by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

INDIANAPOLIS — It was a perfect American moment in need of a perfect American hero. Bottom of the ninth. Two out. Score tied. Crowd on its feet, waving flags, screaming madly:
“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. (“It seemed like he was in your face when he let go of the ball,” one batter 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. The Pan Am Games. Once every four years. Isn’t this the dream moment? “NOW BATTING
. . .” Isn’t it?

Enter Tyrone Griffin, age 19.


Praying for a base hit

“I was just praying to get a base hit,” he would say, as if following a script. But then, the whole thing seemed to be following a script. Here was Griffin, the son of a Tampa truck driver, a smallish kid with a cherubic face, who runs the monorail at an amusement park during breaks from college. The monorail? A truck driver?

Wait. It gets better. No one in his family ever played baseball. When he was eight, a friend rang the bell and asked Tyrone’s mother whether her son could come to a Little League tryout. Mona Griffin wound up in the bleachers every Saturday afternoon that year. She saw Tyrone strike out and ground out and strike out again. “He was a terrible hitter,” she would recall.

And yet here they were again, 11 years later, another Saturday in the sun
— only now Tyrone was a switch-hitting college sophomore (Georgia Tech) who’d been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, and he’d already hit a solo home run, in the seventh inning (batting righty), and he was at the plate now
(batting lefty) with two out, one on, bottom of the ninth, score tied, fans jeering in Spanish and fans cheering in English and a worldwide audience holding its breath. Surely this was written on paper somewhere.

“I was just praying for him to get a base hit,” Mona Griffin would say.

“We were just praying he would get a base hit,” a teammate, Mike Fiore, would say.

They were praying, she was praying, and everyone was sweating, for this was a heated afternoon, the burn of politics was everywhere: Banners were waved, police officers combed the crowds, on guard for disruptions like the melee that had broken out at a boxing event the night before. “Whenever it’s the U.S. and Cuba . . .,” the police chief had said.

But now it had all come down to this: baseball. Two outs. The giant Cuban left-hander, Pablo Abreu, checked the runner at first and threw over. Checked him again, threw over again. And again. And again. And finally he turned to the plate, let the pitch fly and . . .

Kids against the grown-ups

Do we have to tell you? Is there really any doubt? Whack! The ball rose high, high, an inch for every scream of “GET OUT! GET OUT!” And it got out, way out, over the left field wall, home run, and the crowd buried itself in noise and the American team poured from the dugout and Tyrone Griffin, hands raised in triumph, circled the bases as if destiny was in his spikes.

“Did you know it was gone when you hit it?” someone asked him after the 6-4 victory.

“No,” he said. “I kinda wanted to stand there and go like this. . . .” He puckered his lips and blew, as if his breath could carry the ball out.

He didn’t need that. Some other invisible force was taking charge here; the kind that gives us heroes, magic moments. True, this was not the gold medal game. That comes next weekend and may well feature these two teams again. But this was special, because it was the first meeting on U.S. soil — and the Cubans hadn’t lost in all those years. “We had played them last month in exhibitions in Cuba,” Griffin said. “And it was like kids against the grown-ups. We were tight.

“But, you know, when you wear this uniform, with the USA on it, it’s so different. People stop you and say, ‘You play for the USA? Really?’ It makes you proud.”

He smiled, and his eyes went distant for a moment, as if trying to flash back that swing, that contact. Son of a truck driver. Mom in the stands. American baseball player in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and two out. Whooee.

“That feeling when it went out,” he said, “it was so great, so, I don’t know, so, so. . . .”

Perfect? Perfect.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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