A PERFECT ENDING, A PERFECT HERO FOR PAN AM BASEBALL

INDIANAPOLIS — It was a perfect American moment in need of a perfect American hero. Bottom of the ninth. Two out. Score tied. The crowd on its feet, waving flags, stomping feet, killing its vocal chords in lusty cheer:
“U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Drama? Ho. You’d have to look a long while for a purer drama than this: a humid August afternoon on a minor league field where perhaps the two best amateur baseball teams in the world, one Cuban, one American, had scratched and pounded and finessed each other to a 4-4 deadlock with one out to go before extra innings. Drama? Come on.

“NOW BATTING . . .” boomed the PA voice.

Isn’t this every kid’s dream? Isn’t this the ending to every sports movie ever made? Cuba had not lost a Pan Am baseball game since 1967. Cuba had a pitcher on the mound who towered over everybody (“He was so big it seemed like he was in your face when he let go of the pitch,” one U.S. athlete would say.) Cuba was tough, awesome, confident, with “amateur” players in their late 20s and early 30s.

And the American team? A collection of college kids on summer break. Isn’t this the kind of moment that you wait for your whole life? “NOW BATTING . . .” Isn’t it?

Enter Tyrone Griffin, age 19.

Perfect.

Another day in the sun

Here is his profile: son of a Tampa truck driver and a registered nurse. Runs the monorail at a Tampa amusement park during breaks from college. When he was eight, a neighbor knocked on the door and asked his mother if Ty could try out for the Little League team. Mom said OK.

Oh, yes, Mom. She watched him every Saturday that first season, sitting in the wooden bleachers of Belmont Heights Park, watched him strike out and ground out and strike out again. “He was a terrible hitter,” she would recall.

And yet she was here again, another Saturday in the hot sunshine, only this time Ty was almost grown and was taking warm-up swings in front of a packed stadium, network TV, the world.

“I was just praying that he get a hit,” Mona Griffin would say. “He had made an error before (in the fourth inning) and I knew he was feeling bad about that.”

“We were just praying he would get a hit,” teammate Mike Fiore would say.
“We figured the next guy up might hit a home run.”

“I was just praying I would get a hit,” Tyrone Griffin would say.

Can you fight that much karma? No way. Out of the question. So the giant Cuban pitcher, Pablo Abreu, checked the runner at first, and threw over there, checked him again, threw over there, and again, and again, and finally turned to the plate, let fly a pitch and . . .

Whack!

Do we have to tell you? Do we have to spell it out? The ball rose high, high, an inch for every scream for it to “GET OUT OF HERE! GET OUT OF HERE!” and it got out, over the left field wall, and Tyrone Griffin raised his hands in triumph and began his way around the bases as if destiny was in his spikes.

The kids against the men

“Have you ever had a moment like that?” someone would ask Griffin, a smallish infielder with a cherubic face and a habit of unbuttoning his uniform when it gets hot.

“Once, when I was in Little League, we made it all the way to the Little League World Series against Taiwan, and I hit a home run in the final game.” He smiled. “But we lost that one. This is better.”

This was better. True, it was not the medal game — that may come next week between these same two teams — but it was the first meting on U.S. soil of these two squads. It meant a lot. To the players. To the crowd. To history.

“We had played them in some exhibitions last month in Cuba,” recalled Griffin, who also had a solo home run earlier in the game, “and we were nervous. They have players that are as old as major league players. It was like the kids against the men.

“But today we felt confident. We were laughing in our dugout, like we usually do. I wasn’t nervous when I went up to bat.”

“Did you know it was gone when you hit it?”

“No,” he said. “I kinda wanted to stand there and go like this. . . .” He puckered his lips and blew, as if his breath would force the ball out of the stadium. Of course, he didn’t need that. Some other invisible force was no doubt taking care of that; the kind that gives us heroes, magic moments, everything right at the exact right time.

“It was so great,” said the young man of the hour. “The feeling afterwards was so, I don’t know, it was so, so. . . .”

Perfect? Perfect.

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