn’t it?” he asked just before the Stallions and Apaches took the field. “We’ve beaten them twice. We should be alright. If you’re a championship team, you should beat the team you beat. Are we going to do it? I don’t know.”
Then to me, he added, “You cover enough sports to know it’s not an exact science.”
If winning was an exact science, bookies would be unnecessary and sports betting wouldn’t be the industry it is.
Bejeckian is no Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees legend, whose real name was Lawrence. Berra spouted pearls of wisdom like “It ain’t over till it’s over” and “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
Nope, Berra delivered some pretty funny, and insightful, lines. Bejeckian’s come from a lifetime in baseball. They’re cultivated from his own coaching career and, as head coach David Cuellar said, gleaned from conversations and people over the years.
But it’s these observations, like just after Jake Herrell crossed home in the first inning for the first score of the game, that have helped make this batch of Apaches so consistent. “Come on guys, let’s put up a crooked number,” Bejeckian said after that first run.
And then in the bottom of the second inning, outfielder Javier Garcia asked Bejeckian, “What’re you thinking coach?”
“That we need more runs,” he said. “Seems like we’re a little off balance.” The score was 2-0.
Stallion Jalen Gray, who appeared to be one of Madera South’s best hitters that night, had come up in the batting rotation, facing Apache pitcher Alec Flores. Bejeckian paced a bit. And then Mendez hit the ball deep into right field, just a few feet past Alex Rodriguez’s extended mitt. Mendez raced for a triple.
But A-Rod recovered the ball quickly and hurled it to second baseman Mason Lopez. Gray had just rounded second and looked certain to reach his destination. Lopez caught the ball and sent it to third baseman Nathan Padilla rocket fast. Muscle memory. Like the trio had practiced this play so many times they could do it blindfolded.
Padilla leaped, caught the ball and tagged Gray, who walked slump-shouldered back to his dugout. That Padilla landed somewhat unceremoniously in the dust was all but forgotten until a short time later when the Apaches returned from the field. Flores fanned the next two Stallions for three outs.
“We got a brotherhood going on,” Lopez said. “It’s all trusting your instinct. We work on it every day in practice. It’s just me and him. I know how he moves, what he’s going to do, where he’s going to go.”
The play stood out in a game full of good plays.
Bejeckian’s son Billy is also an assistant coach and a former 2009 North Yosemite league MVP from Fresno. Sam Bejeckian said his player of the game was outfielder Alex Avalos. Avalos, the lead hitter in the batting rotation for the Apaches, finished the game four for four in hits and nearly the identical statistic for runs.
Avalos also exhibits enthusiasm. Like the rest of his teammates, he loves baseball. And it shows.
“I think we’re going to sweep Bullard, win CMAC and we’ll be the toughest team in the playoffs,” Avalos said. “Tonight we hit the crap out of the ball and everything fell our way. As long as we keep hitting like this, we’ll make a difference.”
Sanger faced Bullard in Fresno on Tuesday and would again on Thursday at home.
Rodriguez said he thinks the team can take it all the way. “We play hard all the time,” he said. “It’s getting hot out, but that’s not an excuse for us. It’s whoever wants it more. And it’s going to be us. We want it more.”
Then he said, “Starting at 6 a.m. Every day.”
After Flores reached his pitching limit in the game, Rodriguez took the mound in the sixth inning. “A-Rod’s a closer,” Bejeckian said.
Flores said he had taken a couple weeks off before returning to pitch that evening. “Next week is probably our biggest week,” he said. “We can do it. The brotherhood’s strong. Stronger than last year.”
Garcia gave his prediction. “Got to keep the same energy,” he said. “As always.”
And shortstop Steven Martinez, known as the Wizard for his ball handling, headed out into the darkness with the promise that his team would keep winning.
Coach Cuellar had left them with some advice. “Take care of your body,” he said. “Take care of your mind.”
And Bejeckian said to the assembled team after the game, “There should be no pressure on you because you’re a championship team.”
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